Todd Barket knows retail. His clothing store, Unionmade, has become a benchmark for new men’s retail by catering to gents who know exquisite quality craftsmanship and have an eye for timeless fashion. We have a chat with Todd about reading, reinvention, and, of course, keeping it real.

AR — Why the name: Unionmade?

Todd Barket — When it started it was a little more heavy-handed in its birth. It was, and always has been, big on quality. That’s where Unionmade came from; that idea that is big in the States here, that unions and union labour used to do a lot of amazing quality goods, and now unfortunately most unions have dried up. We used it as a descriptor, or an idea, of quality. It’s the overarching idea that ties everything together. Sometimes people take it literally and think that unions have made everything in the store, but there are very few unions left. We have two things in the store that are still made in America by unions: Alden shoes and Filson bags. We started All-American, and then we’ve gone on to be a little more worldly, which is nice and keeps things modern.

How did you end up where you are today? (What instigated the creation of Unionmade)

Well... I was forced to. I worked for The Gap for nineteen years. I was visual director for many years, and then I went on to be the creative director for advertising. Then they started to downsize based on their business and they decided to get rid of a lot of people who had been there for a long time. I was one of them. So basically it was a job that I created for myself because I didn’t know what else I could do. I realized the only thing I knew how to do was retail. The great thing about working for The Gap all those years was that I got to work with a lot of outstanding merchants. The other part was that from a marketing standpoint it was really interesting to see how they built themselves. I had travelled a lot, and had paid attention all those years and thought maybe it was about time that I tried my own thing. I ended up creating a job for myself, out of desperation really.

As for my partner, Carl, he used to work for Levi’s and was a designer there. He worked with them for 13 years and then last April he joined me in Unionmade. He’s done a lot of the online and creative work with me, which has allowed us to get a lot more done; we’ve pretty much double-timed in the last year because of him. That’s why we’ve been able to do so much in the past year. He’s the “We” I speak of.

What was the vision in 2009 and what is it now? Has it changed a lot from when you started?

Not at all, we just added. The basis is exactly the same as the day we started. With better business and a further reach online we were able to add more lines that people had either requested, or things that I had at the back of my head that I’d seen during travel. Then it’s allowed us to have a little more space to display things properly by adding a few more stores. So that gives us the opportunity to play with concepts a little bit. Sometimes for Los Angeles we skew a little more casual, even more than San Francisco in a weird way, because the weather allows you to do that. [In San Francisco,] when we’re in we’re in, but over there we can activate. Patagonia does well for us there, some of those kinds of brands that guys find a little outdoorsy. We’re a little more outdoorsy there and San Francisco is really the location that has everything in it, because this is where we started it. We’re the same though, and it’s interesting that at the end of the day we could have five things in the store and those are the same five top-selling things from the first day that we opened. The rest is basically us having fun.

What industry describes you best? The fashion industry? The online retail industry?

We’re retail... hardcore. Like, in-store, old-school, retail. I think the benefit of being focused on the in-store side is that we are able to work constantly with our customers, so our sales staff is really knowledgeable, and the entire staff is very product-centric and they are genuinely into product. At the end of the day our focus is the product and the store experience itself. We’ve done well online, which is really great, we need it to get out into the world, but at same time I think people love to come into the store because of the experience. I think that’s what we excel in, the store.

You have a very manly, almost satirically so, store—it seems more like a general store than a men’s clothing shop. What inspired this All-American-Man aesthetic? Why do you think it resonates with so many people right now?

Well, it’s funny, we started as that and I’ve consciously taken it a little more towards the clean and modern because I didn’t want to start getting grouped with all the stores that are doing that really heavy-handed American work wear. As we progress and we do more stores and we adjust the interiors seasonally we’re going a lot cleaner and a lot more modern. We’ve got white neon, which is kind of a nod to 60’s artists, even throughout the store, design elements echo Donald Judd and his work. We’re modernists at heart, so we’re trying to bring some of that into what we do to keep progressing and to keep things clean.

Do you think this return to modernism and minimalism is happening in fashion as well?

Yeah. I think things start small and then they reach the commercial world. I mean, when you go to Whole Foods and you see reclaimed lumber on the wall then it’s probably time to move on from reclaimed lumber. I mean when the grocery store is doing it... Everything has cycles. We were never that far to begin with, even with our product displays, when we first built the store we had modern zones and we just embellished them with things that could be taken away or added. I think I learned that at The Gap. One of the nice things about the store in general are their white boxes, they are really just to showcase product. Then you can use them to pulse, with propping or the way you merchandise clothes on top of a base of them. It’s just white space, but you can play with pulsing it high or low. It’s a good formula. It’s like a gallery space, the whiteness allows your eyes to focus on the product. Really, at the end of the day, when you’re selling a thousand dollar jacket you probably don’t need to do that much to it. It should be a beautiful jacket and it should be able to sit in the store and do its thing without lots of stuff going on around it.

We’ve seen a lot of commercials in which men have been depicted as eternal adolescents that can’t assume even the most basic of responsibility. Do you think this is changing and more traditional values of honor, courage, and loyalty are making a comeback? Is that even important?

I feel that it’s the customer base in general, which I was surprised by, skews a little older. I’m pushing 40 and I feel like this is where I am in my life and I relate to the customers and where they are in their life. We get a lot of dads, people my age. Though, we do get people, even in their early 20’s, who want things that are nice, like a really good pair of shoes that will last a long time. If anything, it’s that everyone who shops in the store shares those values. They want something nice, they want something that will last, and they want something that will be around for a while. It’s more about quality rather than quantity, which seems like a different mindset these days in a world with Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) and Uniqlo and that kind of stuff. I think people still like that for some things, but they mix it up and that’s what’s nice. People can come in and spend $600 on a pair of shoes and they’ll have them for a really long time, and they’re happy with that one pair of shoes. It’s probably un-American in a way, but at the same time it is American. We’re just bucking the trend of multitude and mass-production by buying nicer things that will last longer, and that are more timeless in their styling. You can buy an Oxford shirt and you can wear it for five years and it’s never going to go out of style.

It’s probably un-American in a way, but at the same time it is American. We’re just bucking the trend of multitude and mass-production by buying nicer things that will last longer, and that are more timeless in their styling.

Some say there are just too many brands—it’s pretty noisy out there—would you agree?

There is a lot. It goes on and on. We get calls at the store daily—I’m shocked by how many people have lines of clothing and accessories—but it’s part of the culture. I think the fall of the economy set it in motion, and social media and online tools helped, but everyone has become a Jack-of-all-trades, everyone is playing around with something that they either like as a hobby or that they feel that they can do. People are producing lines, or doing things, possibly for the same reasons I started the shop, as job creation. The thing is, it’s happening all at once. And it’s everywhere. We get bowties from a guy making bowties in Minneapolis. There’s people making a lot of good stuff in Portland. Everyone’s doing something. We go to the trade shows in New York to see the new lines popping up from season to season; they may only last a few seasons, but it’s interesting to see the people coming and going in the industry.

American, rugged-traditional, ‘tough-guy’ look is very hot right now in fashion, but what other places do you take inspiration from? (If you’re a traveller, where have you been recently that excited you?)

I think Japan is always on our radar because they tend to branch off into American style in an even more American way than American [designer]s. We like the way they twist it and the way they find things that we’ve never seen before.

I think Japan is always on our radar because they tend to branch off into American style in an even more American way than American [designer]s. We like the way they twist it and the way they find things that we’ve never seen before. We’ve taken some things, and are working with brands, that embrace the same values as us: Beams+, which is a great Japanese brand, we also love Journal Standard, and Kapital—which is an amazing retail store and they’ve done a line in Tokyo. The nice part about the stuff coming out of Japan is that it’s pretty casual, it translates really well to what we do. San Francisco is such a casual city in general that the moment you become too dressy or too European it just doesn’t feel right.

What is the process of selecting the brands you distribute?

I’m really hands on, I go to New York, I go to Japan, we go to Paris every season and we work with all of our vendors and basically have an hour appointment with everybody to go through their collections and gear it how we want it. We approach each season with ideas rather than just brands. For example, in spring we were really big into outerwear and colour, so every brand we worked with we decided to take colour and outerwear from them. We built a whole colour/outerwear shop and that’s what went out in the mailer this week to our customers. I’m trying to get behind merchandising ideas to differentiate us a little bit from everybody else and small stores; like a great big idea is going on. It’s important when you walk in to see something that resonates on a seasonal basis with the customer, or a slight nod to a trend that might be appropriate for us, or a key idea.


Do you do most of the hunting or are brands coming to you?

I get approached constantly. I feel like you only have so much money in a season to work with, so usually I find stuff in our travels and I kind of keep it off to the side. Then as we open up funding I try to work with brands that I want to carry in the store. Once in awhile people approach you and there’s some interesting things that you’ve never heard of or that you haven’t seen, but for the most part we just keep our eyes open and see what’s out there and work that way.

What are the latest brands you stocked? Why?

For fall, we brought in Kapital, which is a really amazing line that we’ve been trying to get; it’s got this weird cult following which is really nice. We’re pretty excited about that. We brought MACKINTOSH jackets in, which I think are really nice, from Scotland. There’s also a really nice line called Anachronorm. It’s a really nice Japanese denim line as well, it’s all very beautiful and hand-done, so we brought that in. We’ve been focusing on planting our bigger lines and our volume lines, and now seasonally we’re trying to bring in these little lines that are like punctuation marks for the assortment of the season. The other thing we’ve been doing is working on our own pieces, or styles that we have manufactured with people who are experts. Last year we did sweaters from a really nice company in Scotland called Scott & Charters. Basically they allowed us to pick whatever colours we wanted and then we got to do the fit. We’ve been working seasonally on little things that we’re designing ourselves, and working with manufacturers to produce our own little design capsules, if that makes any sense.

You stock a lot of magazines. Why are magazines so important at a time when digital is everywhere?

The thing is, our customers still read, which is really nice. They like books and magazines and we’ve gotten a surprising amount of business from it. Which is interesting because you’d think that with digitalization print would be on its way out. But people like the tactile part of it. We do really well with Monocle and we’re already doing something with them for May, inside the store. I think that everything we carry in the store we all read and we all really admire. Kinfolk magazine is something that’s really interesting and it’s from Portland and it’s just a nice magazine about entertaining. We work hard to edit down what we like and what we recommend to people. We like everything or we don’t carry it at the store.

It seems people are getting tired of YSL, Prada and the like in favour of more obscure small-batch but still high quality objects. Do you see a pull from big fashion houses to artisan-crafted products?

For sure, though a lot of times there’s really not a lot available from these people at any given time; you have to take what you get from a lot of these people because they don’t have stock. They’re literally making the product as you speak. You have to deal with some issues when you have small batches, and when you’re working with smaller companies, smaller artisans, or you’re dealing with a shirt company that can only manufacture a certain number of shirts per week, it’s limiting, because they don’t have the quantities. But that limited idea is part of [the appeal].

We try to balance it out. Alden Shoes was kind of our big brand, and it’s interesting because the guy who might like something more European discovers an Alden shoe and they realize that the difference between the Prada shoe and the American made Alden shoe is that the Prada shoes are glued and they don’t have leather soles. And for the same price you can get something that will last you a lot longer, it isn’t as fast maybe in the styling, but it’s classic. I think it comes down to quality, even when you start looking at the luxury companies and the way that they’ve changed in terms of their production, you look back and think of the things that are offered in our store, like Il Bisonte leather goods that I think are just as nice as any Goyard piece, or anything in that vein. They’re just a little more earthy and unique. The guys we’re dealing with definitely want it to be unique. They don’t want it to be over-styled. We get a little earthy sometimes, if that makes sense, more organic feeling and not so polished. That seems to be an appeal.

Marketing and seeding a brand has become more complex—full of potential but complex. What is the most important part of marketing today? Have you had any challenges?

No. You know what’s weird? We don’t do any... at all. We do zero. And the reason for it is because I came from a place with marketing and it felt so forced and it felt so obligatory that I probably took the stand that we weren’t going to market too heavy. To this day we’re not the savviest with marketing. We do things organically and things sort of find us a little more organically, which I like, because I think that it comes off a lot more sincere and authentic than paying a blogger to blog about something that you have. I’d rather put my money into our creative projects than actual traditional marketing because it feels a little more interesting and people do appreciate it a little more. It’s a nicer option than running a glossy ad in a fancy magazine.

What are your top 3 tips for small and emerging brands that are trying to have modest but decent distribution?

Have good product, right? You have to have something that really differentiates you from other brands, so there either needs to be a quality thing or a design thing or something that makes you stand out and makes you authentic. I think that people tend to respond to things that are straightforward and beautiful; you don’t have to over-design things to sell them. Have a hook. The product speaks for itself after you design it. I think if you design something great then people with similar interests will be invested in it. Opening a store we’ve found that people share very similar aesthetic and if they think it’s good then they will participate in it and acknowledge you. It seems like a no-brainer but I think people make things more difficult than they need to be. Let things happen organically, there’s so much out there, and so much noise being thrown around, that sometimes things that are a little more quiet I think are read as more authentic. You don’t always have to shout if it’s good. Also, have some money at hand. Money is important I’ve found. It gets nerve-racking sometimes, because you’re trying to stretch yourself to do different things. It’s good to have a plan in place in terms of how you want to grow your business, and how you want to see things five years down the road. It helps to have that in your head so you kind of know where you’re going and to know that you can withstand things.

Do you think you are a threat to Nordstroms, Neiman Marcus etc.? Do you think they see you as one?

No, I don’t think we’ll ever be that commercial. I think, if anything, we’ll look at international distributors and things like that that aren’t so conventional. Even the illustrations on the website right now, they’re jackets that we designed here and had manufactured in San Francisco. So there are basically six different styles that we produced for the whole season and they each have different colours. That’s a way we’ve been going at things, making the store feel very different by offering something that you can’t find anywhere else, rather than just a bunch of lines. We thought that was an interesting way to do our own thing and not do our own line per se, but work with people who are experts in manufacturing.

How did that idea come about?

We got to the place where everyone wanted us to do a collection based sportswear line, but we just felt like the world doesn’t need another line from anybody. So we thought, there are these companies that do really nice things that we like; it started with Golden Bear, in San Francisco. It was just a few jackets, and then for fall we did a really nice thing with everyone at Indigo. We worked with with Unis Gio, who does great jeans, and Gitman, who does great shirts, and Golden Bear who does jackets, and The Hill-Side, and we did a whole big collection with Indigo. I gave everybody fabric and they designed items in the fabric, and assembled a look book. So we’ve been playing with these ideas. We have a white shirt capsule coming up. It’s going to be around eight to ten designed white shirts that we designed, and we’re going to have them made in England. So that will be another capsule, and we’ll do another Indigo capsule for fall. It’s these little capsules that we drop in during the season, that we design, that land in the stores, and it’s just special.

So you actually spend the day in the store?

Oh yeah. I still sell. I’m going to the store right after this actually, to merchandise and to get stuff down to the floor. I’m still working at the store on top of it. I actually still merchandise the stores. I’ll go down to LA and merchandise the store for two days. I’ll go to each store and still merchandise everything myself. I mean, I’m raw to say the least, but it’s good. We actually have a women’s store opening up as a concept store in San Francisco for late summer or early fall. Construction is going on right now, so that will be interesting. It will be another take.

Can you stay truly authentic and still grow, or be part of a big corporation?

I think so, but people have to be very cognisant of it. Certain people are better at it than others. J-Crew, for example, comes off as a big company but it’s still really well done and really well curated. Then when you think of Jack Spade, that an interesting where it used to be really amazing, and as it’s grown it’s gotten more mass-produced, and sometimes it comes off as a little inauthentic. If people stay cognisant, and if the quality is there, the aesthetic stays. And as they get bigger they just add more to their lines or they make the product better. It can happen. Even as we grow and I find, at least for myself, it can be a little daunting to keep up on things sometimes. Things slip through the cracks, you get a little more hands-off; hopefully the people working in your company understand the brand aesthetics and move it forward. If it’s a good brand it stands the test of time.

The number of stores built on the same core idea that drives Unionmade keeps growing, and it’s a good thing, although authenticity has a price. If you happen to be in Berlin, 14oz in Mitte is worth the detour. While you are there, pick up a copy of The Heritage Post, a new magazine celebrating heritage menswear based in Düsseldorf. Vancouver’s Old Faithful Shop in Gastown is another local classic and finally, shop Project No. 8 (now Various Projects Inc.) for other curated classics — AR

~The 2021 update: Sadly, Unionmade has closed indefinitely in 2019 after 10 years in business. Times have been rough for retail (which accelerated in 2020 as we all know). However, "timeliness/well-made" fashion has expanded as brands have leveraged technology to go DTC.

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