Over the past decade, the internet and social media have enabled many entrepreneurs to start new businesses very quickly and relatively cheaply. Ventures like this used to require much more time and money than they do now, where we have a saturated market of young clothing, grooming and accessory brands. These young companies, however, often sell a product with a very shallow breadth of understanding, knowledge and appreciation of history and how/why things work the way they work.
This is a generation of instant pop stars and designers who can be launched from total obscurity to nationwide or worldwide fame over the course of one season on a competition reality show. Once upon a time, rock bands and singers had to pay heavy dues, performing and performing, touring and touring, spending many years spilling blood, sweat and tears before merely getting a record deal. These days, thanks to the modern promise of microwave success, designers, singers, performers and almost anyone with an “idea” can feel entitled to strike gold in an instant without the burden of any hard-earned knowledge, formal training or any real dues paid. The same is true of what I call this new generation of “instabrands” that seem to pop up every day.
What do these instabrands look like? When I see an email newsletter or social media post featuring a model in an unbuttoned and ill-fitting jacket or blazer, it’s a red flag that whoever is in charge does not understand how jackets and suits should be worn. When I see posts from a new shoe company promoting the idea of wearing regular wingtips or plain non-patent leather oxfords with a tuxedo, it’s a red flag that the creative director (if there is one) does not understand shoes and formalwear. When a brand’s tailored clothing is composed of short jackets with skinny lapels that look like emasculating, disempowering, junior department boys’ clothing, it’s a red flag that the boss has little or no cultural or style reference that precedes the second Bush administration. Brands built around skinny ties (under 3” wide); dress shirts with skinny collars; ultra-slim, low-rise ankle-bearing pants that elongate the torso, shorten the legs and eliminate the ass; tight jackets and blazers with shoulder divots; entire collections that feature an element of “stretch”… all red flags.
My suspicion is that the instabrands were started by very young people who jumped on the menswear train at a time when these trends were peaking without much knowledge of what came before, giving them the idea that short, ass-bearing jackets with skinny lapels are what jackets are supposed to look like, or the idea that jeans should be so slim that denim requires a percentage of spandex in order to be comfortable (or even fit).
There’s nothing wrong with a young startup trying to make a buck and a splash with a nifty idea, and there’s nothing wrong with a trend. I personally love it when I see a young brand take a smart idea and execute it beautifully. But it’s rare. In the interest of the long game, many of the instabrands are built on a foundation of trend without tradition. There’s no real connection to the product or service, there’s no real history, there’s no real story. That foundation can carry a brand quite comfortably through a trend cycle, but it will ultimately prove hollow and collapse when the trend fades. An instabrand that makes slim/skinny suits or suits with stretch and call itself a suit company, for example, may do well or even thrive while surfing the skinny and stretch waves. But seasoned veterans, masters and professionals with a sense of history know that all waves crash.
One of my favorite stories of a new brand is a custom tailor named Joe Genuardi. Genuardi had no history in suits. None. His background was actually industrial design and engineering from Carnegie Mellon. Genuardi changed his career path and his life when he knocked on the door of Italian master tailor Joseph Centofanti in Ardmore, PA. Genuardi asked the octogenarian if he could apprentice under him. For the next five years, Genuardi did the work, learning every facet of the trade: hand sewing, fitting, pressing, pattern drafting and cutting. No glory, no wealth, no instafame. Just a lot of hard work in the basement of a tailor shop. He eventually became a tailor, a cutter, a fitter and a manager. (Genuardi is featured in “Men of the Cloth” – the 2013 documentary by Vicki Vasilopoulos.) After Centofanti died in 2011, Genuardi came to New York City to work in Brooklyn under Martin Greenfield, tailor to four presidents and arguably the best master tailor in North America. In the spring of 2016, Genuardi finally went out on his own and opened Genuardi hand-tailored suits in Hoboken, NJ, where he lives with his wife and two young sons. His is not a story of overnight “insta” success built on an idea, a sense of entitlement and Kickstarter winnings. Joe Genuardi paid his dues. I suspect he’ll be around for a very long time, creating superlative hand-crafted tailored clothing for discerning men for many decades to come.
I’m not arguing that every founder of a suit startup needs to be a master tailor (though it certainly wouldn’t hurt), but he or she should spend the time to learn and love every aspect, from top to bottom. The best restaurant owners also spent time as bussers, waiters, food runners, bartenders, hosts, coat checkers and even chefs. They know it, understand it and love it, inside and out. They’re connected to it. They care.
I’m convinced that “Mad Men” was such a success because the show’s creator and show runner, Matthew Weiner, loved and cared about every character, every line of dialog, every clothing item, every prop on the set, every frame of film… every aspect of the show. When “Mad Men” proved to be so popular, ABC and NBC decided to jump on the ‘60s nostalgia bandwagon with the glossies “Pan Am” and “The Playboy Club” respectively. They looked real nice, but they flopped. Where “Mad Men” was a product of love, “Pan Am” and “The Playboy Club” were just products. Shiny, soulless, hollow products.
While it’s great that so many promising young people are starting promising businesses, it’s painfully evident that some (most) of them need to cook a little bit longer and learn a lot more, particularly about craft and history. This comes with earned experience, hard work and time spent reading books, watching old films, looking at vintage photos and many years of seeing, watching and absorbing to an extent that cannot be earned in the few months that some seem to spend on creating a “brand.”
As a writer about men’s style and lifestyle interests, I’m in a similar boat. I have no formal training in writing, journalism, fashion, style or any of it. When people refer to me as an expert, I get extremely uncomfortable. I’m really just an interested and initiated observer with some life experience who’s learning and sharing what he’s learned. Not a journalist, not an expert. No way. I haven’t earned it. I’m merely a passionate and informed amateur.
Within this generation of new companies offering products and services in exchange for our money and our trust, there are a lot of ambitious amateurs. Passionate, smart, well-intentioned amateurs. Kids with a reductive sense of sophistication and quality, often armed with really slick websites. My suggestion to them is to spend some master/apprentice time with a seasoned and experienced veteran of men’s clothing (or whatever the trade), whether it means working with a bespoke tailor or paying your dues at a venerable, respected brand with a rich heritage. Until then, these new disruptor instabrands are just riffing off other instabrands who are riffing on something they kinda, sorta understand, but not totally.
My suggestion to the consumer? Ask questions. What’s the company history? What’s the founder’s connection to the industry or product? Is there love there? Is there history with the product or service? What’s the story? Was it just born out of an idea with a drinking buddy? Things like that. Proceed, peruse and purchase with caution.