“Nothing can be precious.” That’s how Aaron Levine, the Vice President of Men’s Design at Club Monaco, sums up his personal style, but during our discussion I came to realize that this was actually how Aaron views his work as a whole. Club Monaco is no longer the small brand it once was, yet Levine continues to steer the ship as if it were a schooner, and not a barge. He forges ahead, taking the brand into uncharted territory, while all the while maintaining the balance of the brand so as to not tip the whole thing over.
Sure, Levine’s time at (comparatively) smaller labels like Rogue’s Gallery, Hickey, and Jack Spade has certainly influenced this agile approach, but Levine seems to revel in the actual work that goes into creating each collection. Club Monaco (who we should say, is a client of Paul + Williams) has evolved significantly in the three-plus years that Levine has been at the company, but he still finds himself squarely in the trenches, and there’s no other place he’d rather be. We spoke with Levine about this design approach, the way in which menswear has changed, Club’s Made in America initiatives, and even Belgian Shoes.
ACL: You’ve been designing for Club Monaco for three years now, in that time how do you think men’s design has changed at the brand overall?
Aaron Levine: Overall, men’s design has changed in the last, it’s almost three and a half years now, it has changed in that time in terms of, we have upgraded fabrics, we’ve upgraded materials, we’ve upgraded trim, we’ve upgraded and recalibrated fits, and then on top of everything we have cleaned up and edited and honed the aesthetic. So, it really has grown up over the last three and a half years.
ACL: With you saying that about better materials, better quality, and considering your background was at smaller brands at a time when quality became really important, is that something that guides your design at the start?
AL: No. You accrue information and you hone your eye and hone your abilities as you get older and the longer you do it. I think sometimes maybe that’s the starting point, it’s definitely thought of, but I think in terms of when I first sit down and I start to develop a collection, I start at the top with what I want it to say overall. And then as you get into it there are places where you’re pushing more experimental pieces and then maybe there’s places where you’re pushing superb quality, like in tailored clothing.
To that end, the notion of “pushing,” was something that wasn’t really at Club when you joined, but now I’ll have conversations with friends or people that frequent the store and we’re always surprised by a bolder pattern or a fabric. Do you aim for that?
It’s not Alice Cooper shock value or anything. We definitely aim to push the brand forward constantly and with that we get to have some fun. We like to challenge ourselves here. For sure.
You say pushing forward, do you have an end game?
No, there’s no end game. There’s never an end game.
So, you don’t visualize a “perfect customer” in your mind?
No, that doesn’t exist I don’t think and the brand will never stop evolving. I think that’s actually a trademark of any great brand, you constantly see evolution.
Would you say you design for yourself then? Or for various guys?
We like to create what we believe is our point of view for that season. From that point of view, obviously you’re going to evolve season to season, and then when we’re designing, you know it’s funny because sometimes we always keep our guy in our head. We want them to react positively to what we’re putting in the store and we’re responsible for how they react when we put it in the store. You know, we can’t put something in the store that’s going to walk our guy. That would be disrespectful of us to the consumer and we don’t want to do that. But at the same time, we like to take a couple pieces and throw some curveballs.
And then sometimes, the reactions to those curveballs are incredible and will trounce the reactions to something that we thought might have been safe. It’s like they’ve moved on already, so it’s an interesting customer.
Do you think that that’s because the Club customer now, especially compared to when you started, is paying more attention to menswear as a whole?
Yeah, to everything. To their appearance as a whole. That’s exactly it, it’s not specific to our brand, I think that our customer is smart. And with that they care about their appearance, or their grooming and they’re finding good stuff in the store. That’s super rewarding, when you start to attract customers that you’re like “wow those people are shopping at our store and they’re finding good stuff.” And we’re retaining, for the most part, the customer that’s been with us for a long time, so that’s exciting.
Do you worry about that though, because I feel, and obviously I don’t know if you share this opinion, but you’ve been at brands for over a decade now, and I feel like the consumer now moves quicker than ever.
The first thing and the main thing that you need to focus on is the product. If the product is good and if the people that are working on the product have a strong emotional connection, because what we do is emotional, it is, I don’t know if you can say it isn’t. You try to separate the business aspect from the emotional aspect, but we get excited about the stuff that we work on, we get really genuinely excited. And if you have that reaction when you’re working on the product and you show it to some people around the office that have different sensibilities or a different taste level than you do, and they get excited about the product, then you’ve got a good base.
And then at the same time you’re still keeping your brand in your mind. My name is not on the door, so it’s like “what’s best for the brand?” and we run it through that filter and we picture in our heads how it’s going to look in the store and how it’s going to look in each zone at Fifth Avenue, how it’s going to look at our shop in Redchurch in London, and how it’s going to lay out, and how the next drop of product on top of that, how it’s going to settle in with the product that’s already there. There’s a really challenging puzzle aspect to all of it. It’s not just like “ah this is cool, we’re gonna put it in the store,” it’s like “well that piece might be cool, but it also effects every puzzle piece around it.”
Coming from a smaller brand background, do you ever feel overwhelmed?
Yeah, cause we have a higher responsibility to the people that work here too. We’re an organization and we’re a big team and it’s not just about making a cool shirt. We’re responsible to the customer, we’re responsible to all the employees here, it’s gotta be thought out, and it’s gotta be a cognizant effort for each entire different collection and that can be overwhelming. But, if you’re not terrified sometimes than what’s the point.
Is that why you have tapped denim brands and Golden Bear and these outside brands that do make a product that is really strong and helps to round your collections out?
One hundred percent. We like to work with people that do things specifically and authentically that we don’t do. That helps in rounding out the ultimate assortment by the time it hits stores. That and it’s a lot of fun to work with some of these people. It’s inspiring. Golden Bear is tremendous to work with, Shirley (Winter, the President of Golden Bear) is awesome. We’ll get excited, we’ll find a vintage piece and then we’ll modernize it through some of the details that we do to it. And we inquire about certain skins because we might get stoked on a certain skin and want to apply it to this body and then we’ll send her the vintage sample, we’ll work with some of the amazing fits that she already has. It’s this group effort and then by the time we get the sample back it’s killer. We just got some in the other day, today actually, that are awesome. It’s exciting.
The American made collection and the focus that you all have placed upon that, does that come from your background or was that a response to the customer?
When I first got here there were toes being put in the shallow end of Made in America. And then we got full on into it, we really became immersed in it. We rounded out the entire collection, and partnered with factories. Not only do we think it’s viable from a business standpoint, we just love partnering with the people that we’ve partnered with. Everyone in the office, it excites them, it excites us internally, so it goes back to what we were talking about before – if we’re all excited about it then we know it’s viable.
I feel like you hit that at just the right time, as Made in America was what consumers were concerned with. Clearly now though, that doesn’t seem to be the most important factor in what’s driving menswear.
As a genre.
Right. Made in America, two, three years ago was the pinnacle, but our priorities seemed to have shifted a bit. Do you consider that?
Everyone’s gonna jump on a hook, and then it might not be for the best reasons, and then the aesthetic might not be right. What we’re doing that’s special is that we’re partnering with people that do things a certain way and authentically. We get to create product with them, after running it through our filter, so it has our point of view, our aesthetic, but it maintains all the positive characteristics of what that Made in America moniker means. We get to work with these great factories that specialize in this product and we get to literally drive four hours and be in a tailored clothing factory and sit down and innovate and make new product and get excited with the guys that work in the factory and then put our spin on it and put it in our store. That’s awesome.
And that’s incredibly unique for a brand of your size.
It’s incredibly unique. There’s stuff we just dropped into Redchurch Street in London that we literally made four pieces of. We don’t have a big team here, but we have a passionate team, and we have a team that’s on board. For the product that we dropped into that store, it’s exclusive, and limited to that store. We made three pieces of a specialized sportcoat, but we did four different coats, and we made a couple specialized topcoats, and it’s loved. The whole thing is though. That doesn’t mean that we love that anymore than anything that we do in our concept collection. I’ve never worked anywhere where people are as passionate and focused on product, and good product, and product that fits, and works than here.
With the way that deliveries work for Club, and as you work on all these different collections and initiatives, is it difficult for you to take a personal step back and think “Ok, what is actually inspiring my design?”
All the time, but then that’s where I have to grow and where I continue to grow. We have to stay diligent and focused on that and it comes back to the people that we partner with. If we don’t take that step back then we’re going to end up with something in the store that doesn’t belong. Even if that one specific thing is there and is cool it can throw off many other pieces around it. So, yes, that was challenging. I had, and have, so much to learn and think through in terms of process and yes I’ve messed up and yes I’ve learned lessons but that is how you learn lessons. You think “oh that had that result and that happened, I shouldn’t do that again.”
You and I had a very important conversation once about how you learn more from bad experiences than good ones.
One hundred percent.
I think about that all the time.
And that’s something that you need to appreciate. There’s a couple ways to look at it, I mean there’s all sorts of shades of grey and ways to look at it I guess but you can kick your feet like Charlie Brown and be down, or you can suck it up, learn a lesson and be better. That second way is the path.
Do you have anything coming out that’s exciting for Club?
We have a couple things that are really exciting. We just opened a London store in the East End in Shoreditch on Redchurch Street which is awesome. We are going to open at the Prudential Center in Boston this Fall, we’re going to open on Prince Street in New York City, we’re gonna renovate that store. And we’re partnering with Mr Porter in September in a big, big way. That was really, really exciting. Of all the people they get to buy from around the world, to be part of that is exciting. It’s big.
Business over the weekend at Redchurch was gangbusters though. But then in that you get to see how to make it better for next time. How do you move it forward?
It’s that two brain thing of here’s the wins, here’s the losses and they meld together immediately
Totally, you get to celebrate the positive successes for approximately thirty seconds before you’re like ok, now we need to make sure it looks that good in January. You’re like “Yes! Oh God!” That’s the thing, you asked if there’s an end game, there’s no end game. You’ve got stuff in the pipeline that you’re working on and then when things hit the store and you’ve got things in the pipeline you’re like “we could tweak this.” So even the things in the pipeline, you’ve gotta constantly be on your game, and constantly analyzing and picking at things. If you’ve got that feeling in your stomach that you could do things better you’ve got to make it better, go back and make it better. Yea….no end game man.
Well, my end game, is that I have to ask you about Belgian Shoes, because you happen to have the best looking pair in my opinion, how did you get into them?
I was at Hickey Freeman and I was a total scrub. I got there and I was the little brother and there were some really smart looking guys there. That’s where I honed a taste level because I could get a little out there but I learned how to hone a personal style, which eventually just feeds into what you’re naturally comfortable in. But, I wasn’t naturally comfortable with myself until I noticed some success in business. Being in a field that I wanted to be in, and was passionate to be in, automatically things started to click into place. It’s like “oh my gosh, I don’t have to do that, I can do this.”
There were a couple guys in the office that were wearing Belgians and at first, like the Buddha says, you make fun of what you don’t understand, so I’d say “what are those shoes with the bows on them? I’m not buying those things.” And then, I’d walk by the store, and then I went in the store, and then I finally pulled the trigger and yeah, they’re like slippers man, they’re cool, and they’re the ultimate “FU” shoe. It takes a certain personality, that you can be like “I don’t care what you think, I’m wearing shoes with little bows on them.”
And then you beat ’em up and you try ’em like sneakers and they get better, and better, and better. They just become phenomenal. Those ones that I have that are so nasty and gross, I wore ’em a couple days last week, they’re the best. They have duct tape holding them together.
Do you find then that you’re more in touch with your personal style or are you at the point that you just can’t even care?
That’s the point that I’m at, I just don’t care anymore. Well, I do care, I do care, and I still get really excited about the things that I buy.
But it’s not a daily thought?
No, no, no, not at all. But when I buy something I have to really want it, because the first twelve, thirteen years that I was working in this field, I would just collect stuff and hoard stuff which I still keep and still have, but on the day to day I simplify. Nothing can be precious, everything has to be something that I can get down on the ground in. That’s the way I work, I’m on the floor, I’m laying a buncha stuff out, I’m moving things around, I’m playing with it, I’m playing with swatches and boards. It’s not this precious thing where you walk into an auditorium and you look at things from afar and say, “yea, I want that, but can you make it more like that?” You’re in the mix, you’re sweating, your sleeves are rolled up, and it’s a lotta fun.
Personal style reflects that, you gotta be able to do that stuff in it. And then, if I step outta that comfort zone and I walk outta the house, I’ve done this before, and I don’t feel like I normally feel, I gotta go back and change. I gotta go back and put on my favorite shirt.