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Starting a brand smack in the middle of an economic collapse seems crazy, but it worked out well for brothers Emil and Sandy Corsillo. "I was reading The Grapes of Wrath and thinking about how we were going into another depression all while I wanted to start a brand," Sandy explained to us at our recent visit to The Hill-Side, Brooklyn's newest menswear boutique. "So a lot of that drew us back to chambray and workwear and this hearty American classic stuff that was made here and not by giant corporations."
Six years later, and the duo has gone from making its signature selvage ties to designing a full menswear collection that's chock full of chambray shirts, denim, and beat-up blazers, all made from the best fabrics in the world. "Our shirts are expensive because the fabric we're using is more expensive than most brands would even think about using for a shirt," Sandy went on to tell us.
That emphasis on quality turned out to be a win-win for both the brand and consumers — originally started as a complement to the offerings in their multi-brand online shop Hickoree's (and its former IRL offshoot, Hickoree's Floor Two), The Hill-Side became so successful that the brothers decided to open a flagship store in Williamsburg last fall; a collaboration with CB2 using variations of their original patterns soon followed.
Read on to learn more about the Corsillos, and how growing up with skateboards and punk rock music in a conservative Connecticut town naturally led to running a business.
Tell us how the concept for The Hill-Side came about.
Emil: Sandy and I started working together in 2008. Sandy was working in finance and I was working as a freelance designer, and on nights and weekends Sandy was building an online store from scratch that would eventually become Hickoree's, our multi-brand store. Our conversations about what would go in this store led to the idea of us having some product of our own that could be complemented by other brands that we'd sell, and eventually that became The Hill-Side.
Sandy: With Hickoree's, we were trying to use the brands we loved to help get us attention to launch our own brand, but it actually ended up working in reverse — the brand itself is what got us attention, because it was unique product. It was a time when workwear was big and selvage denim was getting to be known to a much larger audience. We hit on a lot of those things at the same time, and it helped The Hill-Side make a name for itself early on.
How did you two decide to become partners?
"With Hickoree's, we were trying to use the brands we loved to help get us attention to launch our own brand, but it actually ended up working in reverse — the brand itself is what got us attention."
Sandy: I just kept asking Emil. I was working a job that someone gave me that I had no interest in and I really wanted to have a clothing brand, and Emil was in that business, too, to a degree. So for me, it was like, "I need to get out of what I'm doing, but I need a partner in this," and for Emil, it was like, "I can do this, but should I be focusing more on painting and a career in art?" It was lot of us going back and forth and me pushing Emil.
Emil: I think I was being cautious, expecting that it would be a ton of work and that it would take away from my ability to have a painting studio...it's turned out to be ten times more work than we thought it would be.
Were you always close? What was it like growing up together?
Sandy: We grew up in a town in Connecticut that was really conservative. It was a very segregated area of the country — very white, very wealthy, and up until high school, we were just kids that did whatever we wanted. We were really into skateboarding and punk rock music, but then high school came and it became this life where you were trying out for the football team, and where all your friends are quitting skateboarding and everyone's focusing on parties and prom and that kind of thing.
Then Emil went to Penn, and it was this urban environment where he became friends with people that skateboarded and were like the way we used to be. Then I went away to college and I was kind of lost, so I started skateboarding again and visiting Emil. It felt like we were picking up from where we left off.
Emil: When I was at school in Philly and Sandy was at school in New Jersey, I lived in a house off campus with some friends and Sandy would come down to Philly and hang out with us. To me, that felt like it was a turning point in our closeness.
It sounds like skateboarding played a huge role in your lives.
Emil: Skateboarding, in a lot of ways, feels like our only young exposure to fashion. All my cues for how to dress came from photos in skateboarding magazines, and we'd buy all our clothes from the mail-order skate brand catalogues...sometimes, I feel like the spirit of listening to punk music, writing graffiti, and skateboarding is something that we could incorporate more into the ethos of our brand.
Were both of you always interested in menswear and clothing design?
Emil: For both of us, being interested in how we dressed came naturally out of pursuing rebellion. Skating and the punk bands that we were into were influential to us, but that was also shaped by the fact that we lived in this conservative town. Also, skateboarding in the mid-90s was a counter-cultural thing to do. Skating was a crime in some cases — we'd get chased by cops and security guards.
"Skateboarding, in a lot of ways, feels like our only young exposure to fashion. All my cues for how to dress came from photos in skateboarding magazines."
It makes sense that all of our peers now grew up skateboarding, because there's probably some personality streak that's common between doing counter-cultural stuff as a young kid and then being crazy enough to go out on your own and not be satisfied with having a boss [as an adult].
Which collections were the most fun to design?
Emil: It's always the newest one. It's the blessing and curse of designing seasonal collections — whichever collection is about to be in stores also inherently feels old and outdated because we're already working on sales for the next one. But one of the great things about this weird two-season cycle is that we get to start over every six months. We don't start from scratch, obviously, but we think about how we could improve and be better, so the newest stuff is always the most fun.
Sandy: I think that the early collections were pretty fun because we were making stuff that was relatively simple but still really interesting, and we were getting attention for the first time ever. Our lookbook shoots were parties back then because the stakes weren't as high.
Emil: There's a purity to the early days that gets lost sometimes.
How have things changed since you first launched in 2009?
Sandy: When we first started, the world was falling apart. I was reading The Grapes of Wrath and thinking about how we were going into another depression all while I wanted to start a brand, so a lot of that drew us back to chambray and workwear and this hearty American classic stuff that was made here and not by giant corporations.
Emil: The technologies that a small business has access to now didn't exist back in 2009. We started on the back of Sandy building an online store from scratch because there weren't any out-of-the-box solutions for e-commerce that were both good enough and affordable enough. Five years later, you could have a Shopify site that's even better than what we had for $20 a month.
Where do you source your fabrics, and what makes them "the best?"
Emil: Most of our fabrics come from Japan. When we originally started The Hill-Side everything we made was from Japanese selvage fabrics — that was the hallmark of our first few collections, and it laid the groundwork for the thing we're best known for, which is that every season each collection is full of a special selection of fabrics.
Recently, we've been developing our own fabrics at a small textile mill in the US. It doesn't seem like that big of a deal, but the US textile industry for this type of high-quality shirt-weight fabric doesn't really exist here anymore. The stuff we're making at this small mill is really unique.
Sandy: Shirting material is very much a commodity fabric, so the fact that we're making it in the US or going to Japan — where they make that same fabric from an artist's perspective rather than a commerce perspective — that's what we mean when we say we use the best fabrics in the world. Our shirts are expensive because the fabric we're using is more expensive than most brands would even think about using for a shirt. Highlighting that is important so our customers don't think that we're trying to gouge them. There's a good reason for the cost, and it really is because we use the best fabrics in the world.
Why did you choose Williamsburg?
Emil: We started the brand out of our apartments in Bushwick, and then we moved to South Williamsburg a year after launching. We have our offices seven or eight blocks from here, and our original shop, Hickoree's, was in that space on the second floor. The first Hill-Side store needed to be where we're from.
And what's the significance of the name The Hill-Side?
Emil: The brand is named for the street on which we grew up, Hillside Avenue, but tweaked a bit to make it reminiscent of an old American brand name.
What are some of the rewarding parts about having your own clothing business?
Emil: Anything that's tangible always feels the most rewarding. Like when new samples arrive — holding those and trying them on. Or even just walking into our own store.
Sandy: The way we started the company and the way we approach everything is all about doing something that hasn't been done before, and so I get the most reward out of the products that maintain and continue to do that, because that's increasingly difficult.
Last but not least — what's next?
Sandy: Hopefully, growth. Taking things to a new level is what I'm hoping for.
Good luck! Let's do a quick lightning round: Brooklyn or Manhattan?
Black or brown?
Sneakers or loafers?
Wine or whiskey?
Sandy: Neither these days.
Tacos or burritos?
Giants or Jets?
Blondes or brunettes?
Sweet or salty?
Leather or denim?
Goodfellas or Scarface?
Sandy: I'll say Scarface.