Steven Alan & The American Aesthetic

BY Taylor Rebhan

Steven Alan has become an iconic name as of late, carving out an enviable niche space in the fashion world through his unique updates on classic American styles. His clothing line features clean silhouettes, quality fabrics, and is largely made in America. 

We’re proud to have our American-made leather goods, watches, and bicycles in Steven Alan stores—and we’re definitely looking forward to the event today (Saturday, the 28th) at Steven Alan’s Atlanta, GA, location (1170 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta, GA 30318), which features a performance by the Black Lips

We recently had the pleasure of sitting down to chat with Steven about how he got his start, why he prefers to manufacture in America, and what advice he has for any enterprising fashion entrepreneurs out there.

I love the fact that there are no prominent logos on your clothing. Is that an aesthetic choice, or does it hold deeper meaning for you?

Having clothing without big, bold logos was kind of one of the impetuses that got me started. I started with men’s clothing, and what I found was that most men’s clothing was either very logo driven or street wear kind of clothes—you know, t-shirts with big branding things, or it was just cut really awkwardly for me. The sleeves didn’t fit properly. It was like wearing a dress most of the time if I wore it out. And the materials were too stiff. It was either street wear or it was really formal, like suiting, or it was club clothes. But there wasn’t the aesthetic I was going for: a new American aesthetic that was not just rehashing what’s already been done.

Your clothing manages to be both classic and innovative, as well as casual and—not formal exactly—but dressy. What’s your secret?

No secret. I think it’s just the process. We start with fabrics, and just work into the palette, and sort of see everything up on the boards. The silhouettes evolved over time. I started making clothes in 2000 and it’s evolved over the years and it’s definitely something that at the beginning I viewed more as a private label brand, and then it kind of slowly evolved into a brand where we had a presentation every season, but that only happened about four years ago.

The Steven Alan brand has expanded far and wide since its founding. How do you maintain the integrity of the brand through that kind of large-scale business growth?

The rule for me is, if we could grow and get better, instead of grow and get worse, then I was in favor of it. And I feel like today that’s what’s been happening. The team has gotten that much better and by having more stores and so forth we’ve been able to get into more categories than we were in before. One example, say, would be knitwear. Normally when you make sweaters you typically have to make 300 units of the sweater, but 300 units if you have only three stores or four stores is huge. But if you have more stores you can kind of advertise over more stores, and it allows you to do more things and be more creative and get even better materials and work with even better mills. 

And so, on every level, that’s been our rule, because we do want to be very hands on, so how can we be even more hands on and be bigger? Well one way is to sort of streamline all these processes, for even something as basic as lining for a blazer. If you’re bigger, you can customize what that lining will look like. If you’re smaller, you have to take whatever’s available. And still we’re very small, as a brand we’re tiny. But when compared to where we were, we’re certainly a lot bigger. It was our mission to get to a certain level, but we’re not opening any stores in 2014 and we’re just focusing on what we have.

How large of a role did growing up in NYC play in getting you to where you are now?

Well, it was really out of necessity more than anything else, in terms of starting it off. I wanted to make things, I wasn’t going to make a lot in terms of quantity. And it’s like, well, there’s a garment center, let me walk over there. Then I went over to the garment center. Then you see retail stores stocking fabric, and you go in there. Then you talk to some guy who’s been selling fabric for over 50 years, and he asks, “What do you want to do?” I want to make some pants and shirts, and he suggests some good fabric for that. And then you ask someone else, where can I make these? Well there’s a factory upstairs, or there’s one down the street, ask this guy. And you just do it, and you learn from your mistakes. Hopefully. That’s been the process for us. We try to make as much as we can right here, because we like to be hands on.

That being said, people think it’s easier to produce in your own backyard than to produce overseas. It’s actually the exact opposite. It’s actually much easier to produce overseas than it is to produce domestically. But we still choose to do it. And the reason why it’s much easier to produce overseas is that if you want to make something, say you want to make a blazer overseas. You just send them a tech pack, and they send you a sample, and you send it back with your modifications, and that’s that.

But if you’re making it domestically, then you have to go to the fabric shows, you order the fabrics, which usually come from Italy or Japan, and have the fabric sent to your cutting room, and then they cut it, and some of it has to be washed and you have to source all your buttons and lining and trim, and all that stuff, and at the end of the day no one’s ever 100% right. Plus you have to finance it as it’s coming in.

But when you source it overseas you simply say, I need 300 pieces, and they say okay here’s your price.

So what would you say is the main advantage for producing domestically?

Well, it’s just control for us. For example if you look at some of these big big brands. They might typically have two or three patterns of, let’s say a plaided shirt or something, and then two solids, and then that’s it. And the reason that is the case is because when you’re producing overseas you have to make like a thousand units per style per color, or more. It’s not really feasible to make lots. So for us, we can do smaller quantities. We can produce a hundred of something if we want. And we can decide, let’s change the color. So it’s a lot more flexible.

You recently started making watches. Is there any possibility for a collaborative timepiece with Shinola down the road?

I’d love to do that. We talked about it briefly, and I definitely hope to.

Do you have any advice for someone who has decided to set out and start their own fashion company?

I would tell them to make sure they have a clear point of view. And to know where it’s going to be sold. I think that a lot of fashion people, they don’t really look at the business plan. There has to be a business plan. You have to look at it and say, where is this going to be sold, what are the other brands that this is going to fit next to, and why does the store need to buy this as opposed to what they’re already making? And really do the research, so that you have a really clear point of view and know there’s an actual market there. So it’s not just something that you want to do. And if there’s not a market, is it something where you can create a market? But don’t just hope there’ll be a market.

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