UNIONMADE'S Todd Barket Presents: Kapital Archive Sale
UNIONMADE'S Todd Barket Presents: Kapital Archive Sale
- Words Asaf Rotman
- Date October 17, 2018
On a steep San Francisco hill, separating the Castro from the Mission, sits UNIONMADE. A shrine to all things premium—or as founder Todd Barket would say, “thoughtful”—the menswear stalwart has been a part of SF’s surprisingly robust shopping scene since 2009. Initially focused on premium denim and Japanese Americana, over the past 9 years the store has evolved into a trend-averse purveyor of a refined aesthetic that still defines how the majority of San Franciscans dress themselves (Costco cargo short clad tech invaders currently not-withstanding).
Opened on the cusp of the #menswear boom, UNIONMADE hit the blogosphere as one of the top destinations for everyone from denimheads to soft-shoulder diehards, grabbing RRL and unstructured Barena blazers. Yet, as those trends wavered, UNIONMADE stayed true to its roots and continued to offer inarguably good product, building a reputation as a dependable boutique committed to everyday clothing. Now, nearly a decade in business and boasting three stores—a women’s store a couple blocks away from the Sanchez St. flagship and a third Larkspur location in the North Bay—the store has developed loyal clientele who prize the store’s specific vision and authenticity. Yet, always looking forward, Barket—along with partner and co-owner Carl Chiara—always stocked brands that felt just enough out of their core customers comfort zone that invariably helped push their respective styles to even greater heights. Kapital is one of those brands.
The first U.S. wholesale partner to carry the brand, Barket and Chiara were both Kapital clients before they were stockists and are some of the brands foremost proponents in the industry. Now, after 15 years of hoarding, the two are ready to let go of their prized collection. Below, we spoke to Barket on running an independent boutique, the state of industry and how he became the first Kapital stockist in America.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Images courtesy of Brett Woodward.
What was the path from your prior corporate life to UNIONMADE?
Todd Barket: I spent 20 years at The Gap. I started as a salesperson in 1989 while I was in art school in Los Angeles. I had moved there from Pennsylvania but didn’t end up graduating. I worked various positions in Los Angeles, in the beginning in-store visual merchandising. Gap didn't really have a visual department back then because it was only 500 stores—still pretty small. After a while they moved me up to the San Francisco headquarters, where I worked for Banana Republic.
Through the years I ended up doing various creative jobs for GAP. Back then I was really into visual merchandising, I actually did women's which is weird considering where I am today. I transitioned to marketing eventually and over time I became the senior director of marketing at Old Navy, where I stayed until 2009. I started really low level but just stuck with it and worked my way up through the organization.
Old Navy was my last gig and then I got laid off because it was downsizing its business. Since I was there for so long my salary became pretty sizeable and as it was consolidating I became a liability. The company ended up giving me a severance package and I planned to take a year off. I quickly started getting antsy and I knew I wanted to have my own business and not have to work for anyone. So I basically came up with the idea that I wanted to do a specialty retail store. It was 2009–the middle of the economic downturn—so nothing was really happening, no one was opening any stores. People were kind of surprised but I wasn't. I had to get a job obviously and I did not want to go back to a corporate life. So I used the money from my severance package to open the store and that's how UNIONMADE came about.
When you opened UNIONMADE, were you already interested in luxury menswear?
I’ve always been around it. I think working at The Gap all those years, oddly enough it was pretty aspirational as far as design intent. At The Gap, we were always referencing. In the early 2000's, for instance, we were talking about a Prada pant that someone brought in. So, I've always been around fashion, I was just on the mass side of it for work, but personally I was always more interested in directional menswear. I grew up in this small town in Pennsylvania but it was near New York City and I was already wearing directional menswear in high school. So it's something I've always done. When all these streetwear kids are thinking Comme des Garçons is amazing, well we were wearing Comme des Garçons in 1987.
When I look back, you had to find those things, right? Because the only access you had to anything was magazines. If you were interested in fashion in the ‘80s, there was just a different way of going about it. So I think I've always been around fashion and I've always dressed a certain way, so opening a store just felt like an offshoot of my personal style.
What was the initial intent behind UNIONMADE?
I was actually spending a lot of time in Japan and I really liked BEAMS—and we sell BEAMS obviously. Anytime you would go there they had a really interesting point of view that was kind of vintage Americana but it had a weird twist to it that made it not so literal. At the time no one had gathered that point of view together in one store so that was kind of the jumping off point for me. Then from years of traveling and just knowing a lot of brands, I built a brand list and the store culminated from there.
I think we presented something new to people that they hadn't seen before. We worked with interesting people along the way who were doing things that people just didn't know about yet. There were all these old brands that hadn't had any attention that we were able to bring attention to. That's how it started. It was really a culmination of my personal taste and then trying to find a hook as far as a merchandising concept goes. It was half purposeful but half personal.
But it was never meant to be anything heavy handed. There was a weird menswear movement that happened at that time—#menswear—that I think we had a hand in. I’m not claiming we started anything, but I think we got kind of dragged into it. Which wasn't a bad thing for business—it was a great—but was just interesting. I never took that concept so literally, so I always thought that we should throw it off a little bit, but it was good because it made people pay attention.
Your store—to this day—feels relatively trend averse. How do you look at trends?
San Francisco itself is sort of trend averse. We had stores in L.A. and through that I realized that San Francisco has its own aesthetic. We were in Brentwood and that kind of made sense and it was okay but felt a bit flashy sometimes. Then we opened in the Grove and I realized that L.A. is such a trend-driven city, and helped us see that we play best in San Francisco because we personally transcend trends. We do that on purpose because if you're going to spend that much money on a pice, we really do want you to wear it at least for a few years. I think it's hard to present those kind of prices and that quality and not be able to wear it longer. So that's why we are trend averse.
It's purposeful but again, San Francisco is very attuned to it and it just makes sense for this market. That's how we dress here so I think it manifests itself. But I didn't realize that until we went other places and tried to sell things there and we were like "oh, we're really kind of San Francisco-y." That said, there will always be a nod to something current but I don't think we're resting too heavy on it.
Looking forward, does it feel frightening how obsessed kids are with sneakers and streetwear?
No. I think that with social media and the internet, I feel like everyone is now on an equal playing field. I feel that at this point you're just veering towards what you think your personal style is. It’s just a statement of the population. We definitely have younger customers, but I think we're finding stuff that maybe compliments how kids are now dressing.
We definitely have a guy that wears whatever sneaker and then he comes in and buys a pair of Beams pants. So I think our aesthetic and theirs can live harmoniously for sure. Again, I'm 46 but I wear Nikes every day with my Carhartts so I think it bleeds into how everyone dresses. Unless you're a purist, but I feel like those consumers maybe aren't as attuned as someone that knows how to mix their clothes.
While New York and L.A. both have clearly defined aesthetics, San Francisco—especially with the influx of tech—seems more in flux. What’s the state of fashion in San Francisco?
I think that there's an offshoot of college-style that still lives in San Francisco. You see people waiting for tech buses and you're like, "Oh, wow, you're wearing that to work?” I think that there's just a hangover from college because people are young and this is their first job in their professional career. They're working 18 hours a day at some of these startups, or they're staying at home by themselves so there's no reason to dress up. You're basically in your pajamas sitting at home on your computer. Then, there's also people who are hyperaware.
Tech has changed the style a little bit for the entire city, because it's just the nature of the people. It just feels a little more safe than it used to feel.
Does that affect how you curate the store?
No. I think we still need to give people really interesting things and I think we've found our customer so I'm never worried. Working with The Gap all those years, I think I have a pretty good understanding of what's going to move and pay the bills. We have Gitman shirts, right? So we have to sell a ton of Gitman shirts to pay for the crazy Monitaly leopard-print pants. It's a balance. I think we strike a pretty good balance because I want to give people stuff that they can wear every day. That's what we're about. At the same time, we have more eccentric customers, who regularly purchase crazy pieces from us which is great. I think we understand that there's a lot of different people in the city and we try to edit around them. We don't have one customer per se which is nice. We're pretty democratic in a weird way.
Speaking of curation, tell me how you discovered Kapital?
My partner Carl found Kapital, a thousand years ago, when they only had the one store in Tokyo. Then, only some people knew about it, but those who did...every time you went to Tokyo, it was the one place you'd go. Carl used to find it, he used to bring pieces home and then I started to go as well. We both just sort of held on to it. That was probably 15 years ago. We were on it way early because back then you'd see a lot of people competitive shopping from the industry. Going in and buying samples, you'd kind of see people. A lot of those pieces from that far back are what ended up in this sale.
How did you start selling Kapital?
At that point, they weren't wholesaling so I had to track them down. The crazy part is John Shimazaki who now has a showroom in New York City, Battery SR, was the store manager of 45RPM in New York City when it first opened around 17 year ago. I was one of their good clients and whenever I went to New York, John would take us out to dinner because I was buying a lot of stuff. When I had money working at GAP, I would by tons of clothes so they would take me out.
As I understand it, current designer Kiro Hirata’s father, founder Toshiyoko Hirata, owns a lot of the factories where they make Kapital. Kiro Hirata actually worked at 45RPM, and they used to produce a lot of 45RMP stuff in their family factories. There's a 45RPM relationship with Kapital and at the time, you could see a little bit of it. I always sort of associated the two.
Strangely enough, John started repping Kapital when they first started to wholesale, and because of our relationship, UNIONMADE was the first wholesale partner in America. We were the first to sell it online—Kapital had strict rules about online sales—as well, that was in 2011.
Today, Kapital is a massively hyped brand, with tons of stores across Japan. How do you feel about the brand’s trajectory and newfound popularity?
The whole thing is so crazy. I mean, I never thought of Kapital in that vein but like I said, the world's changed so rapidly. Now I understand it. At first, I was like, "Wow, that's weird, I can't believe people like Kid Cudi are wearing it." But I get it because John Mayer was one of our good Kapital customers. I knew it had some renown, but at the same time I didn't know, it sort of didn't even register to me. Pharrell even bought some pieces from us. It's been a weird transition, for sure.
What do you think makes Kapital so unique?
That they have so many pieces, honestly. No two stores have the same assortment, they just have so much product. Strangely enough our friend Kana, Kiro Hirata’s sister, lives in Berkeley, and she's the one who brings the samples from Japan to Shimazaki's showroom in New York. She just picks through what she thinks we're going to like and that's what actually ends up in the showroom. Then, we kind of edit things down from there. There's special pieces like the Kapital Kountry pieces—hand-done old garments that they mess with—that we get first dibs on which is nice. Usually no one else has those pieces, other than the stores in Japan.
How has the Kapital client changed?
This is even crazier. Kapital is one of our best selling lines in the store. I don't know if the client has changed dramatically as much as more people have stumbled onto it. It's in more people's vernacular. Before the brand had a really weird, small following. Then, over time it either got buzzed or it's been in the store for so many years that I think our customer started understanding it because of the consistency we had in our offering. People come back every season now and buy pieces from us because they're waiting for the shipment. That said, it always does really well for us online, and I'm sure part of that is new customers coming at different age brackets who didn't know about it before, for sure.
Despite having three stores, UNIONMADE is still a boutique at heart. What’s it like to be an independent shop in 2018?
Today, you have to present an independent point of view, because people are so fickle. You have their attention for just a minute so you have to either have your own point-of-view and stick to it or you have to keep chasing trends which is really hard. It's easy to have your list of brands you want. Anybody can do that. But things change by the hour, who can keep up? I can't even keep up with a Nike sneaker release.
I think when you look at people who have a point-of-view or just some personality of some sort, in the long run, that’s who can garner customers. If you can keep them, that's success. Again, we're not doing dumb product by any means. We don't carry a million things so it's curated in that way as well. I think through the years people have come to understand what we do and they know it doesn't waver a ton. Then, the things that we're injecting are things that we actually want you to try or don't feel bad about telling you to try. I think in a weird way, we're safe but we're not because it's different layers of product. People know that that we're always going to have something easy but then there's a layer of weirder stuff that lives on top of it. I think people know that we're personally buying it as well. When you look at Mr. Porter, I think it's just a lot of brands, It's a little bit of everything. I think we've gone through and tried to hand choose everything, because we genuinely like it.
We're small, so we have to be really choosy about what we buy. Yet, we're pretty good at talking to a range of people. Since we're in San Francisco, we just have a different taste level, that seems to resonate with customers who tend to think differently, who aren't so trend driven, and that's okay.
How would you define UNIONMADE today? What’s the through-line?
There's an authenticity. I think that's the word we use. It's not super slick. I feel like with all the people we work with, they kind of are in that vein. It's not even hand-made as much as it's really thoughtful. Everything either comes from a nice place, or it's a great fabric, or it's been hand done.
We work with such small producers, I think that everyone kind of brings that same energy to what they're doing. There's an authenticity about it. That’s what we go after when we choose a lot of the stuff in the store. What holds everything together is the quality and the authenticity.
We’re quality-centric. At the price point we're offering things, I think you have to bring something to the table. At the end of the day, we're bringing quality. We have always said, "we want it to get better as you wear it." We don't want you to dispose of it. We want you to have it five years from now.
Look at Kapital. Some of the items in the sale are so old, but it's still relevant. It's still cool. It got better as we wore it.