Inside Today Clothing, Michigan’s Menswear Oasis
Inside Today Clothing, Michigan’s Menswear Oasis
- Words Alex Rakestraw
- Date November 1, 2017
It begins like a Kid Rock song: in a college town outside Detroit, a Michigan-born engineer runs a store selling Carhartt jackets and Wolverine boots. It ends like Tokyo Fashion Week: they’re right next to the Kapital. Such is the charm of Ann Arbor’s Today Clothing.
Since 2013, Today has served as metro Detroit’s authority on all things menswear. Hidden on a cross street mere blocks from the University of Michigan, both the shop and its neighbors—a greasy spoon serving $2 hamburgers; a mysteries-only bookstore called “Aunt Agatha”—form colorful if discrete tiles of the Midwestern mosaic. Yet, to describe any part of Today as incongruous couldn’t be farther from the truth. Like any good get-together, both the store and its pilgrimage-inducing placement are all about “the mix.”
“The guidelines of the store, put broadly, would be ‘craftsmanship and creativity,’” explains store owner Eric Hardin. A chemical engineer by training, Hardin attended the University of Michigan before moving to New York City after graduation. The new environment obviously had an impact on the nascent Hardin. He is drawn to a diverse list of brands that embody his dual nature of structural savvy and street smart: Engineered Garments, nanamica, Norse Projects, Diemme, and Yuketen. Today (pun aside), his store is the only stockist in the region for these brands, as well as many others.
Ironically enough, it was a divergence from engineering that brought Hardin into retail. Instead of taking a lab job in the city, Hardin—a lifelong skater who sold his own graphic tees throughout college—worked his way from a Brooklyn retail store to a Midtown design office, all the while solidifying many of the ideas that would inevitably lay the foundation for Today. Chief among them: a longing for the home he left behind.
“I think Ann Arbor’s an amazing, special place,” Hardin said on a brisk October day. “It just creates a really cool mix: that hardworking, idealistic, Midwestern innocence with a lot of people that have traveled the world, academics and non-academics alike.” We sat down with Hardin to learn the how his vision of tomorrow drives the world of Today.
Before we dive in, could you tell me a little bit about your background before the store?
Eric Hardin: I grew up in Michigan and started working at the local skate shop when I was 14. I was obsessed with skating, but also working at the skate shop and skateboarding yourself, you get way into marketing and brands. I then went to college here in Ann Arbor and worked at a skate shop here when it opened. I had creative ambitions, and I think a lot of that was inspired by different skaters that did art [like Marc Gonzales]. I thought that was really cool.
I had a really good friend that moved to New York who encouraged me, when I finished college, to come out and stay with him. He really wanted me to pursue the creative endeavor, so I moved, started working retail, started doing some graphic design stuff, and then [eventually] got a job where I was able to start learning more about the clothing design process.
I worked my way into design in working with smaller companies. With small companies, you get to see it all: you get to see retail, you get to see marketing, you get to see wholesale. You’re always seeking that feeling of discovery.
I saw a mix of the industry—an early focus in retail, with a later focus in design. But, [I felt] the growing need to do something with all that experience and do something that was more in line with what I thought was “good.”
So you came back to Michigan, and then Today officially opened in 2013. What was your concept for the store? What was that initial reaction like?
EH: People came in—so that was good. The guidelines of the store put broadly would be “craftsmanship and creativity.” I try to offer customers something that they wouldn’t ordinarily come by, especially [in Michigan], and also share information with them about the company or the piece itself. It’s really about having product that gathers attention, then creating openness and dialogue around it.
Ultimately, the idea is of course to achieve a sustainable business, but to do so in such a way that is enjoyable and something that everyone involved can feel good about. You get all the information, and then it’s up to you as the consumer to decide whether that’s worthy of you spending your money on or not. It’s the idea of the educated consumer, basically. That’s extremely important.
For example: Ann Arbor has a growing food scene, as does the nation, but that trend is rooted deeper. In food, it’s all about fresh food, local food, restaurants having cool concepts, and that’s started to establish a dialogue around food for people who have always been interested in food. If you can apply that process to other realms of their life, why not clothing?
On the subject of “educated consumers”: you’re from Michigan, you went to school in Ann Arbor, you certainly know the reputation of the town and the University here. This has to be ground zero for, in some sense, an educated customer community.
There are amazing people here, and the goal of the space is to be set up like a boutique so that when people come in for the first time, they say “I feel like I’m in New York.” But, one of the things that I love about the Midwest and that I truly felt moving home is that people are just really friendly.
So, having this boutique setting that people are familiar with from one aspect, but then offering a friendly, informative, no pressure service to go along with it is, for many, an interesting juxtaposition. It’s something to get people's attention a little bit, and a very earnest way of doing it.
Funny that you mention friendly staff: a lot of boutiques seem to see unfriendly staff as a signaling device, almost as if spending money there came with its own coolness metric. Was there ever an issue selling cultivated cool brands like A.P.C. on a small town Midwestern menswear store?
EH: With A.P.C., actually, they reached out to us. They heard what the store was doing, and at that point, A.P.C. had no distribution in Michigan. It just made logical sense for them.
As for selling brands on the concept before we were really established, most of that was based on personal existing relationships, or just a genuine dialogue to get the ball rolling. There’s not one brand, or even five brands, that make the store work. It’s all about building a solid relationship with the companies you work with, and showing them consistency season to season.
Now that you have developed a mix where you can cohesively add brands one-by-one, what are some of the lines you carry that have an element of risk?
EH: Every year has some element of that. If it’s a brand our customers haven’t heard of but I feel really good about the product, it’s then a question of how long can you go before saying whether it “worked” or “didn’t work,” you know?
It’s not like we have crazy amounts of foot traffic—we have a pretty strong draw regionally from Detroit into Ohio, and the webstore has helped us gain exposure—but I would say that bringing in Engineered Garments, even at a higher price point, was a case of “let’s try it.”
Then, there are brands like Blue Blue Japan. It was an instant customer favorite: beautiful fabrics, wonderful fits, and the quality is great. Over time, customers started to see the store as somewhere they can come and discover something new, [with the] faith that we found something cool.
How would you describe the Today Clothing customer?
EH: There are so many different things that have gotten people in the door. A lot of it would have to do with people seeing things online, and then becoming a fan of a brand from afar. I definitely have customers who come into the store for the first time already knowing about brands from shopping on Grailed, and their faces are beaming because they get to test out what they’ve read. I think brands have been a help, combined with word of mouth.
Regardless, for a lot of our customers, overall fit is of the utmost importance. Different brands accommodate different body types, and as we’ve been able to identify those fits, we’ve been able to build a core of more basic styles that cover all of those fits. If someone comes in and they’ve read about Company X and heard all these great things, they have an expectation of how they want it to fit them. When that doesn’t align, it feels really great to be able to show them a different company with a similar manufacturing story as Company X, but tailored for their body type.
Do you find that most people coming in are willing to take that leap where you can curate?
EH: It ranges. Having a brand like A.P.C. in the store, I feel like there are a lot of people who will come in for their A.P.C. jeans because it’s the jeans they know and love. Others will come in with an open mind, listen to what we have to say, then go home and research the brands we told them about.
I don’t have anyone in the store pressuring sales towards people. I would much rather have someone think about it then make up their mind that this is what they want with a decision they’ve made themselves than buy something and be unhappy.
You’re in a college town, and if I’m reading the undergrad experience right, this is a time that many experience their quarter life crisis about having to “dress better” before the real world. Has Today Clothing catalyzed any wardrobe changes?
EH: Oh, absolutely. A customer who was just in had graduated high school, but was going to Vietnam for six months before starting college. He’s someone who I could say that, probably through the Internet, knew a lot of different brands, but now has a place to come try them on and actually develop his personal style as opposed to just leaning into the hype.
When it comes to kids in their mid 20’s, we definitely see people coming in who want something to look great for an occasion, but few people are coming in looking for that one thing for that one time. A lot of the suiting we carry is very soft-structured in the shoulder and doesn’t have to be worn as a suit. In the mid-20’s, it’s an investment piece. On the other hand, people also come in five at a time for checkerboard slip-on Vans.
Talk us through some of the store-exclusive shoe collabs. How did you bring these projects to life?
EH: Collaborations have such a storied past over the last 15 years. The initial excitement around two different companies coming together to share customer base and create something new got worked to death. I get really excited about products, and when you end up with a product that’s kind of unexpected because different mindsets came together to create something that you’ve never seen before, that’s super exciting. But when a new limited edition collaboration comes out multiple times a week, it becomes a little bit overwhelming.
For the store, any exclusive is really based on a customer need. The core idea for Today is creating products that our customers are already looking for but that we can’t necessarily find in the market. For example, the Wolverine Evans boot we carry is the only one available in the original dark brown leather used on the Wolverine 1000 Mile.
The fact that something’s exclusively available at Today, I would never expect that to be the first thing that sells a product. The product will sell itself. We want to find things that people are excited about even if they don’t know they existed.
It sounds like you’ve got some amazingly personal relationships with the companies you stock. What if someone like Eiichiro Homma (Founder of Nanamica, Creative Director of The North Face Purple Label) were to visit Ann Arbor? Do you play host?
EH: Yeah, and it feels amazing when people want to come visit the store. We’re a fairly small account, but we’ve gained a reputation as a store that people are excited to work with because we’re excited to share a brand’s story with our customers and from season to season, continue to tell that story.
Residents call it “nine square miles surrounded by reality.” What’s your take on Ann Arbor as a whole, especially the fashion scene in town?
EH: I think Ann Arbor’s an amazing, special place, which is why I decided to move back. We have a really intelligent population with the University, and its evolving community of professors and students. I also think that companies like Google being here has been really cool, because people are moving from all over the country to Ann Arbor. We’ve also got some homegrown tech companies here that are phenomenal, and bringing in talent from major cities.
It just creates a really cool mix: that hardworking, idealistic, Midwestern innocence with a lot of people that have traveled the world, academics and non-academics alike. But what does that mean for fashion? I’d say it’s not unlike a lot of other places.
I think one of the things about the Midwest is that maybe men’s fashion isn’t on the primary list of concerns. It’s definitely down there below food, sports, and entertainment, but at the same time, for the people that are interested in it, it’s cool to supply a service for them. Ann Arbor is very much about function and utility, but every now and then, people want to put on their best.
Finally: what’s your personal grail?
EH: I don’t know that it was really all that hard to get, but for me, this was really special.
I got a parka from the company Final Home on a trip to Japan in 2008. I went through this funny kick where I was trying to not go out as much, so I started going to the Sci-Fi section of each of the video stores in my neighborhood and just slowly going through all the rentals. I discovered some really crazy old stuff, and that post-apocalyptic world that Final Home presents as a vision just seemed to me like the coolest shit.
So, I was going out to dinner in Japan and we walked past one of—or the—Final Home store. I just had to go in there. I walked in, geeked out on everything, and walked out with a dayglow orange parka. I love that coat.
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