Calling all the shots

by Elise Diamantini

Randy Brewer, a longtime buyer for San Francisco men’s stores, opened his own shop in Berkeley in 2010.

Randy Brewer“To be honest, when I left Villains, I was pretty tired, and was looking for something that would reinvigorate me,” confides Randy Brewer, a veteran buyer. “I always wanted to open a store on Fourth Street in Berkeley, Calif. and when a space opened up, I had to take it.” After 23 years of buying for prestigious specialty stores like Villains and Rolo, both in San Francisco, Brewer applied his experience and knowledge into a new concept all of his own.

He opened Convert in 2010, a fashion-focused, eco-minded store. “I’ve always been concerned with environmental issues. I wanted to use some of my influence as a buyer to work with brands on creating more eco-friendly products. So instead of buying established eco lines, I’ll either buy from brands that are just getting into it, or work with them on creating a greener offering. We don’t stock exclusively eco-friendly goods, but everything has elements that are.”

Brewer has worked on collaborations with J Shoes (12 SKUs: six men’s and six women’s) repurposing deadstock leathers into new styles. He also designed an exclusive women’s vegan shoe line with Jeffrey Campbell. He came up with an interesting collaboration with RVCA, too. “I worked with RVCA for years and wanted to continue the relationship with my store. They weren’t doing anything eco-friendly and they wanted to, but just weren’t ready yet. So, in the meantime, they decided to give two percent of sales back to an eco-friendly charity of my choice. The first year we donated the portion of sales to the Surfrider Foundation.”

The sign in Convert’s front window reads: Take your fashion to a sustainable level. “Its purpose is to get people talking and interested in what we’re doing.” Brewer says the biggest obstacle was getting people to believe that eco-friendly clothing can also be fashionable. “It’s important for me to keep fashion first. Which is another reason why I like to work with brands on creating eco-friendly pieces that fit the store’s philosophy.”

Brewer is making an effort to stock locally-made or made in the U.S. goods. “I buy a lot of lines that are made in San Francisco such as Curator, Tellason, Field Scout and Headline T-shirts. Most of the denim I carry is made in L.A. There’s a great T-shirt source in downtown L.A. called Groceries Apparel. They do private label and use materials like hemp and organic cotton. Pact Underwear is a company based out of Berkeley that makes organic underwear and socks. We got their socks in at Christmas and sold over 500 pairs. They’re organic, fashion socks for $10/pair—people just loved them.”

Brewer says denim was a standout last year, but mentions they’re not a denim store (it’s about 20 percent to total). Hot lines included organic styles from Naked and Famous from $140 to $180 retail, and raw denim from Tellason jeans at $198 retail.

There’s also been a surge in non-denim bottoms, noting AG’s matchbox fit as a best-selling style. “A lot of guys are used to that wider leg style and will try these on and love them. The matchbox is more fitted silhouette but they have a little stretch that keeps that level of comfort. I’m pushing my men’s pant business much harder. Colored bottoms in shades of grey and subtle herringbone fabrics have been strong.”

Nau is a technical line that uses all organic or recycled materials. “It’s something a guy can wear out to dinner or go ride his bike and stay warm and dry. It’s been a really great staple for us. Especially since a lot of the guys in Berkeley are used to buying their wardrobes from stores like North Face and REI. It’s been a challenge to get guys to look at clothes a different way, but the eco-aspect is a good transition for this customer into more fashion styles And it makes them feel better about taking a chance on something because at least they know they’re being eco-conscious.”

Convert’s early success has led Brewer to open a second store, Convert Shoes, (set to open March 15th across the street). Convert Shoes will stock sneakers and boots in casual and dressier styles from brands like Red Wing, Timberland, New Balance, Tretorn and Toms Shoes. In the original location, shoes comprised 20 percent of business, so he’s looking to fill that void. “We have a lot of kids on the street so we’re going to do more kids clothing and accessories. Right now we carry a small amount of T-shirts and shoes, but will increase that. I also want to find some more eco-friendly accessories lines, so I think the combination of that will make for a smooth transition.”