I get pitched a handful of clothing startups to write about on my Forbes blog every week. Usually it is a complicated story and a wall of text in an email that I often don’t get around to reading. It takes a little finesse to catch my eye and Buck Mason did just that. How did they do it? The brand is minimalistically simple in their pursuit of building a clothing brand. They focus on the classics and the basics. Companies can get ahead of themselves trying to diversify, Buck Mason has taken a smarter approach – do one thing really well.
The founders, Erik Schnakenberg and Sasha Koehn, started Buck Mason in Los Angeles in 2013. It began with selling packages of basics that mixed and matched so any man could have a sophisticated style with one click. This developed into creating a timeless American uniform and it was obvious to the founders that it needed to start with the ultimate Americana staples: the indigo 5 pocket blue jean and the perfect white t-shirt.
And to add to it, they do their manufacturing and creation in the USA in a cost-effective manner, meaning that they aren’t charging an arm and a leg to their customers and they also aren’t compromising design or quality. Most men can’t find a high-quality, basic t-shirt for under $75 today (or if you’re Kanye, $120) But Buck Mason has been able to dodge that trend and bring it back to reality, charging only $24 for a basic white tee.
Buck Mason sells direct-to-consumer online and in their Venice Beach retail Fit Studio, which allows them to offer well-crafted garments at similar prices to non-domestically produced brands. They make everything using handcrafted, old school techniques that yield quality you would have found from great American made brands 30 years ago.
I had a chance to catch up with Erik and Sasha to learn more about Buck Mason, how they go about telling their story and what their plans are for 2015.
Alexander Taub: You started Buck Mason with a simple t-shirt and jeans – why?
Erik Schnakenberg: Over the last decade we’ve seen the t-shirt become the most worn piece of clothing by entrepreneurs and creatives. Wearing a tee to the office is the modern sign of rebellion that jeans use to be. Personally, it’s what we wear every day. We wanted to design a tee that could be worn from the office to the evening and would fit, look and feel like a $100 garment. No one was offering a great fitting luxury tee for less than $65, and we can now offer one at $24.
We’ve seen a great reaction to the t-shirt. Thousands of customers have waited up to several months on a waiting list for us to restock our signature shirttail hem t-shirt. The rounded hem also allows for hiding a little extra weight if you happen to carry it.
Denim came right after the tees, which obviously paired well. The perfect 5 pocket indigo jean with the perfect tee embodies that effortless American cool we all love. Our idea was to create a “sophisticated casual” uniform that was clean and classic. It’s all about using the finest fabrics and impeccable fit development. We’re not out there trying to reinvent men’s fashion. In fact we don’t really care all that much about fashion…we simply set out to do a few things perfectly. For us, that was a jean and a tee.
Taub: There are many new clothing companies considering themselves “startups” but who don’t really use any technology (besides a website) to sell their product. Does Buck Mason use technology in any interesting way? Where do you see Buck Mason falling on this spectrum?
SashaKoehn: I think crossover in the conversation from those that just sell something online to those that are tech companies really begins with how they are acquiring customers. I’d say that our most interesting way of doing so is more on the digital content end than technology. Of course though, technology is embedded within the whole distribution of the content and the way people consume it.
It’s funny when you look at our core team, besides Erik, we’re all developers, creative technologists, photographers and directors. I’d say it’s much easier to say we are a tech startup than a traditional fashion company.
Taub: What are some lessons you have learned in the year you have been up and running?
Koehn: I’d say I’ve learned two major lessons. The first is “stand for something and back it up.” We found early on that having a clear point of view and standing for something meaningful goes a long way with connecting to a customer.
The second is “put your focus on creating a quality product that embodies your brand’s message.” Your customers aren’t just buying your product, they’re buying your brand and your ethos. We’ve seen an amazing repeat rate because our customers know they can rely on us to deliver a consistent, quality experience time and time again.
Schnakenberg: Two things for me as well.
“Don’t bullshit your customers.” Initiatives, products and content that come from an authentic place have been the most fruitful. We’ve said a lot of things that most brands wouldn’t say. We don’t market for the masses, we say what we want within a certain realm of what we feel is tactful and sincere. We make clothing that we think is cool. A really smart guy told me to make sweaters because every guy needs one. But I don’t think sweaters are cool, somewhere my disinterest in sweaters will bleed into the creative process and the product will not be perfect. The consumer is smarter than ever, they’ll call out your bullshit. I’m way more concerned with Buck Mason being real than I am with it being loved. People just want something real. A brand can be real.
And, “whatever you are doing needs to come from within.” It seems like everyone is looking for a market to disrupt, or trying to find a product that fills a void. My first company wasn’t something I loved…it was something I thought was smart. It failed. Think about what moves you and go do that. You will be less likely to give up when things get tough if you’re in it for more than money. The adversity is there for the universe to discover if you really deserve it, if you’re really following your personal path.
Taub: Storytelling is a big part of Buck Mason. Why is that? Why is it important for brands?
Koehn: Since we started, we’ve experimented with visual storytelling and exploring new ways to connect our message to a broader audience in authentic ways.
The Homeward campaign was definitely a departure from the traditional advertising approach that most brands adopt. At a very high level, the film was all about bringing it back home. That could mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, which is what we wanted. It seemed to evoke a pretty emotional and thought provoking response from a lot of folks, as a storyteller, that is all you can ever ask for. Giving a new customer a taste of our sensibilities through a short film was a big move for us, but it’s paid off…and the beauty with good content is that it lives forever.
Taub: You seem to have only a few items on Buck Mason but in a very selective manner. What is the selection process on deciding whether to sell a new product?
Schnakenberg: The first question we ask is whether we have the capability to design and manufacture a perfect product in that category or style. There are a lot of categories we love, but we know other brands have better tools and talents…so we don’t try to compete. We’ve decided to make every product in America, so price is important. The requirements are: 1) use the best materials in the world 2) perfect the design 3) offer at a comparable price to lesser quality, offshore produced brands, and 4) efficient and consistent supply chain all the way back to fabric construction.
Further, we look at the staples in a men’s wardrobe. What do we all wear the most? Jeans and a t-shirt. Jeans and an oxford shirt. Chinos.
Discipline in color offering is something we’re manic about. We literally only sell black, white, grey, and navy in very specific shades that we’ve pondered over for months. My team getting me to approve a new color is like a kid getting a Baptist minister to approve a date with his daughter.
Every product has to be something you’d be excited to find at a thrift store 30 years from now. I hope our products have that type of longevity.
Taub: Why is it important to you to make your line here in the U.S.?
Koehn: When we started, American-made was very important to both of us. We knew that 97% of clothing purchased in America is made overseas and sold at a retail mark up of over 600%. We didn’t want to be an American brand that doesn’t make products in America. We couldn’t see having our product made in China…we just wouldn’t be happy with ourselves.
While we think some brands are creating well-made American produced products, your typical all-American guy (ourselves included) just can’t afford them. We thought, ‘let’s make something from a quality design standpoint that we can create here at home AND make it something more people can afford.’