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DENVER – When Mark Hansen and Jedd Rose decided to sell their own line of hiking backpacks, Denver seemed like the obvious choice for the location.
Mile High City had a pattern and sewing industry with a history of making bags and outdoor gear. Additionally, the retro-inspired, functional backpacks from Topo Designs are inspired by the active lifestyle for which Denver and the rest of Colorado have earned a national reputation.
“Colorado – Denver in particular – is a lifestyle choice, a destination for someone who wants to be outdoors and still have the comforts and benefits of a city,” said Rose, who grew up in Wyoming and now lives in Fort Collins, roughly an hour from Topo’s Denver headquarters.
Since 2008, Topo Designs has grown steadily thanks to interest from the USA and overseas markets such as Japan and Germany. Last November, the company opened its flagship store in Denver in a development made from reclaimed shipping containers.
Topo has also evolved into menswear that has an aesthetic similar to its bags: simple and functional shirt blouses, jackets and pants that can be worn to work, to dinner or even for a hike in the Rockies. While growing profit margins have certainly helped them grow their businesses, Rose credits a hospitable climate for small businesses that allowed them to open a business much earlier than planned.
“Denver has gone through some big changes in the last four to five years,” said Rose. “It’s a good time to be here.”
Denver is not a menswear capital, but Topo and other brands based there draw attention from outside Colorado for their style and quality. In the past five years, a handful of doers and entrepreneurs have flocked to this town in the Rocky Mountains with a population of around 600,000, attracted by the active lifestyle and the “small town within big town” atmosphere. Upon arrival, they said they had found a thriving “Portland-esque” business community and market for their wares among the city’s growing ranks of young professionals.
This type of company took off in New York, San Francisco, and even Portland years ago, but the ones in Colorado have a bit of a Rocky Mountain vibe, Rose said.
“Sure, you can buy backpacks and shirts elsewhere, but ours have a different twist because we’re in Denver.”
A place for ‘work-life integration’
The global nature of fashion and e-commerce enables startups to work from any location. Why is Denver where these entrepreneurs want to be?
The active lifestyle was the biggest draw for Eric Powell, founder of Ratio Clothing, which makes bespoke shirts for men.
“I don’t like the term ‘work-life balance’ because it separates the two too much. It’s more of a work-life integration, ”said Powell. “The people here know how to live.”
Powell moved from Chicago to Denver in 2011 just before the public launch of Ratio, due to Powell struggling to find clothes to match. Powell began building the business in 2010, combining his technology background as a software engineer and passion for clothing while working full time as a consultant. When it became clear that his design standpoint and formula for a good fit was finding an audience, he quit his job and moved his family to Denver.
Powell visited many American cities as a consultant. “Denver has always been the city we like,” says the 32-year-old entrepreneur. It’s big enough to offer a variety of cultural and dining options, but small enough to get around town without sitting in traffic, Powell said. And compared to Powell’s home town of Cincinnati, it’s a young transplant town.
It’s also affordable compared to other metropolitan areas that allowed Powell to grow his start-up from home. His business was boosted by the online menswear blog community when a customer from Italy came to his home in town for business to look for changes. Powell, who had just returned from a run, greeted him in his training kit.
“At that point I realized that I had to improve my game,” he said. He opened his business in August 2013 in the Lower Highlands neighborhood, a retail and dining hub near downtown Denver. It helps Ratio reach new audiences outside of the menswear blogs, he said.
Tanya Fleisher and Roy Katz also moved from Chicago to Denver in February 2013. The couple had started their winter business meeting in Chicago, sewing cotton and linen bags in their apartment. The Colorado indigenous peoples always wanted to return home, and when their business began to grow they decided it was time.
After living in big cities – Chicago, Los Angeles, Mumbai – for more than a decade, the couple wanted to live in a place where they could navigate by bike instead of hopping on the freeway. They easily found affordable work east of downtown on a small strip formerly known as the Jazz District, which Roy Katz compares to the Fulton Market District in Chicago. They also found a supportive small business community working together on events and marketing instead of working against each other.
The Winter Session headquarters doubles as a shop window and work area, where the couple and two full-time employees manufacture all of Winter Session’s bags and accessories together with other brands.
They even managed to convince employee Laura Staugaitis to follow them to Denver. Staugaitis said she was more than happy to leave the rat race behind. She says Denver’s relaxed maker environment gives small businesses room to grow.
“It’s a very competitive environment,” she said. “It’s a young scene here and we’re all working towards the same critical mass, so people don’t protect what they’re working on as much.”
“Denver fashion has its own personality”
Many of these new stores are aimed at the elusive, stylish man willing to pay more for quality goods. Its presence is known in the fashion capitals, which have had custom shirt makers and curated menswear stores for years.
In contrast to your wealthy uncle’s menswear store, which may have made-to-measure suits from Italy or Brooks Brothers, these stores tend to sell waxed cotton jackets, chambray button-downs, sweaters with shawl collars or jeans made from Japanese selvedges.
With renewed interest in classic American workwear brands – sometimes referred to as the “heritage movement” – the curated store is more of a revitalization than a new phenomenon, said Jesse Thorn, creator of popular menswear blog “Put This On”.
“Men now want to know where their clothes are coming from in a way they haven’t before, and they want to know about the quality of their clothes in a way that they haven’t before,” Thorn said. “That was the center of the ‘heritage movement’ before marketers got a grip on it, and it’s a fundamental shift in the market. The effects of this change will continue even if people stop buying defunct workwear brands and open boutiques that sell brightly painted axes. “
The rise of casual wear and national retail contributed to the decline of the men’s business in the mid-20th century, but they are back in fashion thanks to increased interest in American-made products and quality brands from abroad.
When 27-year-old Eli Cox opened the Berkeley Supply Store with a credit card in November 2012, he only stocked it with American-made brands that he liked: Red Wing boots, Taylor Stitch shirts, Filson coats, and Rogue Territory Jeans – clothing with a workwear feel, but a little more sophisticated.
In New York and Portland, “you can’t swing a cat without hitting one of these stores,” said Cox. In Denver, his biggest competition was J.Crew, he said.
After finishing his first year in the black, he attributes his success to “like-minded” millennials who in recent years have flooded the city and created a market for these goods.
Other Denver-based outlets take inspiration from the Rocky Mountain lifestyle.
When their Armitage & McMillan store opens in March, owners Darin Combs and Daniel Armitage plan to fill it with brands they learned through their work in the New York fashion industry, such as Steven Alan, UNIS and Fair Ends. Armitage & McMillan also sell outdoor gear from brands like Saturdays Surf NYC, Mt. Rainier and Epperson Mountaineering.
“Denver Mode has its own personality. It’s not the Midwest and it’s not the West Coast, ”said Armitage. The Denver man is looking for clothes that fit his lifestyle.
The Oklahoma childhood friends lived and worked in Denver before moving to New York in 2007 to work in fashion. When they saw interest in small men’s labels grow, they thought all the more that Denver might have a market for them.
Armitage hopes to reach fashion-conscious men who want to endorse the brands they read about on menswear blogs or young professionals who work in places where suits and ties are not required.
“You don’t want to go to malls that have men’s clothing departments,” he said. “These guys want to go into a menswear store that feels like a menswear store and talk to guys about clothes and the history of the brands.”
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