In the dead time between lunch and dinner, the second floor of Freemans Restaurant, downtown Manhattan’s culinary shrine to neo-Americana, is deserted. As the few lingering diners lazily draw out espressos amid the restaurant’s heavy wooden furniture, shabby chandeliers, and menagerie of taxidermy, most if not all are blithely unaware that just 10 feet behind them, a narrow passage leads to a dusty bookcase concealing another, altogether more industrious world.
The heavy, tome-loaded bookshelf is a secret door swinging open to reveal two cavernous rooms that contain a bespoke tailoring production line. There is a shabbily stylish fitting area furnished with a well-worn Afghan carpet and a large mirror, providing ample space for the four elaborate fittings necessary to hand-cut a superlative suit (starting price of $3,950). In an adjacent open workshop, merengue crackles out of a clock radio as four focused craftsmen operate under the supervision of a Dominican-born master tailor.
The shop is the latest extension to the Freemans fashion mini-empire, which offers American heritage style with a twist. Even if you are not among its dapper, in-the-know clientele, which includes such style icons as David Beckham, you may have a good sense of what it’s like to shop there—if you’ve ever been to J.Crew. Indeed, unmistakable elements of Freemans’s aesthetic, as well as that of other boutique brands, have cropped up in J.Crew outlets across the country—nowhere more prominently than at the menswear giant’s New York concept space, Liquor Store. According to Taavo Somer, Freemans’s intense, thickly maned founder, this is no accident.
The bespoke expansion is a high-end investment for the Freemans Sporting Club, the clothing line that sprang from the restaurant in 2005. In Freemans’s small Rivington Street boutique, racks of neat machinist shirts ($198) fight for attention opposite electric blue deconstructed sports coats ($528) and limited-edition desert boots developed in collaboration with PF Flyers ($80). Every product is artfully presented, laid out on vintage worktables or nestled between scattered tchotchkes reminiscent of a lost, rustic masculinity: steamer trunks, antique binoculars, and shaving potions.
Somer not only designed the clothes but also painstakingly constructed the fixtures by hand, even custom-mixing an original gray paint shade to ensure the walls reflected the particular 1930s vibe he had in mind. His meticulous care paid immediate dividends. The clothing came to influence—perhaps even spawn—several hipster subspecies: the barman-hunter, the barista-trapper, the line cook–lumberjack. The brand soon added two stores, including one in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Popularity presented new challenges. “When we started, there were not many people doing what we do,” says Kent Kilroe, the store’s co-owner. “Soon everyone was offering clothes like ours and presenting them in the same way.” The ultimate example was the 2008 opening of J.Crew’s Liquor Store. Stylistically, the men’s specialty shop looked almost as if the 450 square feet of Freemans Sporting Club had been reconstructed in Tribeca, brick by brick.
Freemans displayed their product on work-tables and antique cases surrounded by stuffed pheasants, vintage bicycle seats, and classic novels by Saul Bellow and Raymond Carver, among other manly volumes. Liquor Store, meanwhile, piled shirts on banquet tables surrounded by similarly idiosyncratic ephemera: old-time bowling balls, oil paintings of toy dogs, and a complete set of Harvard Classics by P.F. Collier & Son. “They copied us down to the shade of the paint colors,” remembers Freemans’s director of sales, Alex Young. “Every exhibition case was lined with the exact custom-gray shade Taavo had created by hand.”
J.Crew’s head menswear designer, Frank Muytjens, dismisses such similarities as coincidence. “You have to look deeper,” he explains. “We are surrounding ourselves with classic brands—presenting our brand in an interesting way we could not otherwise do.” The Liquor Store opening was nevertheless a lesson for the Freemans team. In the cutthroat growth area of menswear, a $50 billion market in 2010, originality cannot be protected. Mass retailers are able to replicate successful strategies as quickly as knockoff shops in Chinatown pump out fake Louis Vuitton handbags.
Somer, who has yet to set foot in the J.Crew doppelganger, remains philosophical. “If you trade in the undiscovered and uncharted,” he explains, “you know it is going to become copied and overrun.”
Steven Alan, a Tribeca-based outfitter whose charmingly boyish boutiques could each pass for Wes Anderson’s bedroom, is another merchant who has learned this lesson firsthand. Like Somer, the soft-spoken designer backed into fashion as an outsider, having trained in film and photography, similarly motivated by a desire to make clothes suited to his peculiar taste.
Alan experimented with cuts, fabrics, and weathering to satisfy his vision of “an understated logo-less look with a classic American sensibility.” On top of perfecting his line, he set about identifying classic brands: jackets from Barbour, handmade shoes by Alden, Levi’s denim, Russell Moccasins, vintage Rolex watches, and Filson bags. The upshot? A singular, multibrand men’s boutique anchored by veteran rugged brands. The effect, when Alan opened in 1999, was groundbreaking. In the words of menswear consultant and stylist Michael Macko, “Beau Brummel took us out of smock coats and put us into suits. Steven Alan gave us permission to be rumpled.”
That permission, it seems, extended to J.Crew. When legendary mass merchandiser Mickey Drexler took over the national purveyor of classic preppy style in 2003, he redirected the brand toward an aspirationally stylish yet affordable modern male wardrobe. The washed-out shirt quickly became J.Crew’s basic staple. Alan recalls the time when rival stylists—not necessarily from J.Crew—began to come in his store and snap up his inventory with corporate cards. “It really bothered me at the outset,” he admitted, “but it’s impossible to police.”
J.Crew’s subsequent expansion to more than 300 stores has been explosive. Among the core strategies propelling this success was the decision to make J.Crew a logoless label and the incorporation of classic American “cult brands,” in Drexler’s words, including … Russell Moccasins, Filson bags, Alden brogues, and even vintage Rolexes.
Alan is reluctant to discuss the overlap between the companies, but admits that “buying samples from other stores is standard operating behavior. You expect competitors to take details, but not to replicate a style in its entirety.” Muytjens acknowledges the existence of influential independent retailers in the men’s space but credits his design team with the identification of the particular brands his store distributes or collaborates with. “We are naturally attracted to brands with a heritage that tell a story,” he explains. “They are brands we grew up with. Our fathers and grandfathers wore them.”
Either way, tastemaking independent concerns such as Freemans and Steven Alan are caught in a quandary. Do the creative risks they take further their own brands or merely act as research and development for mass-market chains? Their predicament receives little sympathy from within the fashion world. “We don’t get challenged by knocking off anymore,” explains fashion brand analyst Tom Julian. “Ten years ago we would get offended, but now, when Missoni have a line at Target, blatant knockoffs are considered to be homages, or products that are ‘inspired by’ another designer.”
Alan recognizes he has little recourse. “You can either sue, which would mean a multiyear, money-draining lawsuit, or learn to adapt,” he says. “We have adapted.” Somer concurs. His bespoke tailors could be viewed as a savvy strategy to take the Freemans brand to a price point that the mass marketers, with their emphasis on Asian manufacturing, low costs, and disposable clothing, dare not attempt. “We are like Herbie the Love Bug racing J.Crew’s souped-up Chinese-made Hummer,” he says.