Context: Madison, Wis.

by MR Magazine Staff

By Sydney Burdick

You can call Context the little store that could. The tiny 780 square feet contemporary men’s shop in Madison, Wis., has that particular “it” factor that has made it a fast favorite in the city.

Wisconsin natives Sam and Ben Parker (from Madison) and Sam’s friend Ryan Huber (from Kenosha) opened Context in 2005. Sam Parker and Huber concocted an idea to sell the best selection of raw and selvage denim in the area while both were managers at a local bar. Sam’s younger brother, Ben, later came into the fold as a co-owner.
Context specializes in featuring a wide array of domestic denim, and international brands that are rare to most American shops. Asked why they would open a denim store when many are struggling, Parker says the raw and selvage denim segment is picking up within the market.

Their current bestsellers include Nudie Jeans, A.P.C. and Earnest Sewn. Sales volume in 2006 reached $350,000 and Parker anticipates growth to reach $500,000 in 2007.

Parker says they’re all “denim geeks” who can talk endlessly about the intricacies of denim, from history to craftsmanship. They secured a business loan and invested personal funds to get the store off the ground, but with no retail experience, the Parker brothers and Huber have been learning as they go. “We knew about shopping the market for things we liked,” says Parker, “but we didn’t know the nuts and bolts of the retail business.”
The only store of its kind in the area according to Parker, the guys are tapping into Madison’s “diverse and well-traveled” young professionals. Context sits comfortably in the middle of the city’s nightlife scene of bars, clubs and restaurants, attracting a lot of foot traffic. Because of this progressive group of customers, the trio is pushing conscious consumerism by supporting brands such as American Apparel and Nudie Jeans who are in line with fair labor practices and social awareness.

Window-shopping can tell you a lot about a store, and it’s that extra something that pulls people in that can make or break a business. Huber, a University of Wisconsin grad with a concentration in artistic video, injects his knowledge of art into the merchandising and decor. Two large projection screens sit in the windows, enticing customers’ curiosity with streaming video. The store carries work by local artists and Huber says the clothing is also merchandised as “displayed art.”

The guys are not letting a lack of formal retail training hinder their business—or their goals. Plans for 2007 include building an e-commerce site as their majority revenue generator, keeping the brick-and-mortar space as a “playground” to test new concepts and opening a women’s store.

Fast facts on Context

Established: December 2005
Size: 780 sq. ft.
Merchandise mix: 100% men’s—60% denim, 30% sportswear, 10% accessories
Volume: $350,000
Retail philosophy: “To carry the best selection of raw and selvage denim.”
Key vendors: Nudie Jeans, Atelier LaDurance, Imperial Denim, Kicking Mule Workshop, A.P.C., Edwin Japan, Earnest Sewn, Iron Army, Crate, Corpus, Filippa K, Nice Collective
Retail pricepoints: Denim $60 to $285, T-shirts $15 to $60, knits/wovens $30 to $200, outerwear, $200 to $600