There really is no other store like Epaulet. Whatever the new big thing is in (#)menswear, it’s almost a guarantee that Epaulet will have their own version of it, and that it will be an incredible deal. They’re almost like a men’s only H&M or Zara, except super high quality. And made entirely in the first world. And way more tasteful. Okay, so nothing like H&M and Zara. The speed with which Epaulet is able to synthesize the trends, and how entirely on-point design- and fit-wise each product is, is truly remarkable. At the same time, there’s nothing remotely disposable about what Epaulet does. Though their goods may be turned around fast, they are not a fast fashion label. Epaulet makes on-trend pieces, that you can – and will – keep on wearing long after the trend has passed.
2013 was a year of tremendous growth for the brand. They opened a new west coast location, began offering made-to-order shirts, pants and suits, rolled out a slew of new European-made products, and introduced the super-affordable, all US-made EPLA line. I recently caught up with Epaulet co-founder Mike Kuhle to talk about these developments, and more. Here’s what he had to say.
Well Spent: Tell us about the EPLA line. What led to its creation, and how is it different from the Epaulet main line?
Michael Kuhle: This past August, my wife and I moved to Los Angeles to have a baby, open a temporary storefront, and start production out here. I love LA and it’s inspirational to live here. There’s an exciting energy all around, and it’s tough to complain when the weather is predictably, tirelessly perfect every single day. Yeah, there’s traffic. But there’s also Chicken and Waffles. It’s all about tradeoffs.
Anyway, this is a great place to make products because of the huge scale of LA’s garment industry. So when we came here, I knew that it was our chance to really create a new collection of products – all made in Los Angeles. This city does casual pieces on a world-class level, and my Associate Designer Matt and I set forth to merchandise an Epaulet Los Angeles collection. It’s the more casual and laid back perspective on what we do, much in keeping with LA as a feeling. EPLA is denim, knits, sneakers, casual jackets, and fleece. It’s washed, dyed, soft, and broken in. Epaulet New York is more tailored and more formal. Although you can wear the collections independently, most of our customers will look to mix and match the pieces.
Though made entirely in Los Angeles out of American and Japanese fabrics, the EPLA pieces are considerably more affordable than comparable pieces from other brands. How are you able to keep the prices so low?
Our pricing comes from a few avenues. First, Epaulet is a direct-to-consumer brand, and we don’t wholesale our merchandise. So that cuts out one entire channel of markup. Second, we take fabric and materials sourcing VERY seriously. Whenever possible, we’ll buy fabric off-price or out-of-season, allowing us to lower the final retail price of our finished goods. And third, we establish a fair full price for every item that we design. Many customers won’t buy something unless it’s on “sale,” and your typical retailer plans for this. They’ll make something 30% more expensive than it needs to be so that they can still make their full margin when the item is 30% “off.” We don’t play these games, and we aim to have a fair price on the first impression.
In addition to the EPLA goods, you recently added a number of European-made goods to the shop as well. Can you tell us about some of those items, and about the factories that are making them?
We’ll often look to Europe for our highest-end pieces. We’ve got our exclusive Vittorio jackets by Luigi Bianchi Mantova, which are gorgeous and supremely comfortable unconstructed sportcoats. We have VASS shoes, which are entirely handmade in Budapest. We visited their factory last year, and it was mind blowing. It was officially the only silent shoe factory that I’ve ever been to – because there was not a single machine in the assembly area. And there’s a lot more: our Epaulet Los Angeles sneakers from Portugal, knit ties from Italy, cashmere scarves from Germany, bridle leather bags from the United Kingdom. We’re working to source things from all over the place.
Another new offering is custom made shirting from Gitman Bros. How did that partnership come about? What are some of the ways the shirts can be customized?
We’ve worked with Gitman Bros. for years, and we’ve maintained a great relationship with them. About a year ago, I pitched the idea of merging their “Perpetual Service” made to order system with our in-house Epaulet fit. Gitman Bros would then make our shirts to our specs with their fabrics, their construction, and their customization options. It’s been very successful so far and it’s a fun program for our customers. The guys who like the fit of Epaulet shirts can now order them with their choice of fabric, collar, buttons, and pockets. We offer Made to Order wherever we can and it’s become a crucial part of our business. It’s especially good for the in-store experience, where a customer can set up an appointment to come in and spec out his own chinos, trousers, shirts, suits, sportcoats, or shoes.
As if all this new stuff wasn’t enough, you’ve got even more new Epaulet and EPLA products coming out in the next few months. Can you tell us about some of the pieces you’re most excited about?
One of the best things about a direct business is that I can work close to the season and create things quickly. I don’t have to plan things out a season or two in advance. We’ve got a ton of things in work, but some standouts are:
Our “Kamigata” Japanese denim jacket
Shawl collar bomber jacket
Overdyed and salt washed oxfords
Garment Dyed Rivet Chinos
Casual cotton sportcoats and cotton suit separates
Epaulet x Northern Watters Heirloom handknit cardigans
Private label goodyear welted shoes and boots
Private label sneaker and casual shoes
Epaulet x Vanson leather jackets
Slub cotton henleys
Indigo-dyed crewneck and hooded sweatshirts
Tubular knit t-shirts
Deerskin small leather accessories
Oh, and I’m working on a leather Western shirt. That might be insane. But hopefully insane in the right way.
As the number and variety of Epaulet’s offerings continues to grow, are there any products you wish you could make but can’t? Are there any that you won’t?
I’d love to make watches, but it’s hard as hell. I’ve looked into doing private label manufacturing in Switzerland, but getting the right movements is difficult, and watches are very sensitive items in terms of branding. It’s a lot of investment and a really long-term proposal. But maybe someday. I love watches and it would be really exciting to create something unique.
I won’t make anything that’s disposable. There’s enough of that around. I love clothing, shoes, accessories, and all of the things that we make. I’m really only interested in designing and selling quality pieces to people who like and appreciate them. And I’m only interested in working with factories that respect their employees, and with employees who are proud of the products that they make.
You guys do a great job of keeping your offerings current with what’s happening in menswear. That said, of all the trends that have come and gone during Epaulet’s lifetime, have there been any that you refused to embrace? Are there any trends that you’d like to see come to prominence in the future?
Anyone who claims that mens fashion can be “timeless” is just lying to themselves. It’s meant to be dynamic and it’s meant to change. If things didn’t get old, then you wouldn’t need things that are new. And new things bring excitement. Menswear changes much less than womenswear, but you still have to move with the trends if you’re going to stay relevant.
I try to keep focused on my customers and I work to create things that they want. Rather than making something purely trendy, I’ll try to see the trends through our Epaulet “lens” and offer a clean and wearable version of them.
Denim will be a huge part of our future collections, and I’d love to see creative wash and dye effects come to prominence. I get that there’s a lot of horrible pre-faded and hideous off-color denim out there, but it’s possible to do it in a tasteful way. And done right, it can lend a fresh attitude to the standard slim-straight jean, as well as give you something creative to tie back to more formal menswear pieces.
In terms of trends that I won’t embrace, I’ve learned that it’s never a good idea to answer that question. Good chance that you’ll end up eating your words. I bet that the kid wearing A Bathing Ape in 2006 didn’t imagine that he’d grow out a beard and wear a tweed blazer, Alden Indy Boots, and a Barbour Bedale in 2008. The All-Heritage-All-Day Iron Ranger guy of 2009 probably didn’t think that he’d look like a Milano Bon Vivant in double monks and white pants in 2011. But change and trends aren’t a bad thing. They keep things exciting. As they say, fashion is fleeting but style is timeless.
For price and purchase info, visit Epaulet.