A Closer Look: Machus
A Closer Look: Machus
- Words Christopher Fenimore
- Date August 11, 2017
A friend of mine once tweeted, “The best thing to do in NYC in the summer is leave.” I’m not sure I’ve ever agreed with a statement more than that one. Portland in the summer is a perfect place. There’s almost no humidity and almost always a breeze. Chances are if you’ve been to Portland and give an iota of a shit about men’s clothing, you’ve been to Machus. I’ve known Jacob Keller, the store’s manager, for about two years. He has an infectious smile and a casual, almost Southern drawl, but he’s born and raised in Portland. Again, if you still give that iota of a shit about men’s clothing, you might be one of his 88,000 followers on Instagram.
Machus opened well before Keller came on board, by Justin Machus, who wanted to give Portland a taste of high-fashion gothwear, feasibly before it was ready for it. “Justin was so far ahead of the curve—even in 2011 when he started, he was carrying Rick Owens, Damir Doma, Song for the Mute and a lot of those brands hadn’t picked up so he switched it up a bit and bought some other stuff. Right as he switched, you saw those brands coming up,” says Keller. Equal parts prophetic and experienced, Justin has given Portland a men’s store to brag about.
There's something anesthetic about the store's interior which perfectly matches it's concrete exterior. It's both cold and bright. Light bounces off the white walls and tables and blends with futuristic fluorescent track lighting affixed to the concrete ceiling. Machus certainly doesn't lack for product, which hangs from a combination of steel floor racks and suspended, floating steel bars. The space compliments the brand matrix, which is all bound together by one constant: modernity. I interviewed the pair in their studio, just a few steps down the block from their main shop space.
Tell me about yourselves and what you do here.
Justin Machus: I own Machus. Started it in 2011.
Jacob Keller: I’m the manager here and also one of the assistant buyers. There are only four of us that work here so we all dabble in each other’s roles but my day-to-day is making sure all the product is correct on the site or day-to-day operations are going smooth, we have all the money we need, all the receipts are accounted for, all the discounts are actually marked down. It’s a bit of the boring stuff but it’s absolutely necessary to make the store operate. Justin handles the long-term stuff and so these duties of mine better allow him to turn this into a successful business. He’s bought by himself for years—I’m one of the first people he’s let buy. We just went to Paris and while I think he’s done amazing job, it was great to be a part of it and have another opinion in the mix. I gave my thoughts and I picked some pieces he didn’t think of, he picked some pieces I didn’t think of. We’re all working together to make the best store possible.
Describe the shop for me. How was Machus started? Has it remained the same since it opened?
JK: We call ourselves “Modern Menswear.” We live in Portland and if you’ve been out here you know the fashion scene isn’t the most diverse. It’s a creative scene, but you won’t see everyone on the streets wearing something amazing. We know we can’t carry Givenchy or Thom Browne; we really don’t have a customer for that. We like to bridge the gap between runway and streetwear. We like to pick up brands that are on a runway that you can come in to the shop and say, “wow, this is my first time seeing this amazing brand that I’ve heard so much about,” but we also want to have some brands with lower price points, and that doesn’t mean lower quality. We just want to have a more accessible product for those people that can’t buy the Givenchys of the world. Starting with John Elliott and Stone Island and going up to Rick Owens DRKSHDW, but we stay with Babylon and Know Wave. We don’t like to sit too high or too low but we like to stay right in the middle. As far as the vision, just from being a shopper before I worked here, it’s totally changed. We still try to be ahead of the curve and pick up brands that are on the cusp of blowing up but haven’t yet. We try to develop brands. For instance, Drole du Monsieur, a brand by two best friends, comes out of France and we were their first ever account in the whole world and now they’re in 25+ doors. We like to nurture these brands. We were Murderbravado’s first major account and now he’s doing all these amazing things—we’re bringing them back for holiday. We like to mix stuff like that in with the Goshas of the world, too. You need to have something that draws people in, but once we do we like to hit them with, “well this brand’s really cool, this is their first season ever” and give them a little bit of knowledge.
JM: Like any retailer, things get fluid and if you don’t stay fluid with trends to a certain degree, as long as it’s within the parameters of your vision, I think that’s what needs to happen with stores or else you get in this rut. If you open a heritage store and you’re unequivocally that, you’re in it for the long run and if that trend dies, then you’re kind of hooked. We always try some extremes within fashion but the baseline for the store has always been darks, blacks, and an athletic mix of things. Rick Owens, Stone Island, and streetwear get in to that, too. I tend not to go too Northern European clean, there are plenty of stores that do that, and it’s just not as interesting to me. I totally respect it and it’s super cool, but it’s just not my personal aesthetic.
What were you doing before Machus?
JK: Way before, I graduated from college and I was doing YouTube videos, kind of stopped that and started working at Jordan brand for a few months. I was a Global Brand Specialist there and dealt with training, mainly, and all the Blake Griffin and Earl Thomas stuff. I told Justin I was leaving and wanted to see if we had a position for me and the rest is history.
JM: I had a store I opened in 2003 called Local 35. Had it for eight years on SE 45th Ave and Hawthorne and that was a surf/skate/fashion crossover. We brought WESC into the US. RVCA and Hurley were big for us. That early, inexpensive surfing, Hawthorne was great for it. It was a great concept for the time. We did women’s too, but felt like two four-year leases were enough and wanted to change some things and took the gamble on Machus. I had an overlap for six months where both were open and I thought maybe we’d do both for a little while. I lost passion for everything at Local, whereas at Machus it was everything that I was really into. It just took eight years to develop relationships. I was a photographer beforehand and didn’t know anything in the industry on this side. You start one relationship at a time and by the end we have guys like Undercover that we can connect to. You can’t just open a store and get Undercover and these relationships take so much time that by the end of Local, I was ready to have a totally different vision. Instead of diluting their brands and putting them into Local, it felt like it needed a full rebrand.
JK: Justin opened on 11/11/11, which is the day Skyrim came out. [Jacob chuckles] Yeah, see, Chris is laughing, He literally opened the store, had a party, ran to Gamestop right after and spent all night playing Skyrim. That’s why you’ll see our six bar logo a ton in everything we do.
How big is the team?
JK: There’s four of us. Juline, Justin’s wife, does all the books and runs the day-to-day store with me. We got our new guy, well he’s not even new, Cole, who we’re super stoked about—we were looking for that fourth guy for a long time, we plucked him from another store in Portland and he’s turned out great. He handles floor sales. You come in and you’ll see him on the floor doing his thing, whereas the rest of us might be in the back working on bigger things.
How’s the menswear scene in Portland?
JK: With Nike and Adidas here, there are some amazing dressers for sure. We have a clientele made up of amazing guys. With Nike and Adidas we also have a ton of agencies out here and so, if you work at a creative agency, odds are you probably reflect that in your wardrobe too, so we get a lot of guys who know how to pair things that we wouldn’t even think of. I know everyone thinks of Portland as lumberjack flannels and raw denim and there is that, but we think that there’s a budding scene here and we’re glad that we’re one of the only shops where you can buy these kinds of things out here.
JM: It’s a small but massively growing community. It’s really cool. Most stores see their online increase faster than in-store, and we’re the complete opposite. Our online has been completely steady and we’ve seen an increase in-store. My mom’s been in the industry for fifty years, she has a women’s store in Wisconsin called Rupert’s on Monroe Street, and I grew up working in her store and did buying for her in college just for fun. She’s on the old-school side of things, thinking the brick and mortar should be the end-all be-all of retail. We opened our online store at Machus and it took off but kind of plateaued and now we’re trying to reevaluate where we stand online. It’s hard to compete with stores like Ssense and Barney’s when they’re such an online presence. We don’t have $10,000 a month to spend on paid advertising. Where does that leave us? Are we strictly specialty? People are still watching us online and so we’re trying to figure out that path for a small boutique that can remain as a specialty thing that will remain as a place people come for a specific thing. Differentiating ourselves on a global scale has been an interesting thing to think about. That’s the fun thing about a small store is that we can be fluid. If one month is really good, we can attack whatever we did that month and keep it going in that direction. If one really sucks, we can go back and adjust. We don’t have to go through corporate hoops.
Why would you say a small retailer like Machus is important to the fashion industry, as opposed to a department store?
JK: I think we can give a customer service that is genuine. Every time I go into a department store, I know that they’re there because of commission. I can tell when someone’s just out for commission and it really ruins the experience for me. I work in retail and I know what I’m looking for and what kind of clothes I want to try on. We like to speak our piece and tell them what’s going on, but we also leave them be. I think that’s how men like to shop—we believe guys like to figure stuff out for themselves but of course if someone’s asking a bunch of questions, we’ll follow them around and tell them about everything in the store and I think that experience is the most important thing. For instance, I went to Rick Owens in L.A. and Tony, the guy there made it the best experience I’ve ever had in a store. In Rick Owens, the people there could be total dicks. This stuff is thousands of dollars and I walked in in a Pearl Jam tee, but Tony was just made great, genuine conversation and when we stopped talking, he just let me shop and walk around the store and do my own thing, but when he saw I was ready to ask some questions, he came back and talked to me and that’s how we like to be. We don’t want to be biting at your tail and following you for a few extra bucks. I think that’s what small retailers give to the fashion scene. We can also take more risks. With a big department store, they’re doing large buys and if you put thousands of dollars into a brand with only one season and it flops, that’s a bit more scary than what we do—dabble in a new brand, maybe pick up a few pieces here and there and people will believe and trust us that the brand is actually dope. We saw this new brand called GHSTS, he used to design for Robert Geller and no one seemed to have heard of it but we brought this new belt in that he made and we sold 15 of them. No one knew about it but because we were simply able to bring it in without these large budgets and hoops to jump through, I think that really helps the consumer too. Not everyone needs to be a clone and wear the same larger brands—you can definitely mix in some cool stuff from smaller brands, too.
JM: Department stores have their place but there’s a gap between the creative outlet of designers and the consumer. The buyer becomes this homogenous thing that doesn’t mean anything. A large department store is literally buying the whole Acne line. They’re not going to fuck up because they’re buying it all. For small stores that don’t have a lot of space, we have 1,000 square feet and 500 square feet of studio, so we have to go in to brands like Off-White that are huge and pick and choose in ways that meet our aesthetic. The vision from designer to store to consumer is more linear that way—it’s more interesting. It gives the brand a bit of personality that department stores don’t. They’re looking to provide you those brands, and probably at a really good price because they can buy so much of it, they can undercut a lot of things, but there’s no vision.
Which brands are you guys selling best right now?
JM: We are finally getting John Elliott back in. We bought it very small last season but it’s doing really well for us already. A lot of our European brands do really well for us. Excited to see Liam Hodges in action. MSBHV sells well. Our own private label does really well. Chapter, too. Rick Owens has been on a steady rise for us. I’ve carried it since I opened the store and it doesn’t sell much up until recently so I’m really proud to see people buy it here. Our shoe business is slowly growing for us. It’s always been a small part of the store and it’s something we want to keep tight but also growing. Our next move is growing some of our L.A. and New York brands. The more Trump fucks with import taxes, the more difficult it will be for small stores to bring in overseas products, which really sucks. So investing more in Second/Layer, Mr. Completely, John Elliott and even knew brands like Willy is important. And they ship from L.A. and since we’re on the West Coast, it takes like a day to get new product. It’s awesome and we have a great relationship with those guys. That’s our safety net for the store and the Euro brands are like icing. It’s super fun to bring in Liam, and Off-White and Alyx but they’re a little scarier to bring in right now because of the cost. And again, US brands are killing it for us.
Anything you’re excited about coming up here?
JK: Really excited to see how FW17 Stone Island comes into play. When we were just in Paris, Alyx’s Spring/Summer 2018 stuff looked absolutely amazing. It’s some of the best clothes I’ve ever seen.
Cole McBad: [Looks up from his computer] Phew, flame emojis, flame emojis!
JK: I can’t imagine what FW18 will look like. This is a guy that’s been in the industry forever and I’m so glad he’s working on his own line. That’s a brand that we’re going to push hard for the next few years.
JM: I don’t know if you had a chance to see that Matt Williams article in The Times? So dope. We’re so pumped for those guys. Juline’s been Facetiming with Jen about pregnancy. Brands like that where they’re getting to another level but we’ve had them now for a while—that story of each one of us having a unique connection or experience to a brand, hanging out with them, even Juline on a way more personal level, that’s the kind of thing that makes it really exciting. I’ve been doing this for so long, it’s easy to take advantage of how cool it is to meet and hang out with designers behinds the brands we carry. Even Juline has been doing this for a long time with me but this time we brought Keller and Cole and it’s really cool to see. It all comes back to the store. You bring it here and it’s like, here’s what he’s doing and here’s what he did in Paris. That goes back to small business versus conglomerates.
JK: Matthew told us that we were actually the first men’s store that carried Alyx. We carried the women’s stuff, just in bigger sizes. Again, that’s just another example of how a smaller retailer can win over bigger ones. I think even for Matthew, he’d probably rather let a men’s small retailer take on a women’s collection rather than a Neiman Marcus or something. I’m stoked about two brothers out of Paris—their brand is called Lownn. They make amazing trousers and they’re starting to blow up. Liam Hodges out of the U.K., super tall, shaved-head British dude with a missing front tooth who’d probably back you up in a bar fight. His clothes reflect him—super distressed and disheveled. It’s great stuff and we’re excited to see how he progresses.
Any good stories over the course of your time here?
JK: Oh, Cole’s first day. You know, he was a little timid. Starting at a new job, you’re not really sure what to expect. We were pretty good friends, we’re better friends now.
CM: We’re best friends now.
JK: Yeah, we’re best friends. A homeless fight broke out right outside the shop and this man didn’t hesitate—just ran out there. At this point, I’d been there for two years and I know better. I’m good. I’m going to let them fight it out. This man runs out, I see him holding back… I mean he’s yanking shirts off of them. He’s putting his hands out stopping them. I wish this was a video right now and you guys could see me reenacting this. They’re swinging, he’s got his arms up.
CM: And I had just bought my first Off-White tee. Brand new clean white t-shirt.
JK: Brand new mock-neck tee with “OFF” on the front, $300. Bought it. And put it all on the line for the store. That’s how we knew. It’s crazy out here on Burnside.
Anything interesting on the horizon for Machus?
JM: Private label. I think we found a connection in L.A. for a guy that wants to take on everything. None of us here are designers but we know what we want. I know what the direction for the private label should be. We needed to find someone that would be willing to take our inspiration board and fly with that. It was tough finding a person to translate what we want to do but I think we finally found it. Trying not to get too excited because we’re still in early stages but it should be really cool. Keeping the store in its location here is also important. I have no interest in doing a second store anywhere. And working to keep our online tweaked.
JK: We have our hitters and slaps, and all of the things that helped establish us, but we’re very excited to bring in some of the smaller guys that we saw in Paris and just establish them. The next few months will be awesome—Julius is coming in, more DKSHDW, it’s just cool to curate these brands and have a home for them whereas in New York, maybe you have ten homes for some of these brands. Here we’re pretty much the only game in town so, stay tuned, man. We work really hard and want to make sure everyone feels what we’re doing. We’re a super small team and when you buy from us, you’re supporting each of us individually and it means a lot to us.
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