Getting into my Uber from the airport, my driver asks me about myself and why I’m in Milwaukee. “You’re a fashion photographer? And you’re here to shoot a store?” He double checks the address. I tell him it’s this spot called Spruce. He hasn’t heard of it. “This is your guy right here with the fisherman hat and shorts?” my driver jokingly asks as we pull up. But it is, in fact, my guy, Alex, standing outside waiting for me.

I’ve never been to the Midwest until this year, but this is already my second time in three weeks. Alex has been working with Spruce for a while and we’ve been planning this trip for me to come see the shop for some time. He goes to school at Parsons and splits time between NYC and Milwaukee. My first impression of Milwaukee is that it’s small and fairly empty. As for the store itself, outside of the sign and sandwich board, you wouldn’t even know Spruce exists, but inside is a well-lit, organized space. It’s fresh to see an interesting, independent retailer in a city I’d normally assume doesn’t care much about things like the Needles 7 cut flannels or Raf x Adidas sneakers Spruce carries.

I arrive a few hours before an event Spruce is throwing and it legitimately pops off. Watching dudes of all ages drop by and talk to each other, to Alex and the two shop owners (brothers Zack and Taylor) about life and fashion is honestly great. Sure, Milwaukee is small, but it's clear they have a strong, budding menswear-enthusiast community that reminds me of my friends and I when we first came to New York City.

After the party, we drive three hours north to Fish Creek, a resort town on Green Bay. Six separate people tell me “It’s the Hamptons of Chicago" and it actually kinda feels that way—lots of bars and restaurants and people out and about. There's obviously money to be made here. A perfect 75 degrees and sunny doesn't hurt.

The next day, I interview Zack and Alex about the shop and why they’d open something, well, so far off the grid:

Tell me about what you do at Spruce.

Alex O’Brien: I met the guys about 4 years ago and I started as a retail sales associate. Soon after, I started buying with Zach and now I’m in charge of creating content for Spruce. When I’m away at school in New York, I fly in once or twice a month to help out with that content. I’m also in charge of our events.

Zack Akers: Alex is selling himself short. He really helps run the entire operation. He’s next in command behind my brother and I. He has a ton of unspoken responsibilities that he handles on a day-to-day basis, but, yes, in terms of our content, he does a great job. In terms of my day-to-day, I manage the whole operation with the exception of numbers, financials and budget. My brother, who is a co-owner as well, handles all that. I work on pretty much everything, whether it’s the sales floor or fulfilling online orders or helping Alex with Instagram and content.

How did Spruce come about?

ZA: My brother Taylor and I started the company in 2014 as a passion project. We bought a building up here (Fish Creek) as an investment opportunity. In order to kill some time while we did renovations on the property, we decided to open up a store for fun. We went to some tradeshows and started with a few small brands. We got a really solid response in what we were trying to do in bringing a little bit of a different approach to a place not many people have heard of outside of our region. Over time, we built a client and taste for what our objective was and we got some other brand partners on board with our vision. We really enjoy brining an interesting and dynamic product and brand mix to a market that really hasn’t seen much like this before. Some of our customers—being from Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee—are already fans of some brands that we stock and are surprised to see our selection of that product in an interesting location.

How is the menswear scene in Wisconsin? Is there a learning curve, either for you guys on how you position your shop to an average consumer that’s not so aware or familiar with menswear, or for the consumer to learn more about Spruce, menswear and fashion in general?

ZA: We’ve had to follow a certain recipe—it’s a give and take. In some circumstances, we’re ambitious and forward, but at the same time we have an ongoing dialogue with our customer. From the start, a lot of our customers weren’t aware of the brands we were carrying, but now we have a solid group that’s asking when we’re getting more in from a certain designer that, if it wasn’t for us exposing them to it, they probably wouldn’t have been aware of. We’ve built fans of certain brands that we find both funny and interesting—not many 50-year-old guys are attuned to what Stephan Schneider is doing in Belgium, but now I have a few older clients whose closets are half full with it and they’re looking for more. We also have customers who just believe in us and will buy an item from the store regardless of brand just to support what we’re doing.

AO: A lot of our men’s clients were dressed in “harborware” stuff, you know, like, those $5 souvenir tees or Vineyard Vines, but once they try a Wings + Horns or Stephan Schneider piece, it’s easy for them to appreciate the work that goes into these garments. It definitely has been an educational process but people are coming in every season that were dressed totally differently before they started shopping with us four years ago. It’s rewarding.

Tell me more about Spruce Studio. What exactly is it? Why did you open it in Fish Creek? What separates it from the shop in Milwaukee?

ZA: We just wanted to create a space that emulated some of the stores that we appreciate abroad. We look to Japan, we look to Scandinavia, for the fresh ways that clothing is being presented. Being in our resort locale and the type of building that we had to work with, we thought it could be fun to do something that was really for us while still having a really dialed-in product mix.

AO: Spruce Studio is geared towards the amount of menswear business that we’ve been building. It isn’t huge, but they’re consistent and loyal and we wanted to give them the ability to have the space to take their time looking through the shop and we could give them select one-on-one service with those special customers. The Milwaukee store, which has been open since March, is a more full representation of what Spruce is as our brand, and what it will be moving forward. In S/S 18, we’ll be carrying collections from Dries Van Noten, Marni, J.W.Anderson, Junya Wantanabe, and on the women’s side, Sacai, MM6 and some other amazing designers. Up in Door County, we try to keep it contemporary and fresh, but a bit more resort focused. People are on vacation up there and they’re not looking to build an entire wardrobe. The Milwaukee store is a complete look at our vision.

Anything new in store for you guys? Anything you’re excited about coming up in the near future?

ZA: We’re excited to continue to build great brand partnerships for spring. We’ve got some great product coming in. We love the idea of positioning ourselves in under-represented cities and markets that might have small fanbases or niches for artisan product, but are currently underserved and don’t have many places to look for that product. We found that in Milwaukee, and just by having a nice, clean space, we’ve been able to hit our target demographic, so we’re definitely looking into other markets like that. We also have a couple of key online partnerships that we’re also excited to unveil soon.

AO: We’re just stoked to increase our online business. Spruce is more accessible than it’s ever been between our two shops, our own e-comm and our upcoming online partnerships. We’re just excited to spread the word about what we’re doing.

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Tags: milwaukee, shopping