An Interview With Michael Cepress
To paraphrase Steve Jobs, the world of men’s fashion online isn’t just accessible, it’s ultra-accessible. Sites like www.20Jeans.com offer jeans for just 25 bucks and claim to craft “upmarket, responsibly sourced premium denim at a fraction of the going rate.” Another popular option are try-before-you-buy programs like Frank and Oak’s Hunt Club, which let your pick outfits at home. It’s clear: online clothing stores are doing everything they can to get their wares into men’s wardrobes – and it looks like with much success.
Frank and Oak, for example, has vastly expanded their selections (and price points, low and high) in the two years since their website www.frankandoak.com went live. It just announced an aggregated 46 years of time spent by customers browsing their site or mobile app in 2013, not to mention tens of thousands of shirts and chinos sold.
What does all this disruption mean for men’s fashion, and what should we think about when engaging with the digital fashion world? To learn more about the collision of men’s fashion and the digital world – and the impact on Seattle fashion culture in particular – I turned to Seattle fashion designer and UW School of Art instructor, Michael Cepress.
Cepress is no stranger to the digital realm. He raised over $50,000 dollars in a highly successful Kickstarter campaign to fund his new American Dreaming collection. Cepress’ work was shown in art galleries and performances around the world, and has been featured in the New York Times, The Stranger, and Seattle Magazine, and many others. Just this month, Cepress announced that he’ll be designing new custom wardrobe accessories for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra to wear at their spring performances at Carnegie Hall
I sat down with Cepress in his gorgeous International District studio to talk in-depth about how to run a Kickstarter campaign, the hidden costs of cheap, ultra-accessible clothing, the power of a man’s wardrobe, and his role in shaping Seattle’s fashion future.
The first thing that came to my mind when looking at your career and interactions with the digital space was your very successful Kickstarter campaign to fund American Dreaming. Tell me a bit about what led you to go that route to fund your collection.
Well, the need for that sort of fundraising is so multi-layered. A little earlier than this time last year, November 2012 into January 2013, it just became incredibly clear to me that in five-plus years, I had seen a lot of growth and progress in what I was doing but you sort of reach this point – and I think any small business owner reaches this point – where you need more types of resources to work with. I also wanted to expand and elaborate on everything I’d done up to that point which meant bigger collections, more elaborate collections, and just elevating the entire experience – being able to get the clothes out in higher quantity, bigger shows, bigger, better photos, sort of making a whole campaign out of the entire MC label. And when it comes time to raise some money you need to figure out how the heck you’re gonna do it, right?
I knew that I had a community around me and I was most interested in wanting to find them and give them and me together a chance to rally for this new way of working that I saw myself doing. The concept of Kickstarter really brought me in is the fact that it’s a merging of energies, it’s not completely one-sided. I didn’t have to go to investors and try to find however many people willing to offer ten grand a piece or more. My entire campaign was really funded on 10, 20, 30 dollar increments. There were some high dollar increments too, but it’s that combination that Kickstarter facilitates, it’s an online medium that just gives you this place to bare your soul. To very clearly state who you are and what you’re trying to do, and not just be open to the people who already know you and what you have to offer, but become part of this global community of people who just want to know what’s cool and what’s happening and to throw a little money at it.
Going back to the subject of community: what kind of work went into galvanizing the community you were aware of, and what did you find out about that community that was different than you were expecting?
Word-of-mouth is so important. I think the interesting thing about building a community online is that there still has to be this in-person element, you know, this sort of human-to-human element that can’t exist entirely in the digital realm, at least not in my case, and, if I have my way, it never will for me. My end goal is about people coming together and me connecting with people. Of course, the online medium facilitates that, but at the end of the day it’s about one person getting excited and telling someone else. Also, in my case, I had a bit of star power that came in and helped out. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis both endorsed the campaign at the tail end of it which made a world of difference, which was so cool, because then by way of their outspoken support for me, I was getting donations from kids all over the world. Suddenly, it was wild – within literally two minutes of Macklemore putting that endorsement on my page, I had a hundred donations, all ten bucks each, just this wash of money coming in.
Macklemore’s a very thoughtful guy. His team is growing very rapidly and it’s become this huge thing but at the end of the day, my sense of him at least, is that he’s completely connected and one of those people who is very person to person, trying to keep it real and keep some soul in the whole thing.
So, at the end of the day, any tips or tricks from your experience for making a successful Kickstarter campaign?
I think the number one thing is to not mess around with something you’re not passionate about and don’t try to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, especially your own. I think it’s about honesty and Kickstarter being a platform for passionate expression of what you’re trying to achieve. Yes it’s project-based, but I have also seen a lot of very flimsy projects not do well on there because it’s clear that the intentions behind them aren’t very genuine and they’re exclusively about pushing a product or making money and not engaging with someone’s bigger intent, or their bigger life path that they’re truly invested in. So with Kickstarter, and Indiegogo or any of the other ones, especially where you get a chance to post a video, you can be as transparent, honest and direct as you need to be. To me, making the video for my campaign had this sort of live television feeling to it – I realized in the midst of it all that I am talking to the entire world by way of making this video (see below). It’s like in the 50’s Ed Sullivan looking into the TV and addressing all of America in that 30 minute program. And it’s so cool to realize we all have that opportunity now to look into one another’s eyes directly like that.
My work has been seen and it’s traveled the world, but this was more personal. This was really me, my business, my label, my collection and my inspirations for the collections, and it was so personal and intimate in that way.
Moving on from Kickstarter, let’s talk about the emerging world of online men’s fashion stores popping up that claim to offer better quality than standard brick and mortar stores, super cheap jeans for 25 bucks because they’re “cutting out middlemen,” and so on. You’ve been critical about the “cost per wear” you get out of cheap clothing, and I’m curious to know what you think the possible benefits or drawbacks are to this emerging world of online men’s fashion.
“Cost per wear” is such a centerpiece of my philosophy and having never met you face-to-face knowing that got to you, that’s good.
Well, a lot of it is still factory made overseas, and there’s huge problems with that. Slave labor is still a very real thing. And worker’s rights are still violated endlessly, if they exist at all. You kind of have to go brand by brand, company by company, see how the clothes are made, but also one important thing with garments, it’s not just where the clothes are being made, but where are the textiles from and how are the textiles made, where it’s dyed. There’s this sort of backward research you have to do, like the etymology of the garment to figure out what is happening all the way along the line in the full production cycle to get it to where it is.
I’ve become very, very skeptical when the result is a product that’s sold in the United States, the fabric is made somewhere else, it’s dyed somewhere else, it’s designed somewhere else, and you’re able to get it for 20 bucks. Let’s just stop and think about that for a second. Someone is still making money – everyone along the way is still making money by selling a garment for 20 bucks. So, you know, simple math kind of tells you that something weird is going on there and that we need to think about that.
One of the other things you’ve said that really resonated with me was that we need to “slow the hell down” when it comes to fashion, referring to the seasonal fashion cycle, and now we’ve got shops like Frank & Oak releasing not just seasonal collections, but monthly collections.
It’s insane. It’s speeding it up. I don’t think it’s doing much for a wider view of what one’s wardrobe should do for their lives and how it should function in their lifestyle. For instance, almost all the online men’s retailers, style-wise, are within exactly the same category. They offer the same type of product. You don’t see any online men’s retailers offering kaftans, or head wraps, or shirts without buttons and a collar. It’s all of a certain type. So culturally, aesthetically, stylistically, it’s all very focused on one specific thing, and, consequently, making the world’s view of what young hip men can and should wear relatively narrow. There are no options beyond pants, shirt, vest, jacket. So they work the angle of “we’ve got something new and fresh and interesting” and in some ways they do, new fabrics, new patterns, maybe colors that you can’t get somewhere else. But if we think about a more global perspective, a more multi-cultural perspective, what all of those brands offer is specifically a white, western point of view of how to dress, and I think we need to be a little more open than that.
And you know, Indochino, Frank & Oak, lots of these brands are doing a great job of getting decent looking clothes on men, they’re really getting a lot of product out there, they’re putting some power in the hands of the consumer in letting them have some choices where they wouldn’t have otherwise had choices, custom fit sort of things. Who knows, maybe some companies out there who could prove me wrong and that very well may be the case. But that’s my sense.
I want to go back to something you said earlier. You said that all these sites maybe don’t offer a full picture of what a man’s wardrobe should do for him. What do you think that is, what should a man’s wardrobe do for him?
That whole “cost per wear” for me is central, because I think what a man’s wardrobe, or men and women alike it doesn’t even matter, is about finding a sustainable system for yourself. It’s what we’re all trying to do, or I hope we’re all trying to do with our homes, with our food, with our cars, we’re all trying to find the thing that leaves the smallest footprint, we get the most bang for our back, and something that allows us to live with it repeatedly for years on end. Sustainable businesses, sustainable architecture, sustainable fashion. Online retailers and the fashion industry at large – a lot of designer labels, that whole “Fashion week” thing – I’ll be curious to see how much longer it’s around, because I don’t think it can sustain itself much longer. I think it’s hugely wasteful. Designers pour hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars into collections, only to sell a small part of them, and then to have to raise the money and do it all over again, and it’s just wasteful. And I think it’s now our responsibility to find ways to make our own wardrobes less wasteful. To make sure what we do invest in is designed and built to become timeless, to have longevity, to gain resonance and meaning. It’s why everyone is so attracted to family heirlooms or things from their own family history. That notion that the amount of love and life you put into them actually increases the value of the experience. So sure, it might be a little expensive up front, but ultimately, you save so much money.
So, how do you get that message of sustainability out when there is so much momentum, in the digital space in particular, behind increasing the speed of fashion consumption?
I think it’s a matter of education. I think that part of the deal is that independent designers like myself, and I take on this responsibility completely, are part of a growing community of people who feel the need to do this, that we have to be the teachers. That we have to set new models and new ways of doing things that otherwise might not have been there. So, if someone comes in here to come and look at the clothes and we have this type of conversation that I gladly share over and over again, telling them that one way they can be part of the solution is in their own closets. And I think that can happen in schools as well, you know, any fashion or design school needs to have instructors who aware of that bigger picture and are advocating for it.
On a somewhat different note, there is an ongoing discussion of Seattle as a city of innovation, having more than its fair share of global brands, getting more than its fair share of attention, especially in the technology realm. I wonder how you think that narrative of Seattle, as a beta city with a disproportionate amount of cool stuff going on, applies to Seattle’s fashion culture, and to your own work as well.
I think that Seattle’s putting itself on the map in a way it hasn’t for a while. Mark my words, I think that in five years, Seattle is going to be a cultural hub in a way that it is a technological hub. I think that the evidence for that to happen is so crystal clear. We have international music stars, artistic personalities, cultural contributors that purposefully keep Seattle as their home-base and as their identity. I like to think I’m part of that, you know? I like to think that what I and some other local designers are trying to achieve is to try and do that with fashion what’s happening here with music, with drag, with theater.
Seattle is already a cultural hub and it’s only going to grow and expand. I think that there is a technological hub around here can be in service of that. There can also be more crossover between the arts and technology and that Seattle has the infrastructure for that to happen. I was watching this documentary about Steve Jobs the other night and it was talking about the early roots of the computer industry and how it was essentially divided into two camps of hippies and nerds, and a man like Steve Jobs sort of straddled that line where there’s an element of very artistic organic free thinking, and then there’s this other side a very calculated, precise, left brain, technology, and that the melding of those two becomes this very special combination. In a way I think that’s what our city is doing. All the parts are here, I just think they need to come together.
What part specifically do you want to play in this rapidly evolving narrative of Seattle as a hub of innovation and culture?
That’s a big question. As an artist and as a designer, I’m trying to offer folks something that allows that sort of self-realization to happen. I’m trying to design clothing, and I think in time, I think my scope will continue to grow, maybe even beyond fashion, but clothing specifically as this amazing tool that people can use to enrich their sense of themselves, and their sense of the culture around them, and become active participants in their own lives, and their own culture. I have this ability, opportunity, as a designer to facilitate that. So, that’s what lights a fire under me. To continue to work, to continue to keep the designs as alive and fresh and soulful as they can be, so that everyone that interacts with them, and then has this means of being an enriched version of themselves by way of it. So I think that’s what I have to offer.
Be sure to check out Michael Cepress’ work and all his upcoming projects at www.michaelcepress.com.
(This interview was edited and condensed)