Madison, Wis., transplant Machus made his leap to the fashion world around the same time a quartet of Portland-based designers—Ryan Christensen, Sam Huff, Garett Stenson and Quentin Nguyen—were seeking an alternative to hawking their wares at Saturday Market and Crafty Wonderland. Crossover opportunities, private-label projects and Portland's famously incestuous nature landed them all at Local 35. WW recently gathered the guys together for a roundtable discussion on their design process, the importance of MySpace and why they're still eating ramen to pay for their dreams.
"Fashion design in Portland is a small, progressive network," explains Ryan Christensen, founder and owner of Sameunderneath, a grassroots line of sustainable men's and women's clothing. With his distinguishing afro curls, a friend on every street corner and plans to run for mayor of Portland in 10 years, 31-year-old California-born Christensen is the self-proclaimed "soccer mom" of the group, dubbing the independent labels and designers growing and working together as his "suburbia."
All the designers have a silk-screened, urban aesthetic, from Christensen's Rare Print series of limited-edition T-shirts to db clay founder Garett Stenson's one-of-a-kind printed wallets. T-shirts and hoodies are bought from blank T-shirt manufacturers and custom printing is produced locally with the designers' small staffs, ranging from two to seven employees each. That is, save for 31-year-old Quentin Nguyen, who, as the creative director of Monsieur T., has a fleet of 12 freelance artists from all over the world designing for him. Sam Huff, the fresh-faced creative director of punchy apparel line Hecklewood—and edgy leather-bag company Tanner—handpicks hides locally from a leather wholesaler. While none of the designers could disclose their costs, their T-shirts retail from $28-$85 and the db clay wallets range from $20-$125.
For those who feel screenprinting designs and graphic tees are last season's castoffs—you can find 'em in bulk on the crammed hangers of Nordstrom Rack—Christensen waxes poetic, asserting that "One man's conclusion is another man's introduction. I am already tired of screen-printed shirts, but my little brother is 19 and has a closet full of 'em." The softspoken Nguyen, who was born and raised in Lyon, France, seconds that. "Graphic T-shirts are always going to be around," he adds in his soft accent. Machus, unassumingly clad in a dapper sweater vest, tie and slacks, says that above all he looks for companies that stay true to their brand versus making massive changes to meet current trends.
All trends aside, Portlanders aren't the only ones who have taken notice of these designers. In Style and the Urban Outfitters catalog have featured db clay. Hecklewood is sponsored by PBR. ("We had thousands of pictures of us drinking PBR," Huff explains. "So we emailed 'em and the rep stopped by and hooked us up with free beer and a neon sign.") Nelly Furtado rocked Sameunderneath on national TV last spring while Monsieur T.'s been highlighted in magazines Venus and Urban Decay.
Stenson, the most overtly technical and business-savvy of the crew (the Wyoming native paid for college and his first home from wallet sales), attributes the collective coverage in part to guerrilla marketing tactics via YouTube and MySpace. "Portland is more progressive than most cities; we try to understand business from an untradit
ional model," he says. In 2006, db clay's Web sales accounted for approximately 30 percent of their total sales. This year, Stenson projects an increase to 50 percent.
The group's marketing conversation gets sidelined by Huff, the sensitive dreamer of the group. "Wait—what about girlfriends and wives?" the 26-year-old central Oregon native asks. "'Cause that's where I feel the most pressure...convincing them that, hey, this is worth the sacrifice."
Good point. Like many indie designers, these men are sacrificing money and security now for an ultimate payoff later. Living off ramen and the fruits of your art is no easy task, but it's sufficient—for now, anyway. "I've become numb to it. My chips are all in," Stenson says. "If I go bankrupt in five years, I can start again and still have two-thirds of my life to live."
Born from a strong mix of graphic-design brilliance and DIY culture, these brands—like many in Portland—are evolving at their own speed. "It's rock-star status to watch your friends grow with their brands," Christensen says. "Portland's got a huge following. It's almost surreal." It's true—the city's working-class individuality and refinement is even becoming increasingly sought after internationally. Machus attests: "Yeah, I walked into some crazy concept boutique in Shibuya [the fashion capital of Toyko] and spotted Garett's wallets...it's super cool."
Sameunderneath (915 N Shaver St., 223-3592, sameunderneath.com), db clay (dbclay.com), Hecklewood (hecklewood.com) and Monsieur T. (monsieurt.net) products can all be found at Local 35, 3556 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 963-8200, local35.com.