October 1, 2013 by Ville Raivio
‘I’m 36 years old. I’m the co-owner and the principal menswear designer of Epaulet New York. I grew up in Long Island, New York – a suburb just to the east of New York City. I went to Catholic school throughout my early education – right up to college. My grammar school was nothing to write home about, but my high school was a pretty formative place for me. I went to Chaminade H.S. – which is all boys and has a fairly strict dress code. We were required to wear dress trousers, jackets, a shirt and tie, and dress shoes every day. Although I certainly didn’t appreciate it then, my sartorial experience there has had a large impact on my career today. For college I went to Penn State University. I majored in Marketing and International Business.
Michael Kuhle wears Epaulet by Epaulet for Epaulet in front of Epaulet
I’m married to a wonderful woman, but we don’t have any children just yet. Adele relates quite well to my style enthusiasm as she’s my business partner. We started Epaulet together back in 2008. We’ve worked side by side every day since then. So she’s clearly very supportive of my personal style, and she’s very understanding of my need to own about four times the amount of shoes and jackets that she does. I’ve met many of my customers’ spouses, and I’d say that most of them are supportive and appreciative of their husband’s love for style. The kind of things we make – and most of the items discussed on Styleforum – are tasteful, complimentary, and mature. It makes a guy look good and partners of both genders generally like that. As long as the guy’s not breaking the bank and spending all of the family money on made to order suits, then he’s usually golden.
Youth in Style
[As for my family’s reactions,] haha, we’ll we’d have to qualify what my style enthusiasm was back in the days. It certainly wasn’t Alt Wiens and hopsack jackets. My parents were none too jazzed with my collection of semi-offensive punk, hardcore, and industrial T-shirts. But I guess that’s pretty typical for your teen years. They didn’t give me too hard of a time though, and definitely understood that I needed to express myself. Especially since I wore a uniform to school each day. They did give me the freedom to express myself and be an individual though.
It’s funny – many of my customers and other guys that I know in the clothing industry share the same youthful love of counter-culture clothing. With the Internet these days, it’s easy for young people to discover menswear style. But when I was a teenager back in the early ‘90s, there weren’t any real resources for me to learn about it. I watched MTV, I shopped at the mall, I went to concerts. My father was a cop and a small business owner, and most of my male relatives were blue collar guys, so there wasn’t anyone to really educate me about suit canvassing or Goodyear-welted shoes. I was pretty clueless about all of this until my early 20s when I started working as a menswear buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue.
Well, as I mentioned, music sparked my first interest in clothing. As an awkward 15-year-old, I watched a LOT of MTV. I loved aggressive rap videos – especially Public Enemy, N.W.A, and Cypress Hill. I wanted to wear a lot of the things that I saw, so I was picking up dark jeans, Raiders hats, and Air Jordans. I kind of transitioned into a “grunge” look when that was popular, and then finally settled into the “ska-hardcore” style that still endures a little bit in my wardrobe and menswear design today.
In my early 20s, I had a progression of fashion industry jobs. I worked in marketing for Calvin Klein, then as Men’s Shoes Assistant Buyer for Lord & Taylor and Men’s Clothing Associate Buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue. My job at Saks was the most intensive, as I became the primary buyer for all menswear merchandise on their e-commerce site. I bought a lot of “fashion” goods from the likes of Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, Zegna, Brioni, and Ferragamo, but also a lot of artisanal merchandise from small makers in Europe and the United States. That merchandise was primarily done private label.
I came to appreciate the artisanal side of it then. While I was very friendly with the people from large companies like Hugo Boss and I enjoyed their enormous booze-filled holiday and tradeshow parties, it was really satisfying to work with the smaller manufacturers. They treated me like gold because Saks was a HUGE account for them. They knew everything about their products and they were very patient and willing to teach me about them. I’ve always been a nerd for things that I like, and it was fascinating to talk to the actual owners of knitwear, shoe, and accessory manufacturers. It was far and away my favorite side of the business.
At the 2011 Awards for Racked NY, where Epaulet won The Menswear Store of the Year award, with: Dylan Eckman, Epaulet Operations Director; Matt Smith, Epaulet Associate Designer; Jonathan Evans, Details Magazine; Jian DeLeon, GQ Magazine.
When Adele and I became serious about Epaulet, we knew that the artisanal side of manufacturing was going to be our future. These people have enormous pride in what they do. They make excellent products. They’re open to your designs and input. They’re great partners, and they’re people that you can grow your business with. By working with small manufacturers and selling direct to your customers, you can offer an outstanding product at a fair price. And both you and your customers can feel good about supporting the artisans who produce the items.
Fashion brands have their place, and I understand their appeal. It’s important to recognize that branding is a very real commodity for most customers. It’s not that you’re just “paying for a name” and that it means nothing. To the person buying that name, it means a lot – and it allows them to form a relationship with the lifestyle presented by that brand. That’s why the fashion industry spends so much on advertising and PR. So that ultimate customer buys more than just a bag, a jacket, or a fragrance…they buy a small slice of a lifestyle.
It’s thrilling to see all of the new small-scale and artisanal brands and shops in menswear today. This certainly didn’t exist 10 years ago (or it if did, I had no idea about it). Internet sales and marketing has really lowered the barriers to entry, and it’s great that young and passionate people can carve out their own corner of the industry. And many excellent, small factories are benefitting from it. Although the concepts of mass-retailing and lowest-cost production killed off many good factories, I feel that we’re at a sustainable point now for the ones that still exist – and the new ones that are starting up. It’s great to be a part of that.
A 20lb Northern Pike caught in Red Lake, Canada, in 2007
Photography is probably my number one passion. It’s been a huge part of my life for a little over 15 years. Before opening Epaulet, I was the product director for Lomography Cameras in Vienna, and I’ve done a number of professional freelance gigs over the years. Nowadays I mostly shoot things for our store and for our website, but it still brings a lot of joy to me. I love taking photos, collecting cameras, and teaching photography. And I feel that the quality of Epaulet’s photography makes us stand out from the pack.
Everyone around me could immediately tell you that my second hobby is karaoke. It’s hard to state how much I love karaoke. But only a very specific kind – it typically has to be in a private room (“karaoke box”) and it has to be in a group of people that I know. I don’t like doing it in a crowd or at a bar. It’s how I cut loose and I’m proud to say that our entire staff is on-board with screaming, chaotic karaoke. Our top three songs are surely “Mother” by Danzig, “Slow Hand” by the Pointer Sisters, and “First of the Gang to Die” by Morrissey. And don’t hold me to that, it seems like our top three songs changes every month. We’ve been known to do some Iron Maiden, Meatloaf, DMX, Spinal Tap, Whitesnake, and Red Hot Chili Peppers as well.
I’ve recently moved to Santa Monica in California, so I’m also trying to live the West Coast outdoors life these days. I’m trying to get out more – take hikes, bicycle, and swim in the sea. I’ve never spent much time in nature, so it’s a nice change. It definitely helps that it rarely rains here and the weather is pretty much perfect every day.
A tender karaoke rendition of California Love from 2Pac and Dr. Dre with colleague and client/friend.
Well, the base of my knowledge came from on-the-job training in my various buying positions. These days, I learn from three places: 1) the Internet, 2) my customers, and 3) my manufacturers. The internet is my primary resource, and I learn so much from sites like Styleforum and Reddit, and from all of the blogs that I read. There’s so much inspiration to be found out there.
My customers teach me and my staff about style every single day. They’ll post fit photos which blow our mind, and all of us think “wow, I never thought to put those things together.” Our customers are some of the most stylish and innovative people that we know.
And I learn very much from our manufacturers. I’ve visited most factories that we work with, and I’ve had in-depth meetings with the owners of every single one of them. If I’m going to sell high-value items to intelligent guys, then I need to know everything about how they’re made: what makes them so good, why they’re worth the money we charge. So I exhaustively discuss the production process and materials with all of our partners.
I’d say that these three elements form the basis of Epaulet’s designs. I don’t have “inspiration boards” in my office that are covered in photos of Steve McQueen and Cary Grant. I don’t come up with a whimsical collection concept each season and work to sell that to my customers. I’ll look first to my customers and work to develop the items that they’re interested in. I’ll search through the Internet and see what’s “missing” and what people are looking for. What we can make better than anyone else. And I’ll meet with my factories to find out what they’ve designed in-house and what new capabilities or resources they might have. We design a huge collection each season and a massive amount of products – all of which are released in a constant stream.
Haha, I’m definitely a man of repetition when it comes to my personal dress. I definitely have more style when it comes to dressing other people then dressing myself. But I’ll typically have one of two looks.
The first one I’ll call “Anglo-Italian Semi Casual.” It’s typically a soft sport coat, patterned shirt, knit tie, wool or cotton trousers, and calf or shell cordovan shoes. I like plaids, checks, windowpanes, and gingham. If I wear a tie, it’s typically a knit silk one – especially with dots. I have a pretty large shoe collection, and I especially favor shortwings, double monks, and Alt Wiens. I’ll wear bold socks on most days and coordinate my belt and shoes in complimentary leathers. On hot days I’ll sometimes wear shorts and sockless shoes with the shirt & jacket.
The second one I’ll call the “Mike Kuhle Default.” This is a polo shirt (either our Epaulet Luchino polo or a twin-tipped Fred Perry UK-made polo), a pair of shorts, and sneakers. I have my own custom fit 7″ inseam shorts and I must have about a dozen pairs of them. I’m pretty comfortable in this outfit, and if I’m not careful then I’ll tend to wear it every day. Now that we’ve got our new store in Santa Monica, I have to be careful about this, as it’s easy to fall into the rut. And I’ve got to keep it real and show the full breadth of the Epaulet style. So I’m going to do my best to only wear this outside of work.
For cut, I use the idea of “slim but not skinny” as a guiding principle for both my personal style and everything that I design. We make clothing that’s fairly body-conscious, but it’s not skin tight or trendy. To be stylish you have to be comfortable, and I’m always working to strike the proper balance between garments that are slim but still allow for movement.
And to digress for a second: the idea of “comfort” in menswear is often something that you have to develop. Since I went to Catholic school, I wore jackets, ties, and dress shoes every day. In really hot and really cold weather. I learned to be comfortable whilst fully dressed at a young age. I appreciate the fact that this is a strange experience for many younger guys getting into classic menswear in their post-college years. They only wore suits, dress shirts, ties, and shoes on special occasions. Being fully and properly dressed is often a lot less comfortable than wearing something casual, but it’s important to stick with it. Ultimately if you feel good and you’re proud of how you look then you can tolerate and breeze through all kinds of physical discomfort. Just ask a girl celebrating New Year’s Eve in New York City in a cocktail dress and bare legs when it’s minus 10 degrees outside. She likes how she looks and she grins and bears it. Be like her when it’s 95 degrees out and you want to wear that white double breasted jacket! It’s worth a little bit of sweat.
The Michael Kuhle Warrant Holders
I’m a big proponent of “bang for the buck.” I generally favor makers who are delivering what I consider to be the finest product at their respective price points. That’s one of the guiding principles at our store. So with that in mind, below are my favorites.
– Southwick Clothes: the best US-made jackets and suits at their price. Half-canvassed, classic cuts, dependable quality, great fabric.
– Samuelsohn Clothes: made in Canada, fully canvassed and with a bit more hand-work than Southwick. A bit more expensive as well.
– Luigi Bianchi Mantova: made in Italy, really unique fabrics and a phenomenal soft and comfortable shoulder. We’re bringing out a co-branded collection with them in the Spring.
– Primo Coat: a New York-based manufacturer who used to do Thom Browne’s production. We typically recommend them for MTM custom work. Great attention to detail.
– Kiton: okay, you’re probably paying more than you need to, but, my God, they can make a gorgeous jacket.
With Styleforum main man Fok-Yan Leung at Pitti Uomo, January 2013
– Alden: the best-made shoes in the United States. We’ve carried them for years and their popularity is well-earned.
– Carmina: brilliant Goodyear-welted shoes from Spain. Great value for the price, and some of the nicest lasts we’ve seen from anyone. Very clean production and exceptional finishing with shell cordovan.
– Vass: handmade in Hungary. Unbelievable finish and an absolute joy to wear. They really own the Austro-Hungarian style too, which are generally my favorite shoe designs.
– Ludwig Reiter: their line of classics is exceptional, and their factory is right in Vienna, one of my favorite cities in the world.
– Edward Green: Absolutely masterful finishing and burnishing. Great lasts and patterns.
– Croots England: Absolutely stunning bridle leather briefcases and weekenders. Shotgun slips too for the skeet shooters and hunters out there.
– Jaeger LeCoultre: My Reverso is far and away my favorite watch. What a gorgeous, timeless design.
– Comme des Garçons Fragrances: their scents are unique, and really stand out from the pack. I love the original EDP, it smells kind of like cinnamon toothpaste, but in the best possible way
We opened the store back in 2008. Originally we were actually a women’s store with a tiny sprinkling of mens’ merchandise. We opened in May of ’08 to a really strong reception. Our neighborhood in Brooklyn has a pretty vibrant scene for women’s fashion, and business was great straight off the bat.
Then the recession came. And…my God…there was no selling anything to our female customers. In November of ’08, there was crazy apocalyptic talk of the US economy crashing, and everyone held onto their wallets. We nearly went out of business that season.
But, we worked like hell to face the challenge and figure out how to negotiate that rough patch. It became very clear that the classic multi-brand, physical-only store was going the way of the dinosaur. We started our own in-house development and private label line (beginning with shirtings) and we launched our e-commerce site that season. It wasn’t an overnight success, but it got us through some dark days.
Since then, we’ve worked to grow our in-house and put our “stamp” onto an increasing amount of product categories. We’ve grown from one store to three and from one coast to both coasts. Our customers have been incredibly supportive and loyal, and we’ve worked to honor their attention by creating the best products that we can. So the reception has been great.
We offer stylish, well-made menswear pieces – both dress and casual – at a fair price. The fit is always precise and the construction is excellent. Everything is made in North America or Europe. We’re not committed to a single look, and we don’t create ephemeral trendy styles every season. We work to strike a balance between dependable basics like hopsack blazers and seasonal fashion items like Antelope Leather boots. New merchandise is delivered every single week, so the assortment is constantly being refreshed. And our collection works to encapsulate an entire lifestyle for our customers. We offer suitings and footwear that would suffice for a law office first interview, and we also sell casual chinos and sneakers for more easygoing occasions.
The Epaulet Lens
When I hold product meetings with our staff, I talk about the “Epaulet Lens.” That’s really the key to what we do. We look at a variety of items (things that we find personally appealing, things our customers ask for, things that can be done better, etc.), and work to see them through the Epaulet Lens. And that means the union of:
(1) solid manufacturing
(2) fair price
(3) precise fit
(4) good style
Epaulet customers can see new products that we create and trust that they tick off all four of those boxes.
I believe that we offer something that no one else does. Despite being small boutiques (both of our NYC shops are less than 1,000sq feet), you find that each one is filled to brim with exclusive product that you won’t find elsewhere. It’s possible to walk out with a full suit and cordovan shoes or chinos, a parka, and lug-soled boots. Entering our store takes you into a unique collection where every single piece is carefully considered, and the staff can tell you about all of its details and origin. We treat our customers like friends and offer high-end merchandise without pretense. But we’re also not too casual about it, and you can expect that you’ll have a pleasurable and professional experience with us. Many of our customers consider us to be their favorite brand and their favorite shop, and we tirelessly work to fulfill their expectations
Walt model pants in slim fit, caramel duck canvas
[As for my definition of style,] ah, that’s a hard one. I largely agree with the standard definition of “style” as personal and (relatively) timeless while “fashion” is trendy and often short-lived. But of course “style” will change and evolve with time.
When it comes down to it, I believe that good style requires (1) confidence in yourself (2) pride in your appearance and (3) knowledge of current fashion, in that order of importance. Every stylish man is confident. When you’re stylish, you tend to stand out from the pack, and you require the right mentality to do that. Shy people want to blend in. Pride in your appearance and attention to it is the next requirement. This can take different forms – from an impeccably-dressed banker in a 3-piece suit to a 17yo punk kid who spent 1 hour putting his hair into liberty spikes. I’d argue that both are very stylish in their own way.
And then comes the third part – acknowledgement of what’s popular and in fashion. Many guys would argue that style is timeless, and certain things are always in style, etc. This is true to an extent, but you don’t have to look very far back to find once-timeless menswear staples that became very dated. Things like 3-button, high-stance jackets. Oblique-toed shoes. Pleated trousers. Skinny ties. Just because you looked stylish as hell in 1999 doesn’t mean that the same outfit works today. Style doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and most people will not accept you as stylish if you’re not embracing some kind of current look (or currently accepted retro look, like 1950s Ivy Style or 1960s Mad Men). If your retro look isn’t currently in vogue (let’s say… a member’s only-jacket, tight jeans, and white running shoes), then most people won’t consider you to have style. But we’d be inclined to invite you to a karaoke party.
It’s a cliché to say that I’m inspired by everything. Plus that’s not true – there’s all kinds of crap out there that is distinctly non-inspirational. But I’m inspired by too many things to list here. Primarily though, it’s my beautiful wife Adele, my staff, my customers, press and bloggers that we follow, and my friends. They’re the reason that I’m able to do what I do.
Goose down cashmere herringbone vest by Veneto for Epaulet, modeled by Dylan Eckman, Epaulet Operations Director, long-standing fit model and the owner of a beard worth envying.
Here’s ten tips that have helped me along:
1. Quality Vintage is always Better than New Garbage
If you’re on a budget, then shop on eBay and in second hand shops for quality tailored clothing, shirts, and footwear. It’s better than buying a cheap, fast-fashion variant of the good stuff. More fun too.
2. Good Shoes Are Your Best Investment in Style
Get a pair of proper Goodyear-welted shoes that are made in the United States or Europe. Go second hand if you have to. The premium in price will pay off many times over in comfort and longevity.
3. Have a Tailor and a Cobbler
Proper clothing and shoes need maintenance. Tailors can reshape garments to fit you perfectly. And Cobblers can expertly maintain your shoes.
4. Don’t buy something because of a perceived discount
“Oh my god, this $5000 suit is now $900 dollars! I have to get it! Wait until I tell everyone that the suit was $5000!”No, the suit was not $5000. It may have been priced there. That doesn’t mean that anyone ever spent that or that the price was real. I remember the outrage that people felt at Gilt Groupe for playing these inflated pre-markdown price games. Don’t let yourself be fooled. The only price that matters is how much the item is worth to YOU. It’s human nature to want a bargain, and many retailers know how to exploit this.
5. Have multiples of your staple items
Most guys have a uniform of pieces that they enjoy wearing. If you try to wear the same navy blazer or the same wingtips or the same grey trousers every single day, you’ll wear them out with quickness. Get multiples of the items that fit you best so that you can rotate them. Two pairs of the same shoe worn in rotation will last much longer than 2x the duration of a single pair.
6. Wear an Interesting Watch
Watches are fantastic accessories. Get an automatic one that fits your personality. And a cheap vintage watch with character always trumps an expensive new one that looks garish. And there are plenty of those.
7. Get to Know the People at the Independent Stores That You Like
Whether offline or online, it’s great to chat with the people behind the stores that you patronize. We love speaking with our customers. Introduce yourself and all kinds of good things can happen. And the experience of shopping will be more personalized and rewarding.
8. A Proper-Fitting Sport coat is Crucial
The proper sport coat that’s well-fitted to your frame will transform everything about you. It’s the most flattering piece that a man can own. Some guys can find a perfect fit off the rack, and that’s great. If you can’t, don’t hesitate to use a tailor to dial it in. It’s often a necessity. And this is a crucial piece for any wardrobe.
9. Use Your Personality In Social Media
I may be guilty of doing this TOO much, but if you write about style, then it’s fun for your readers to beyond your clothing and outfits and into other parts of your life. The restaurant you went to, the trip you took, the dog you saw. Blogging and such is a bit of an ego-trip by definition, so it’s important to let your guard down and poke fun at yourself from time to time.
Single-breasted quilted technical sportcoat by Veneto for Epaulet
10. Be Open to New Things
Fashion and Style should be fun. It’s great to try out new looks for yourself, to learn about new designers and brands, and to rework your image every now and then. Nothing in the world of clothing is truly “timeless,” and pretending that style never changes you will miss much of the excitement. Women understand this very well. While I love that menswear is generally more serious, more detail-oriented, and slower-paced than womenswear, its important to remember that clothes are meant to be changed.’