Erik Schnakenberg and Sasha Koehn, founders of menswear company Buck Mason, have been talking to a reporter for nearly an hour when a woman walks into their Abbot Kinney – adjacent shop to buy some jeans for her husband. He's practically living in the pair he already owns, she explains, and she wants to get him another just like it. She leaves with two.
Most men, it's fair to say, don't have the same relationship with their clothing that women do. Shopping is a chore, fitting rooms are annoying and trendiness is discomfiting. Schnakenberg and Koehn's genius idea is to help guys avoid all three, with a collection of super-basic basics they can order online or even have the company select for them.
Keep it simple and keep it quality, they reason, and customers will keep coming back for more. Never mind that the pieces they're selling – T-shirts, jeans, Oxford shirts – are the same stuff most men already have; it's what makes them comfortable.”The things with guys is we're hard on our stuff,” says Schnakenberg, clad in relaxed jeans and a T-shirt, his reddish hair peeking out from under a ball cap that teases his Missouri heritage. “You always need more white T-shirts.”
Neither Schnakenberg nor Koehn is a fashion designer – Schnakenberg, 30, worked in retail for years and recently served as director of sales for local Americana-focused label Civilianaire; Koehn, 32, is an interactive producer. But they see that as a plus: It sets them apart from other local labels that feel obligated to focus on trends to stay current.
“When we started this company, a niche was never an issue we felt strongly with,” Koehn says, dressed for his part as the tech-savvy half in straight-leg, dark jeans and a fitted, white Oxford shirt. “We just wanted to stick with what we knew, which was basic essentials that you can't mess up. … In all honesty, the more people we see pushing the trends, the happier we are, because nobody was doing what we were doing.”
The store's one-room shop, which opened in November about six months after its online component's beta launch, is refurbished to look like something in a rustic fisherman's cottage, with white painted walls and gray and tan surfaces. Patternless, simple T-shirts in blacks, navys and whites hang next to folded pairs of chinos and dark denim.
If this were a J. Crew or Abercrombie & Fitch shop, the look would come off as forced and corporate, with an aura of cubicle conformity. But on this lazy Sunday before Christmas, as crowds pack into the nearby shops and restaurants, the vibe here is almost stereotypically modern Venice: a little reclusive, a little artfully casual, dressed as if anticipating a friend to drop by before a lunch of chilled beers and fish tacos.
One of the business' big selling points, though, comes online. Like a modern-day Sears, Roebuck & Co., Buck Mason offers customers the option of having a curated parcel of quality clothing arrive at their doorsteps, giving them the leisure to try on these wardrobe staples in the comfort of their own bedrooms, keep what they want and return the rest with no penalty. Prices vary depending on the items – the “Dylan,” for example, features a pair of jeans, three types of T-shirts and two button-downs for $356. Listening to customers' demands, an upcoming, yet-to-be named package of just denim will retail for $400.
The system is a similar concept to the “discovery commerce” platform trend, which has paid off for companies like Birchbox (beauty products) and Naturebox (healthy snacks).
“There's something psychological about free shipping both ways and receiving the package and your card technically isn't fully charged, we just authorize it,” Koehn says. “You have this grace period where you're just, like, 'I can relax and try these on in my own bedroom.' For us, we found great success in that because when we can get clothes in people's homes, they're most likely to keep it already. The keep ratio is 78 percent, which is better than the industry average return rate online.”
Indeed, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that one-third of all online orders are returned. (Both Koehn and Schnakenberg admit that their success in bettering that statistic might be attributed to the fact that their demographic is inherently lazy.)
For the record, the guys don't actually know someone named Buck Mason – not that you'd be alone in assuming otherwise. “People always ask who is Buck Mason?” Schnakenberg laughs. It's actually a tribute to their fathers – his was a mason and Koehn's is a sculptor. Plus, he adds, “Buck was just a really strong American name.”
The American factor is important to the owners, who feature only U.S.-made products – often from the Los Angeles area, such as Crate Denim or Jacob Davis. Also American is the funding: They're bootstrapping and investing in the seven-employee company themselves (“We thought about Kickstarter after we launched,” Koehn admits).
While the Venice shop sees mostly locals, the online business grew in places like New York and San Francisco and now spreads across the heartland, which warms these Midwestern-bred guys' hearts. Blue Oxford shirts and indigo denim jeans, apparently, are en vogue no matter the ZIP code.
“People both online and in the store are buying the exact same garment multiple times,” Schnakenberg says. “And I don't mean the exact same garment in a different color. I mean the exact same garment. Guys don't want to do laundry. Realistically, Sasha can wear that shirt two or three times in a 10-day period and no one's going to notice.”
Given the company's relatively short lifespan, their plans are to stick to growing the basics for now, maybe one day branching into products such as loungewear or formal wear.
“Suiting is not a part of our life. Sasha and I share a suit,” Schnakenberg jokes.
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