The artisan movement is in full swing in St. Louis, and it’s not just craft beer, blown glass, or soapmaking we’re talking about. This return to valuing craftsmanship and quality over mass production is taking place among makers of outdoor clothing and accessories, too. And they’re killing it.
Why such success? We talked to local apparel and wearables makers and found some common threads (no pun intended!). The main driver seems to be that today’s consumers are looking for a combination of quality and uniqueness, which can’t always be found at big retailers.
We also learned that many of our local makers were initially driven to launch their businesses due to frustration with what was on the market. They are inspired to create a more fashionable look that can easily transition from duck hunting to rock climbing to meeting friends for a beer.
Meet our St. Louis Makers….
Tragur: Rock Climbing Clothing with the User in Mind
Dave Harbison used to hate the way his skin felt when he was climbing at the gym and his shirt would inevitably become untucked. He doesn’t mince words when he describes these issues.
“The nylon is itchy, and you can get rug burn. I wanted a shirt that would be comfortable and always stay tucked in to keep my butt-crack covered,” he said.
Harbison was also frustrated with climbing pants. Cargo pockets are great except that, when you’re in a harness, you can’t access the pockets. And he said the crotch pulls too tight when bouldering, limiting the ability to get your foot high enough to make the crux.
Harbison decided in 2016 to launch his own line of clothing specifically for climbing. He and his wife, Thy, had been enjoying the sport for about 15 years and had gotten their two children involved as well.
“I’d started to not have fun in my real job,” said Harbison, who worked in operations for a titanium supplier in St. Louis. He knew his knowledge of supply chains would be an advantage as he got started.
Harbison found that US apparel manufacturers take only large volume orders, so after a careful search to find a manufacturer that would meet his standards for both quality and responsible use of labor, Harbison selected a small company in China to make his designs.
He started by taking a pair of pants that was close to what he wanted, marked it with soapstone to indicate changes he wanted, and got a sample back that he tested by climbing in it.
Now, three years later, Tragur has customers nationwide and a full line of climbing pants and shirts.
“We love the climbing community in the Midwest. That’s where we spend most of our time,” Harbison said. “We’re climbers, and we’re trying to do something the big companies can’t do anymore. We try to find specific problems with clothing and fix them.”
Where to Buy: Old Mountain Gear Exchange, Webster Groves; Upper Limits, Maryland Heights and Chesterfield; online at tragur.com
The Normal Brand: A Quiet Rebellion Against Pretense
Jimmy Sansone spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid and still loves camping, hunting, and fishing. He also likes to feel at ease, whether he’s in the country or the city. But finding durable shirts that were also comfortable was difficult. The “exclusive” brands were not working for him.
“I wanted to find a normal shirt,” he said. “In St. Louis, you’re 20 minutes from anywhere — it could be a duck blind. I wanted a shirt that is durable and versatile. It’s part of our lifestyle here in the Midwest.”
Not finding what he wanted in stores or online, Sansone decided to create his own shirts. He mocked up designs and sent them to a friend in the fashion industry in Los Angeles, and she had shirts made.
“People were asking me about the shirts, and I thought, ‘We could make a business out of this,’” Sansone said.
In 2015, Sansone quit his job as an investment banker and, with his brothers Conrad and Lan, launched The Normal Brand from their parents’ basement. Sansone is the eldest of 10 children, and he enlisted help from his younger siblings after school to pack up orders for mailing.
Now, the company has 35 employees and sells men’s and women’s apparel in 400 stores and online to customers worldwide.
Sansone attributes the company’s success to the quality of the product and their soft, luxurious fabrics.
“Our aesthetic is rugged but also elevated,” he said. “Creating gear for a person to wear from the city to the country is something that’s a need. A lot of people are digitally connected and need more than ever to get outside, and our clothing lends itself to that.”
Where to Buy: Pop-up store through years-end, Ladue; Thro’s Clothing Co., St. Charles; Dapper Gents, St. Louis; Fun in the Sun, Kirkwood; Splash, Ladue; Missouri Athletic Club, St. Louis; Seliga Shoes, Brentwood; online at thenormalbrand.com
So iLL: Climbing Apparel that Works On and Off the Rocks
Climb So iLL is a popular indoor climbing gym in St. Louis, but locals might not realize that its sister company, So iLL, Inc., is known worldwide. Climbers everywhere buy So iLL climbing shoes and clothing, and its products are frequently featured in athletic and outdoor publications.
So iLL’s designs are on-trend and don’t necessarily look like they’re made for climbing. Daniel Chancellor, who founded the company 15 years ago with his brother, David (they started out making climbing holds when they were college students), wanted to create products that were both fashionable and functional, as he saw a lack of creativity in the offerings at the time.
“[We wanted] shoes, clothing, and accessories that help people succeed in climbing but that could be worn to dinner afterwards or at work during the day,” he said. “There doesn’t have to be a separation between these two things.”
The company introduced lifestyle approach shoes two years ago, including a collection with Jason Momoa, star of Aquaman (pictured with David and Daniel Chancellor, top). A second collection with Momoa features backpacks, lifestyle shoes, climbing shoes, and chalk bags and will be available in March 2020.
Driven by a passion for bringing climbing to more people, Chancellor launched the nonprofit 1Cimb with famed climber Kevin Jorgeson in 2017. The mission is to introduce city kids to the benefits of climbing. So far, they’ve funded indoor climbing walls at the Boys & Girls Club in St. Louis, as well as three locations in California.
So iLL partnered with Tom’s, the casual footwear company, to raise money for 1Climb. The two collaborated on climbing shoes and street shoes for that campaign.
“Climbing completely changed my life,” Chancellor said. “The same principals I’ve learned climbing, I’ve been able to translate into every aspect of my life: family, work, and art.”
Where to Buy: So iLL office/storefront, St. Louis; So iLL Climbing Pro Shop, St. Louis; REI, Brentwood; online at soillholds.com
JORD Wood Watches: Sustainable and Beautiful
Several years ago, St. Louisan Salman Shah saw a photo of a watch made from wood. He thought it looked “cool,” so he ordered one for himself. But when it arrived, he was disappointed with the quality.
“It was more of a novelty than a functioning timepiece, and I just kept thinking, ‘What a waste,’” said Shah. “A couple of weeks, maybe a couple of months later, I saw it sitting on my dresser and thought to myself, ‘This could have been made so much better.’ Then, in a moment of serious vanity, I thought: ‘I can make this better!’”
After seven months of R&D, Shah found that the design and manufacture of a natural-material timepiece is not an easy endeavor. In fact, it’s very hard.
“The challenges associated with working with wood…would have been enough to throw me off course,” he said, “but by that time my friends and family were all really excited about the prospect of this luxury wood watch I’d been talking endlessly about. I had to see it through.”
Shah had already successfully launched one product — a professional teeth whitener — with his brothers, Amir and Osmaan, and their friend, Michael Bluestone.
In 2013, the group launched JORD, a Norse word that means “earth”. It’s pronounced “Yode” and was chosen because the watches are inspired by materials from the earth, beginning with wood and more recently incorporating stone and marble.
The company makes men’s and women’s watches from 13 types of wood. From bamboo to ebony, each wooden watch strap is crafted from sustainable resources — often old pieces of furniture. JORD offers designs that incorporate steel-interlaced skeletons, adding beauty and strength. The company also introduced wood and leather Apple watch bands.
“Wood is an incredible material,” Shah said. “Our efforts are always centered around celebration of the wood itself and ensuring that we’re creating a product that is worthy of its use.”
Where to buy: Watch Technicians, Des Peres and Creve Coeur; The Diamond Family, Ballwin; Rescued Furnishings, Kirkwood; Heulsmans Jewelers, St. Louis; online at woodwatches.com
Dakota Grizzly: Rugged Classics for Men, with a Modern Spin
With shirt names like “Briggs” and “Diesel”, it’s no surprise that Dakota Grizzly caters to men who consider themselves rugged or outdoorsy. The company name itself conjures up the wilderness and an independent, self-sufficient type of guy.
Indeed, the outdoor apparel line features the classic fabrics you might expect — flannel, fleece and wool — but the clothes are tailored for a modern fit and feature stylish elements that elevate the look and feel of the garments. In other words, these aren’t your dad’s flannel shirts. Details like suede collar bands, vintage-style snap buttons, contrast stitching, and embroidery set them apart.
Rob Rosenblum, who co-owns the company with his sister-in-law, Ellen Brin, says their customers “share our appreciation of craftsmanship and detail”. With that in mind, the company has launched a “Midwest Makers” marketing campaign to support fellow craftsmen in other lines of work who exemplify the Dakota Grizzly spirit.
This fall, 4 Hands Brewing Company founder Kevin Lemp is featured on the website, where he is lauded for “mastering the art of attention to detail”.
“[Customers] want to know the how and why of what makes the brands they enjoy special, whether it’s their favorite craft beer or music,” Rosenblum said. “The guy who wears our brand may like Sugarfire’s barbecue — I mean, who doesn’t? — but he also wants to learn the craftsmanship that goes into smoking a brisket. He wants to up his grill game at home and have fun learning.”
Dakota Grizzly’s outerwear and accessory line includes long- and short-sleeved shirts, jeans, T-shirts, and caps. Outdoorsmen will like the shorts that feature a zipper security pocket and quick-dry mesh pocketing. Shirts with quilted and micro-sherpa liners reduce the need for a coat on chilly days, while micro-suede trim and dark pearl snaps add style.
The company was launched 12 years ago as a subsidiary of California Manufacturing Co. (CMC), which opened its first facility in California, Missouri, in 1946. CMC was started by the grandfather of Brin, and her sister, Mary Rosenblum (Rob’s wife).
Where to buy: Outdoors, Inc., Ladue; Thro’s Clothing, St. Charles; online at dakotagrizzly.com
Author: Terri Waters is a regular contributor for Terrain Magazine.