CONTEXT opened its doors in Madison, Wisconsin in 2005 and has quickly grown from a local denim boutique to men's lifestyle shop with an international reputation. More impressively, the clothing company focuses on creating and stocking products made in historic American manufacturing plants and contemporary design houses. I recently chatted with Samuel Parker, one of the owners of CONTEXT clothing, about the roots of the operation, the rapid growth and success of the retail juggernaut, and how they stay focused on local denim and domestic products.
On your website, you coined yourself as a “local denim specialty store with a service-minded approach”. Could you elaborate on what you mean by a “service-minded approach”?
Ryan and I came from the bar/restaurant industry, where service can make or break your business. We had zero retail experience, but we knew that we wanted to bring that level of service with us to an industry where it is typically not emphasized.
What did you notice that the city was missing?
At that time, aside from the malls, Madison only had one men’s shop. We saw a massive hole in the local market for menswear. Raw selvage denim was relatively unknown, but we were wearing it and saw this particular product as perfect for us because the practical aspect of the jeans matched up well with the midwestern guy’s sense of style.
When and why did you decide to expand from a focus on denim to men’s lifestyle in general? From there, why expand to online retail?
After almost a year of selling jeans faster than we could buy them, our customers made it clear that they wanted us to round out the shop with more types of products. This was just before the heritage movement took over the menswear market, and much of what we were wearing and wanted to buy for the shop was in that segment, so our timing was fortunate. From the start, our plan was to add an e-commerce component that would perform at a level to allow us to do whatever we wanted in the shop, regardless of what our small local market could support. We wanted to create a shop that was as good as any shop anywhere, but we knew the limitations of the small Madison market. Selling over the internet to the entire world was the key to achieving this goal.
I noticed on your website that you have some interesting Saturday hours. You are open 10am - 5pm (during farmer's market) and 12pm - 5pm (farmer's market closed). Could you explain exactly what that means and the reasoning behind it?
The Dane County Farmers’ Market is one of the biggest and best in the country. It attracts tens of thousands of people and takes place only half a block from our shop. We open earlier to capture this additional foot traffic passing by our door. We’re not farmers, so we do not have a booth at the market, but we still manage to use it to our advantage.
Being based in Madison, Wisconsin, I incorrectly believed that it is always cool and rainy or cold and snowy, but you do get to experience all four seasons. Do you have a rotation of seasonal offerings or are most of your brands and inventory consistent year-round? Why?
We do have four seasons, and it does get hot and humid here in the summer. As the retail business as a whole has evolved, sales of seasonal collection goods for us has plummeted and we have reacted to that. We of course still stock some seasonal goods, but our focus is much more on non-seasonal items and on exclusive product.
Do you have style advice for a guy looking to step up his game?
Start with the staple items (jeans, boots, etc.) and buy the good ones. Focus on fit and quality, and go with your gut. When I have a guy in the shop trying to decide between 2 or 3 different jeans, I watch his body language because that will tell me which he feels more comfortable in. I always warn against a guy talking himself into something that isn’t him just because he saw it on another person or on our website, because every time he puts it on he won’t feel it and end up changing into something else. Waste of money.
For those who don't know, can you explain what exactly selvage denim is? Also, how do you feel about some of the new selvage that's come out, such as "stretch selvage"?
The term selvage refers to the closed edge on fabric woven on shuttle looms. This closed edge is formed by the single continuous weft thread as it is passed back and forth through the warp thread, and can most often be found on the outseam of denim jeans. When jeans went from workwear to fashion item makers realized that they had to meet increasing demand, so they engineered new projectile looms to replace the old shuttle looms. While these modern machines make fabric faster and more efficiently, the denim is considered to be less desirable. While it will never be mainstream, since we opened selvage denim has gained market share and thus there are many more companies producing this type of jean. It will always be our core product. We don’t have much interest in the newer hybrid selvage fabrics; our guys like ‘em 100% cotton and rigid.