Putting denim in Context

by Elise Diamantini

We knew the owners of Context Clothing in Madison, Wis. had something special when they predicted the boom of raw and selvedge denim back in a 2007 issue of MR. Ryan Huber, along with brothers Ben and Sam Parker, were selling brands like A.P.C. and Nudie to Midwestern guys long before they became household names.

Ben Parker, Sam Parker and Ryan Huber
Ben Parker, Sam Parker and Ryan Huber

Since opening Context, the boys have adopted more of a lifestyle approach to buying and merchandising. Huber admits, “We opened as a denim store, but in 2007 we decided to take a very specific direction and viewpoint outside of just denim. While it’s still the volume piece, we limited our denim assortment to seven really well-made, exclusive brands and apply the same approach we used to buying denim to buying footwear, shirting, accessories etc.”

Denim at Context opens at $175 retail from A.P.C. and Left Field. Mid-range lines ($220 to $250 retails) are from RRL and Levi’s Vintage Collection (LVC), and the assortment tops off with Somet ($325), Kicking Mule Workshop ($335) and Momotaro ($350). “We are definitely a destination shop for A.P.C. Left Field is 100 percent made in America. LVC is like custom-made for our store; if they weren’t doing it, I would be asking them to. It’s exact replicas of original Levi’s pieces, all made in the U.S. We’re really nerdy about denim and have become known for the esoteric brands like Momotaro and Somet (both out of Japan).”

Huber compares the 780 sq. ft. store’s aesthetic to that of a really well merchandised vintage store because they take advantage of every nook and cranny. “We don’t waste any space, but it’s done in a way that looks intentional and well organized. All the furniture we have in the store is custom-built by me and one of my friends. In Wisconsin especially, you can go to salvage yards and find great framework and fix it up. We’re very big into the reclaimed/repurposing approach to furniture.”

In order to create a welcoming environment, they support local businesses and offer the customer other things outside the clothing realm, like cured meats and coffee. They even serve their very own home-brewed beer. “If I had my way I’d sell only stuff made in Madison. I’m tapping into these other resources who make their stuff here because we like to keep it local.”

This brings Huber to another point that’s important to them: supporting brands that make in America. “My dad worked for American Motors and Chrysler, so he instilled his beliefs in buying American made cars, and American made product in general, at a very young age.” Huber remembers wanting a pair of Nike Air Jordans as a kid, and although his dad bought them, he questioned the price in relation to where they were made. “I thought they were so cool because the bottoms were red and my dad said, ‘why are you even looking at the bottom? No one will even see that part.’ He taught me to care for my things and wouldn’t allow me to play football in them and get them all muddy. His attitude stuck with me and definitely comes into play with the product we carry in our store.” Unfortunately, Huber says, they don’t stock American-made goods exclusively, but if it’s not made here, it’s from a brand that makes product with authenticity and quality, noting Japanese denim as an example.

Footwear, much of which is American-made using Horween leather, has become an important category and has been generating more sales. “We did a boot collaboration with Alden shoes and created the ‘Roy’ boot, named after my dad. When they came out, I asked my dad if he wanted a pair for himself and he laughed, saying he already had a pair of brown boots. It wasn’t until GQ featured it as one of the best items of the year that he asked me if we had an extra size nine lying around! We’ve sold well over 1,000 pairs of those boots and literally cannot keep them in stock. Once we get confirmation from Alden that our order is in production we’ll put them up for a presale in the store and on our website. They generally sell out before the shipment even comes in.”

Huber also mentions that their location near the University of Wisconsin Madison helps bring in business, not necessarily from the students, but from faculty and staff. “We get a lot of student buzz but I don’t know how many of them can walk in and a buy a $400 cardigan. I mean there are definitely some out there who have great parents, but most of our clientele in Madison is the young professional crowd.” And passionate sports fans help too. “This year especially the sports in Wisconsin have been insane. Both the Packers and UW Badgers are having great seasons, so there’s this huge buzz around athletics, which brings alumni (a.k.a. potential customers) back into town.”

When asked for his secrets to success, Huber mentions a book that one of their interns was reading. “It was one of those ‘how-to’ books on taking your blog from good to great. One of their tips that really stuck out to me was not investing in small brands because they might not be around next season. But that is the complete opposite of what we do, and what I think has kept our business so strong.” He continues, “Of course A.P.C. is an exception to that, but we like to invest in small, new brands and have had really good luck dealing with the little guys. There’s that level of energy and excitement when you’re starting a new company and it’s infectious, so you want to be involved and try to hype it. It’s what keeps things interesting and what keeps us going every season.”