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Welcome to Better Know a Store Owner, a weekly Racked feature focusing on the people who run our favorite boutiques around the city.Photos by Rebecca Dale
Before it even opened on Crosby Street in Soho, Carson Street Clothiers had already cultivated a strong following among the affluent business-casual workforce (thanks to a series of posts on Esquire's website) and the hashtag-menswear blogosphere (thanks to co-owner Brian Trunzo's Tumblr Nice Try, Bro). Complete with a back-area lounge and decanter set, the store is a tailored meeting place for all walks of customer—from young internet influencers to conservative men looking to suit up for their 9-5s.
After the jump, Brian and Matt Breen explain what it was like quitting the corporate law jobs they hated, building a store from scratch while simultaneously courting media attention, and how their in-house label stacks up against the classic and contemporary brands hanging on their own racks.
You had so much buzz before you guys even opened. Did you know the PR company you hired sent out bricks in the mail?
Matt: When we hired our PR team, we decided to hire them specifically for the pre-launch and launch, because we knew a little bit about the industry but we didn't know anyone in it outside of what's called the "blogosphere," plus a couple others. So we came up with kind of a cheeky idea to kind of get our name out there and in people's minds. Admittedly their idea was to send physical bricks around—they did it, and then told us after it happened.
Brian: They mentioned that they thought they might want to do it, and then we were like, "Oh that's cool, we'll get back to y—," and then they sent them out.
Matt: One of our friends was like, "So I got a brick and your name's on it." But it ended up being a cute little gimmick and it seemed to resonate, or at least get the name out there in the way that our PR team at the time had intended to.
It was the strangest thing I've ever received in the mail from a messenger. I really hope he didn't have a full satchel of bricks to deliver.
Matt: I believe they drove around in a car, if I remember correctly.
You guys also blogged about the opening for Esquire.
Brian: That was [Esquire's] Jonathan Evans' idea. I was at a talk that Lawrence Schlossman and Kevin Burrows were giving on the book they had just released, Fuck Yeah Menswear. It was just a very meta, internet heavy situation. Jonathan was there and he came up and was like, "Hey, I saw the pictures on Instagram of just the empty space that you're going to build out. Would you guys want to give a chronicle every two weeks of how it's going?" Lawrence actually got pretty angry because he had the same idea and wanted to talk about it that night too, but he was too busy talking about his book.
Do you think there was anything about that that changed the way you went about opening the store, because you were documenting it?
Matt: The idea behind doing that was to really connect with our former selves in many ways, or our former industries. Most of the online readers of Esquire and GQ are young business professionals who are kind of slaving away at their desks. I was just reading an article on GQ mobile about the Ashley Madison website, which I find fascinating for a whole host of different reasons.
Brian: Yesterday he was like, "Have you heard of Ashley Madison? This thing is insane."
Matt: [The Esquire posts were] just kind of showing the 180 degree pivot from being a young professional to doing what you're passionate about. We felt that that would really resonate with the customer base. So in doing the series, as it went along and the readership was pretty high and pretty strong, we realized that we needed to introduce a really polished product. We had one chance to get it right—we had documented it all the way long and then if we didn't get there they'd be like, "What the hell, what is this?" So it put a little pressure on us, but I think it motivated us a lot more.
Brian: It's kind of funny because most of those articles were released during what we were calling the "struggle hour." Friday at 2pm or 3pm, guys get back from lunch, they sit at their desk, they have a couple more hours left, they just want the weekend. So they check out Esquire and see what they're talking about today, and then "Oh, there's an article today about these two guys who just dropped their professions and opened a store." So that was really strategically planned, to release them during struggle hour.
Did you find that all of that press really had an impact when you opened?
Brian: The Esquire thing definitely helped quite a bit, and our PR team did an excellent job. Again, to reiterate what Matt said more specifically, they kind of straddled the opening date, we had retained them for three months before the opening, and three months after. But Esquire opened up other possibilities, and I think it made our PR's team job a little easier—they had something to show to people.
Matt: I wish we had had the website up in conjunction with the Esquire posts, because their readership is all over the country and online. So it was hard if you lived out of New York to come in and check out the space.
So who's your typical customer now?
Matt: I know Brian will agree with this 100% —our target demographic was us—young investment banker, young attorney, young affluent professional. That was always our target demographic. That began to shift, I would say, with the New York Times article the week we opened. We had guys in their 60s and 70s coming in, and then we had kids who read about us on the internet, bringing their moms in. So in age, we literally went from 18 to, let's say, 70, in the first two weeks.
Brian: And it kind of blew our minds because with the merchandise specifically we learned pretty quickly that people with good taste and people who are interested in luxury will gravitate toward what interests them, period. We have customers who come in fully tailored—usually the older customers—and they walk out with T-shirts and sneakers. And then we have some 17-year-old kids buying blazers and welted shoes. Sometimes it doesn't make any sense at all, but sometimes it makes complete sense.
Matt: To answer your question directly, the core young professional that's read Esquire has followed us all the way through.
I guess it's also having the means.
Matt: It's the means, and they resonate with our story. If they're going to spend their money anywhere, why not give it to the guys that kind of are them in many ways? I think that's really resonated with a lot of guys in the city.
What was the transition like for both of you, going from a corporate-attorney world to, let's open a store!
Matt: At the end of the day, it's really as simple as we were miserable. We hated our jobs. I know a lot of people say they hate their jobs, but do you really hate your job? Everyday I got up and went to work and it was the worst day of my life. Personal life aside, everyday you got to your office and you shut the door and you were just like, "Fuck." So we began calling each other—we've always talked about doing something. Brian got into the whole menswear blogging scene first, and then I kind of followed that. But he was always the trailblazer in that respect. Once he had enough of a network, he was like, "Hey, do you wanna do this?" And I was like, "Yes. When can we quit?"
Brian: The "when can we quit?" conversation took on many forms. If you go back and read our old e-mail conversations, it was like, "When you get 5,000 Tumblr followers, we're quitting our jobs."
Matt: So we drafted a full business plan and we got the money. Labor Day rolled around and it was my birthday that weekend and I was like, "Yeah, I quit." And at this point, we had already went to Italy and done a buy, but for me, I had already checked out nine months before I really left. The transition was easy because it was all mental. Once you're checked out, you're out, and you can never really get back in. This lifestyle is different in that it's more unstructured, whereas we used to have bosses before and you had to do X,Y, and Z. Now we're the bosses, and if we don't do it it doesn't get done. I would say that that's the biggest day-to-day transition.
Brian: Yeah, not having to report to a place because someone is telling you to report to a place is definitely an amazing thing. But at the same time, the stress that comes along with that—that the business only moves as far as Matt and I dictate—it begets quite a bit of stress knowing that our future success, both personally and financially, is tied directly to the decisions that we make. It's a scary thought, but we call it the good stress as opposed to the stress of thinking that you might get fired, or a client's going to call you up and ream you out.
Maintaining relationships has been incredibly difficult. I remember we had a dinner with our friends and family the night before we launched and Matt and I were prompted to give a speech by Matt's dad, Matt began by apologizing to his wife, his family, his friends, for checking out mentally for the last 6, 7, or 8 months. I think back to that speech and I think that we really did sacrifice quite a bit to get to this point. And was it all worth it? Yes, and we have to keep moving forward.
Do either of you have any background in design or tailoring, or was it just more of an interest?
Brian: Just extreme fandom—years of reading style forums and blogs. Matt always makes fun of me for geeking out and falling into these internet holes where you come to two hours later and there are 60 tabs open and you're like, "What is this?" So it really came from a place of fandom, and we try to take that mentality into all the buying and production that we do on our own house label. We just approach it from a fan-first basis."Do we love this?' Would we wear this?" And then you get into the conversation of, "Is this palatable for our customer? Does this make sense within the context of our store?"
Matt: My answer is a lot more blunt no. I didn't know anything having to do with retail, fashion, men's fashion, design or anything. For me, it was just a passion to learn. While I enjoyed law school and learning the law, I didn't enjoy practicing law. Learning about fashion, design, fabric content, and everything that goes into it has just been, on an intellectual level, very stimulating and rewarding. I know that my efforts are really going to benefit me and my employees, and I think that that's what drives me now. I have a Parsons 35-page book printed out because I want to go take night classes. I couldn't sketch a stick figure if you asked me to, and that's something I'd like to improve.
Did you know when you started the store that an in-house line was going to be part of it?
Matt: In spring/summer, we started with business casual basics for the obvious reasons: they're easy to produce without much training and that's what we knew. Brian was business casual, I was business formal. For us, it was easy to look back and think, "If we could have worn whatever we wanted in this realm, what would we have made?" Now we have our operations manager, Patrick Doss, who along with myself and Brian is really spearheading the evolution and growth of our own line into something that will be a lot more impressive than it was when it opened.
Brian: It's always a very organic thing—what makes sense. We started with shirts and trousers, ties and squares, blazers. Once we started to think about the growth of the line and where we wanted to bring it, other things like "advanced chinos" made their way in. From there, we thought, could we make outerwear possible, or footwear? We're not at the point where we're going to make sweatpants and bathing suits, but whatever makes sense in terms of the organic growth and what our customer wants and what we want to make, we're all for it. That's always been a big part of our business model and where we want to take the company.
What's the percentage or ratio of other labels to your in-house line in the store?
Matt: Right now it's about 65% third party and 35% our own label. Our goal in the future is to get that closer to 50-50, or 60-40 the other way. Our dream is to have Carson Street shops with the Carson Street brand with third party sprinkled in where we think it makes sense. A great example would be Mackintosh—we're never going to make a better raincoat, and we're not going to try.
Brian: Because if we tried, the person that would be manufacturing it would be?Mackintosh.
Matt: And denim. There are so many denim brands in the world, I don't ever want to see one with my name on it. Even if it's a raw denim and we make a couple more dollars per pair, to me that's not worth it.
How do you see your line stack up against the other brands you carry?
Matt: For fall, we moved our blazer production to Italy. Now we have top fabrics in what I think is the best country to produce blazers. I would put up our blazer at that price versus any other blazer we have in the shop. That's not to say that one is necessarily better than the other, but the quality and price are competitive with anything else.
If you like the aesthetic of what we offer as the Carson Street brand, that's great. If you want something else, maybe double breasted with a peak lapel and a short fit, that's not what we're doing but that's what another brand does. We try not to have too much crossover between brands. If we have crossover, then we're sabotaging one or the other sales, and at the end of the day we're paying for both so that's just a bad business model.
Brian: Like Matt said, we use the third-party tailoring and any kind of product that relates to the Carson Street product as our chance to see our customers appetite for aspirational stuff. Our blazers right now are a little bit more classic and a little bit longer than some of the third party blazers. They're more structured, but where we want to see a massive, double-breasted, peak lapel, etc., that's where we experiment with other brands. There are many reasons for that, but right now the main one is aesthetically our label is what it is, and third party is where we experiment.
Are other locations something you're interested in?
Matt: Yes. Brian was born and raised in New York City, but I wasn't, and our managers weren't. We want to take what we've created here and take it to other cities. Like, the guys reading about us on Esquire, there's no reason why a guy in Houston or San Francisco shouldn't be able to come in and experience the same thing. And maybe they'll come to New York once every few years, but for us that's just not good enough.
Whether it's on this large of a scale, whether it's smaller, whether we tweak the concept a little bit, we want to be able to take something like this to guys in their cities. At the end of the day, while we can compete online with our e-commerce shop, we're never going to be Mr. Porter, and we don't want to be. For us, the competitive advantage is the beautiful space, the feeling our customer gets when he walks in the door, and that's not something we can take online—that's something we need to do physically.
Is there a city that stands out the most for a second store?
Matt: Well if you asked my wife it'd be Houston, cause that's where she was born and raised. If you asked our operations manager it would be Atlanta, cause that's where he's from. If you asked our other manager, it would be Chicago. We've had demand from all over the country. Oddly, the Pacific Northwest and Northwest have been very strong for us, and the South has been strong too. Whatever makes the most sense, we'll do.
Brian: I also think we'd like to gauge interest in places where our readers and buyers are coming from online and weigh that against cities that we actually do know. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but Matt and I do talk about how difficult it could be to open up in a city that you just don't know, and how people would judge you and view you. Just because you have X amount of readers and X amount of customers in that city doesn't mean the rest of the city will look kindly on you if you open up there.
Are you handling all the e-commerce too?
Matt: We have an e-commerce director, kind-of sort-of. We have seven guys total and we handle everything. We're stretched pretty thin as is and e-commerce has been very time consuming, but we think we're starting to get it where we want it to be. When we said we didn't know anything about fashion or retail, we know less about e-commerce.
Brian: It's fraught with peril, but it's worth it 100%.
Do either of you have a favorite piece or line in the store right now, outside of your own brand?
Matt: I'm biased because I spend a lot of time on the Carson Street label. Brian's is Patrik Ervell.
Brian: Patrik's been my favorite designer since I became interested in contemporary design. When we started working at our respective law firms, mine was business casual, Matt's was business formal, and we had our aesthetic that we had to wear. But once I started spending money outside of my work wardrobe and really developing my taste, Patrik's stuff resonated with me.
Matt: It works out well in many ways as far as designers are concerned. Brian's much more progressive in nature than I am, and I'm much more conservative.
Brian: It's like a Venn diagram.
Matt: And there's that overlap in the middle. That's what the store represents. There's stuff for the conservative and the progressive, but it all makes sense together. So while his favorite designer is Patrik Ervell, mine would be something like Man 1924 or Inis Meain.
Brian: The beauty in it though is you'll find Patrik Ervell in Matt's closet, and Inis Meain in mine. It's not so term specific or genre specific. It's what works for you. The way we merchandise the store, you'll see those brands together.
Alright, time for the lightening round. Whiskey or tequila?
Brian: Used to be whiskey, I don't drink anymore. It certainly used to be formerly whiskey.
NBA or NFL?
Tie or no tie?
Brian: No tie.
Paris or Tokyo?
Brian: Paris—although I've had a very unhealthy obsession with Japan since I was 13 years old. I was a really big video game nerd and played role playing games, it was terrible. I've been desperately trying to get to Tokyo. I have a feeling as soon as I get there, I'm going to call you and say, "I don't care if no one's reading that article from two years ago, you need to edit it now."
· Carson Street Clothiers [Official Site]
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