Label Spotlight: Epaulet

It’s always the brands I feel I can’t say enough good things about, that I wind up having the most difficulty posting on. It’s because I like them so much. I wind up feeling an intense pressure (self-imposed of course) to get my writing as close to perfect as I’m capable. Unfortunately, that pressure more often results in my composing bloated, seemingly endless passages of hyperbolic praise, that I then have to cut and whittle down, so as to not look like a total shill (or pretentious bombast). In the end, what should have only taken me a matter of minutes, will have dragged on for hours – if not the whole day – and I still won’t feel as though I’ve managed to convey all I hoped to. In case you haven’t already figured it out from the title of this post, Epaulet is one of those brands. And this paragraph has taken me a very long time to write.

Based in the Boerum Hill area of Brooklyn, Epaulet is part boutique, part clothing label, and one the hardest to write about brands I’ve ever featured (that’s a compliment). In addition to stocking a who’s who of menswear blogosphere favorites (Mark McNairy, Gitman Vintage, Tanner Goods, Alden, etc), the store also produces its own fastidiously crafted and styled line of tops, bottoms and neckwear, all of which boast a quality of construction, and attention to detail, on par with every one of the labels mentioned above. Their range is so good, in fact, that I could (and would) happily outfit myself with it, and it alone, if the opportunity ever arose to do so (and as much as that may sound like precisely the kind of hyperbole I alluded to in the previous paragraph, it’s the honest truth).

Epaulet produces every one of its garments in the USA, mostly in NYC’s garment district, using top quality fabrics from around the globe. While the company takes great pride in all that goes into the sourcing and construction of its goods, it also strives to keep its prices fair, with most of its pieces costing $20 – $50 less than the comparable designer items. Epaulet also endeavors to keep all of it’s production as sustainable and ethical as it is able, choosing to only work with suppliers and manufacturers that pay their employees a fair wage, and keep their environmental impact low. As I said, I could easily turn my back on every other brand out there, if it meant a closet full of Epaulet.

Co-owner Michael Kuhle was gracious enough to answer some questions through email. Here’s what he had to say.

How’s business?
Business is great! Both our sales and our collection are steadily growing every season. We’re extremely grateful for all of the support and loyalty that our customers give us. We have an INSANE amount of good things coming for the Fall.

How would you describe Epaulet’s code of ethics?
Our key mission is to offer high quality, well designed, and consciously produced goods. Rather than limiting ourselves to one approach (i.e. everything is vegan, everything is made in the USA, everything is Americana, etc.) we work to apply our standards to a broad range of products and styles. Every product that we carry has a back-story and a justification for both its price and its presence in our shop. Our customers can trust that everything we sell has been carefully considered and vetted.

I’ll take one of each, please. Thanks.

How is Epaulet able to maintain its code of ethics while producing affordable clothing?
Our in-house merchandise is sold directly to our customers. We don’t wholesale it to other domestic retailers, so we’re able to offer excellent construction and fabrication for the price. We’re meticulous about design and fit. Many of our customers find our shirts and trousers to be better made and better fitting than competitive items at twice the price.

Although we produce our collection in relatively large quantities, it’s always done in regular small batches. We generally receive new shirts, pants, and jeans every week to two weeks. This keeps the assortment fresh all year long.

Why do you think bigger companies can’t (or won’t) do the same?
We’re definitely a niche brand. We’re extremely privileged to have an intelligent customer base who appreciates our style and supports the principles behind what we do. They love clothing and footwear, they understand what goes into it, and they have high standards for what they buy.

This will always be a small segment of the population. Most mainstream customers will quickly sacrifice quality for quantity and price. In the true mass market, it’s almost mind-blowing how cheap clothing can be. The quality is low and the employees who make it and sell it are generally underpaid. But it’s cheap, and that works for many customers. Quality is not a priority for them – at least in clothing.

I see a lot of change for the better though. With education and experience, a lot of customers are trading up to better quality and more ethically made merchandise and food. Chances are it will always be a minority of the consumer population, but hopefully a large enough minority to sustain and grow the population of ethical brands and manufacturers. Education is really the key to that.

Selvege denim by the world famous Cone Mills.

Do you think Epaulet’s code of ethics has helped to attract customers, or play any other role in the success of the company?
Absolutely. Our customers can spend their money anywhere, but they choose to buy from us because they trust us. Getting a great quality shirt at a fair price is good. Having that shirt produced with care at a facility that treats its employees with respect and pays them a solid living wage is even better.

Are there any specific new ways Epaulet is currently working to increase its level of social responsibility? If yes, what are they?
Ethical production shouldn’t be and cannot be a charity mission. The products will be significantly more expensive than the mass-produced competition, so they have to be significantly better.

I believe that Epaulet and businesses like us are providing a crucial service to the manufacturers and heritage firms that we work with. By bringing fresh ideas, modern designs, and innovative marketing, we’re able to successfully produce and sell ethically made products to a very style-conscious consumer. We’re creating demand for ethical products in a very real and sustainable way. And we’re extremely privileged to have customers who trust us and purchase them.

Alden shoes is often cited as a great example of this, and for good reason. Most of the design is done by people like us – shop proprietors who create a unique Alden model, give it a name, and sell it to our customers. They’re a responsible firm who make excellent products, and they bring in their store accounts as partners in the product development process. Good jobs are maintained, great leather is used, quality shoes are manufactured, independent stores are supported, and customers get an incredible end product that’s comfortable and beautifully crafted. That’s pretty much perfect in my eyes.

A few of the highly-covetable Alden for Epaulet styles.

On a personal level, do you think the growing demand for socially responsible products is a fad, or, representative of a larger shift in consumer culture?
I definitely feel an overall shift in consumer sentiment. Once you’ve tried choosing quality over quantity, it’s difficult to go back.

The crucial thing is for socially responsible products to be BETTER products in most ways. Our trousers are ethically made, but they also fit really well and stand up to a ton of wear. They’ll easily outlast a cheaper pair from the mall. Grass-fed beef is ethically raised, but often tastes a hell of a lot better too. Fair trade coffee from brands like Stumptown is not just good for the producers and nice for your conscience, it’s also mind-blowingly excellent. As long as there are concrete quality advantages to ethical production, then its appeal can continue to expand. It seems like a luxury compared to mass-market goods, but that’s because mass-market goods are too cheap – not because ethical goods are too expensive.

I believe that the upcoming generations will recognize the value of this more and more. The internet and social media is an incredibly important component of this. I’m always amazed with how many young people and college students buy our products. Rather than buy a dirt cheap shirt from Old Navy, they’ll happen upon us – a small store in Brooklyn. They typically learn about us through internet blogs and forums. After doing their research, they’ll buy our shirt that’s made by hand in the United States of quality fabric from Japan. The shirt fits them well and looks better than any of the mass-produced junk at the mall. Their choice is not only ethical – it’s practical as well, because the item is radically better. That’s progress.

Right now there’s a strong and growing mass of quality and ethical brands making excellent products. They use honest marketing, get great exposure, and inspire customer loyalty. While this will most likely always be a counter-culture to the mainstream, it will be a powerful positive force in its own right. We’re honored to be a part of it.

For price and purchase info, visit Epaulet.