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Shoulders of Giants: My Time at Unionmade

September 18, 2019

Shoulders of Giants: My Time at Unionmade

 

In November 2012, Miranda and I visited California on a mission. We’d been working for 2 years as a couple on downsizing—selling most of our personal belongings, anything of value. It was decided that we were finally going to make the move West, and we had no fucking idea how we were going to do it.

I’d met the then manager of Unionmade Goods (Brentwood) months before and kept in touch. When Unionmade extended a job offer to me, both of our lives changed. They did something virtually nobody in retail would do and offered me a job with two weeks to move across the country. So, you could definitely say that Unionmade got us to Los Angeles.

 

“the dirty work”

 


For a year and some change, I made that soul sucking commute from Long Beach to Brentwood. On a bad day, the drive was every bit of 2 hours each way. Five days a week. In time off, we continued planning Snake Oil Provisions, the hairbrained menswear shop Miranda and I had been scheming about for years. Our initial goal was to launch the store in some capacity (online, via pop ups, etc.) within a year of moving to California. We had a name and a concept, and once here, the work started to forge brand relationships. Luckily, this happened very organically, without much strategy on our part. I’d become a Rogue Territory customer, having bought my first pair of Stanton jeans while living in Atlanta, and I’d met Karl and Leslie on an LA visit prior to moving. Back then c. 2011, RGT was run out of a converted garage workshop in their Atwater Village backyard. The brand has grown a lot since then, but Karl and Leslie have always been in the trenches doing the dirty work themselves—a work ethic that always resonated with us.

When we sit back and talk about it all now, sometimes the path of things seems pretty damn surreal. From Atlanta, where the most interesting thing that happened in retail was Kenny Rogers coming in to buy his kids Crocs, to literally meeting real Hollywood on a daily basis in Brentwood. Unionmade gave me some incredible experiences—when Dustin Hoffman wanted to know the stories behind my tattoos; chatting about Alden with Harrison Ford; helping Jeremy Pivin take his shopping bags to the car (and him introducing himself to me at the end like I ain’t know); and becoming instant pals with the late Peter Fonda, who I will always refer to as my pretend Grandpa. I’ve always had a superpower for remembering random minute details of what folks buy and when, and it seemed somehow totally natural during my time there to know what kinda slacks Tom Hanks liked.

The most important thing that Unionmade did for me was completely cement in my mind that not only could I open my own store, but that I’d be good at it. All of my retail experiences over the years, Unionmade included, taught me the most valuable lessons any entrepreneur can learn (and something no classroom or business consultant will teach you)—what not to do. At least as important if not more so than what to do. It’s one thing to believe you’re ‘ATL good,’ but another thing to learn you’re ‘LA good.’ I think I was always natural at selling myself, but before LA, no one was buying.

 

“east coast hustle”

The folks I met and became friends with in my Unionmade days were so different from any experience ever working retail in Atlanta.  There was instantly a spirit of wanting to help like-minded people succeed. It was, and still is, collaborative and boosts you up in a way that will never get old. We came to learn (and still believe) that east coast hustle on the West Coast is an unstoppable force of nature. Opportunity exists here, and it’s accessible to everyday people, irrespective of your last name, what neighborhood you grew up in, or where you went to school. So, it was at Unionmade that I organically met and fostered relationships that allowed Snake Oil Provisions to become a blip on the map so early on. It was the brokest Miranda and I have ever been in those days—we lived on the cusp of a pretty rough neighborhood in downtown Long Beach, I drove an old as piss Scion XB with no A/C, and we ate more frozen pizzas that first year than I want to admit. But, within 7 months of landing in LA county, we were planning the launch of Snake Oil Provisions, and by October, we officially launched online and beat our own one year deadline for getting our shit together and making something happen.

I pulled double duty working at Unionmade by day and Miranda got pretty damn good at ghost writing emails to customers as me, picking and packing online orders from our makeshift in-home “store,” and shooting all our product photography for the website. Nothing we did back then should have worked. It was as ‘Mom & Pop’ as it gets. But the timing was right. We launched in that sweet spot of Instagram where it was possible to organically connect with real folks with shared interests. Before the monetization of IG, you could start an account and legit meet the raddest people in a community of people who liked what you liked, dialogued with each other, and a lot of times ended up meeting each other in real life. I know if SOP was just now launching today that it wouldn’t even be possible to experience what we did. It was a brief time and place, and it was incredible.

“we pour one out for one of the greats”

Getting back to an end of an era, any of us shops that launched around that same time (there are a few of us left from that era) owe a lot of gratitude to the giants whose shoulders we stood on. Without Unionmade and Self Edge, we likely wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing today. These shops helped to create a customer and demand and exposed folks to brands they’d never have known about otherwise. Unionmade single handedly revived a few brands you possibly own and wear today. What they did well, they did better than anyone. If you had the opportunity to visit a Unionmade store in its glory days, you know what I mean. There is a hole in retail today with their closing. To me, it feels like finding out an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time died. Today, we pour one out for one of the greats. Tomorrow, we fight like hell to never become them.

 

“retail is fucking hard”

On a side note…while in New York last month for men’s market week, I ran into Todd Barket, co-owner of Unionmade, on my morning S-Bux coffee run. It was beyond serendipitous because he’d definitely been on my mind a lot over the past few months. I have nothing but respect and well wishes for him, and it was incredible to hear about his new position with Gap corporate. I truly believe if anyone can get the brand back to the Gap of our youth, it’s him. So I’ll leave ya’ll with the greatest words of wisdom, in Todd’s own words—“retail is fucking hard.”



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