The best independent menswear stores in America
Apparently an infamous saying exists in the retail industry: “shoes are hard and men’s is harder.” Women’s boutiques are plentiful in most major cities throughout the United States, but more often than not, men are forced to resort to the Macy’s and J. Crews of the world. As I have mentioned in previous articles, I have nothing against “mall brands.” However, there are times when guys need to go somewhere where they can rely on the staff to tell them about the merchandise they are buying.
Women speak of going to their favorite boutique and indulging in “retail therapy” – gossiping with the employees as they are given fashion and life advice. Well gentlemen, we need retail therapy too – we need the opportunity to hit up our favorite store, chat with the guys, and receive style advice. And in light of the country’s current economic situation, supporting local businesses is more important than ever.
High quality American men’s stores are an increasingly rare breed, and are often somewhat difficult to find. Thus, I have decided to compile a list of what are, in my opinion, the five best independent men’s stores in America. You may have read about some of my favorites in Houston, but I figured it would be a good idea to expand your horizons.
In compiling this list, I analyzed three key factors: clothing selection, staff/customer service, and the overall retail environment (décor, store location, etc.) Moreover, I attempted to cover multiple regions of the country. Most of these stores primarily focus on casual menswear with an American aesthetic.
While only one of these stores is located in the Houston area, most have impressive web stores and staff members that are happy to answer questions via phone and e-mail.
Mortar - Houston
Considering that CultureMap is a Houston based publication, it only seems natural to start this list with a Houston-based store. But don’t be misled: Mortar can hold its own when placed aside the other fine stores on this list. Since it has been open for less than a year, the store has received somewhat limited national attention – although that is already beginning to change. Last month, the popular menswear blog Por Homme featured Mortar’s Common Projects brogues.
However, what really sets the store apart is the customer service. Owners Iris Trent-Siff, Sacha Nelson, and Carly Webster are passionate about what they do. When you walk in the store, you will be greeted by one of them personally, and informed of the latest offerings and sales. As you peruse the well-edited clothing collections artfully placed on antique factory equipment and custom-made racks, a member of the staff will provide you with the personal attention that you deserve.
From complimentary bottles of Fiji and San Pellegrino water to style consultation to free alterations, Mortar provides it all. But most importantly, Iris, Sacha, and Carly are extremely knowledgeable about their products: as you try on a pair of Baldwin jeans, Iris will most likely tell you about Matt Baldwin’s love of mid-century modern design and how this is reflected in his clothing. Mortar is filling a significant void in Houston, and I applaud them for their efforts.
Context Clothing – Madison, Wis.
I was drawn to CultureMap, and subsequently became a contributor here, because I believe firmly in the concept of Internet-only new sources driven by crowdsourcing and social media. I still love The New York Times, GQ, and Monocle, but online magazines and blogs that don’t have Fortune 500 companies to answer to bring an unparalleled level of authenticity to the table.
It’s no secret that blogs are dictating a significant portion of the menswear scene right now, and according to GQ, “the dudes [at Context] help dictate what the blogs will be buzzing about this month.” Apparently, the vibrant creative community in Madison, which is described as a “liberal hotbed,” has been instrumental in Context’s success.
From the photos I have seen, the décor and merchandising of the store both appear to be first rate. According to Context co-owner Ryan Huber, "I do all the shop interior design and layout as well as creative direction for the web site. [My brother] Sam runs more of the bookkeeping end of things as well as web based customer support. We're a true right brain left brain operation."
If you aren’t planning to visit Madison anytime soon, visit Context’s website. You will find products by Gitman Vintage, Engineered Garments, RRL, the Hill-Side, Velva-Sheen, Band of Outsiders, and Kenton Sorenson Leather.
Context does some fantastic collaborations as well: my favorites include Momotaro + Context Grand Indigo Selvage 0701MCXX jeans (limited to 180 pairs) and the Alden + Context Rough Roy Boot. If you send them an e-mail with sizing or fabric questions, you will receive a prompt response from Sam, Ryan, or one of their employees. Scared of online shopping? Context is happy to take phone orders as well. That’s customer service.
Epaulet – New York
It’s no surprise that one of my favorite stores is located in the epicenter of American indie and hipster culture: Brooklyn, NY. Founded by husband and wife Michael Kuhle and Adele Berne, Epaulet has taken the menswear blogosphere by storm since its opening in 2008. Epaulet, however, is different from most of the other stores on this list: not only does it stock brands like Alden and Gant Rugger, it stocks its own in-house line of shirting, trousers, and outerwear.
In creating the Epaulet line, Michael and Adele have mastered the quality-to-cost ratio. Their button down shirts fit impeccably, come in a fantastic array of patterns, are made of the highest quality fabrics, and cost $135. That’s a steal when you look at comparable brands like Hamilton 1883, Gitman Vintage, and Band of Outsiders.
Epaulet’s trousers have a nice, trim fit and come in several different materials and patterns. Like Context, these guys do some pretty amazing collaborations with Alden as well – the Natural Chromexel Longwings are gorgeous and one-of-a-kind. In addition to their location in the Caroll Gardens section of Brooklyn, Epaulet has a store on the lower east side of Manhattan. Good news, Houstonians: Epaulet too has a fantastic online store and excellent phone and e-mail support.
Blue Owl Workshop – Bellevue, Wash.
As I mentioned in a previous article, Japanese fashion is influencing American menswear in a big way right now. There are few stores that carry as much awesome Japanese stuff as Blue Owl. The Blue Owl Workshop is split into two parts: a showroom, which provides a platform for smaller, independent brands to receive recognition, and an online store, which retails collections from brands featured in the Showroom and others.
This business model is unique in that it does not include a physical retail location that is open to the public. Blue Owl’s online store features a fantastic selection of Japanese denim, including brands like Kicking Mule Workshop, Left Field, Sugar Cane, and Triple Works. Full collections by Naked & Famous, Mr. Olive, and Left Field are featured, as well as shirts by Sunny Sports and accessories by Corter Leather Goods.
Need to get those new jeans hemmed but keep them looking original? Have Blue Owl chain-stitch hem them on their vintage Union Special. If you have any questions about any of their products, Jay, the owner, is an amazing guy to deal with.
Stag – Austin
Houstonians: this place is worth a road trip. Despite being open a relatively short period of time, Stag has already garnered nationwide success: in October, GQ named it as one of the ten best independent men’s stores in America. Stag features clothing from brands like Imogene + Willie, Baldwin, Burkman Brothers, Penfiled, Universal Works, RRL, Tanner Goods, and HELM, in addition to a great selection of vintage gear.
Stag is more than just a clothing store, however: the owners are avid antiquers, so every piece of furniture in the store is for sale. They also carry a great selection of Taschen books, local artwork, and other provisions. According to founder Steve Shuck, "we started the store to create a destination for goods with a rugged and masculine sensibility, and one that included more than just apparel. Between the five partners, we all offer a different spin or point of view on what men want. And, by selling everything on the floor (including the fixtures and furniture), we could ensure that there was always fresh product and a dynamic store environment."
Stag's recently launched online store is still limited, but much more merchandise will be available in time for spring.