It's not always easy to believe in the American Dream. We live in a time when corporate capitalists control much of what we consume and upward mobility is at an all time low. Being able to find honest examples of creating something from nothing is tricky, but Mr Andrew J. Livingston is living proof of the possibility. In only 3 short years, he's gone from asking an old outdated factory in Bushwick to manufacture a short run of hats, to creating an Internationally recognised menswear brand focused on American ideals .
Buying the business in 2013 with the help of a few thousand friend on Kickstarter, Andrew founded Knickerbocker Mfg to service the community of fellow designers and makers. It has now grown to be a collection of menswear essentials based around a workwear aesthetic that is producing some of the highest quality threads in New York City. We caught up at his expansive showroom and factory in Brooklyn, where we talked American design, entrepreneurial skills and the New York menswear community.
See the full shoot below and more from the brand at KnickerbockerMfg.co.
Where did you grow up and where do you live now? I was born and raised in San Diego, California. I'm now living in Brooklyn, New York.
Describe yourself in 5 words. "Nicest guy I ever met" Austin Perrotta
You're quite a young entrepreneur, why do you think you've been successful? Well, I think the greatest asset I have is my young age. For many of us the older you get the more there is to lose. Taking risks becomes a much more calculated action rather than an instinctual moment of passion. It's a funny thing but skateboarding as well as snowboarding has always helped me to maintain that childhood feeling of curiosity and invincibility. I think there are many parallels between skateboarders and entrepreneurs. You take risks, you build a community, you don't let the bruises get the best of you and you learn to make the best of a situation. The adventurous and ingenious characteristics of both skateboarders and entrepreneurs feed off each other. When you believe in yourself and the ability to use your ingenuity in making the best of a situation then you can inherently take greater risks. MLK, Farnsworth, Curtis, Tesla. I bet they all would of been great skateboarders.
Do you remember your first experience with design that stands out from your childhood? I used to ride for Billabong when I was younger. I visited them at their warehouse in California where they would let me hook up what looked to be a laundry basket hanging from this overhead trolley type system, which traveled from row to row as you went through their entire offering of clothing. I'd go through and pick out whatever I could find in my size, which wasn't much since I was a small kid. At that age, being overexposed to clothing and what was out there, I began to crave simplicity; something timeless. The graphic print with the fire breathing dragon, spewing out the words "Billabong" across my chest, just wasn't something that resonated with me. As I'd walk out of the Billabong warehouse I would see a sea of designers working away and that's when the thought kind of clicked I guess. I wanted to create something that resonated with me. Not just the clothing but also the culture around it. For me, it'd be a dream if I could create something that meant as much to someone else as it does to me. Hopefully it would inspire them to go and do the same.
Talking about community, it seems you've really created a home in Brooklyn. You're based between Williamsburg and Bushwick - why do you enjoy the Borough? The people and the places. There's this beautiful juxtaposition between things old and new here. You have the 20 year old graffiti tags and barbwire fence next to some up to the minute coffee shop the New York Times is raving about. I enjoy living between both worlds. I think being here is important for my work and understanding of the world around me. I've never been anywhere where you see such a culture clash as you do in NY. There is also this great ecosystem in Brooklyn, filled with amazing resources and talent. There's an advocation for creativity and the failure, which comes with it. For any new endeavors or projects all those things make the area a great proving ground and thus home to many entrepreneurs such as myself. Certainly the area is expensive, which makes living here a matter of survival at times, but it teaches you to have grit and to really re-evaluate what you hold onto most closely.
Andrew wears Knickerbocker 8-Quarter Herringbone Cap, Himel Bros. Leather Jacket, Knickerbocker Chambray Service Shirt, 1955 LVC Levi's, 1970's Chuck Taylor's, Fine Light Trading Rings, Journal Standard Silver Bracelet, Knickerbocker & LHN Brass Keychain, Moscot Lemtosh Frames.
Your factory and showroom is an incredible space and I love that you've kept so many original features - do you know it's history? I found this factory out of an outdated directory. I had a few clients in Japan who were looking for caps and no source for production. The number didn't work and there was nothing else other than an address. The space was close enough so I decided I might as well make the trip. I showed up and was greeted by Felix Pantaleon, the factory's master hatter and one of my greatest influences. The factory was part of a 60 year old family business under the name Watman Headwear Corp. Felix had worked for the father and was now working for his son. We worked on caps together for about seven months before Steven Watman, the factory owner approached me about buying them out. I was only 19 at that time and not sure what in the hell would come of this but I knew I wanted to be more hands on with the process. I also knew I wanted to keep goods in the States and with a dying supply chain, I now had an opportunity to do something about it. Steven offered up the business for only $15,000...I know, crazy right? After a successful Kickstarter campaign, with my partners in the space Kyle Mosholder and Daniel Rickard Guy, Knickerbocker was then born.
It's incredible that these situations are still possible in an overcrowded city! Since that time you've perfected quite a distinct brand, can you describe it in a sentence? A contemporary take on traditional silhouettes and fabrics, manufactured in a meaningful manner.
There's a truly American take on design too, what makes you interested in the American aesthetic? The history. America is a young country. It became a landscape for new ideas and opportunity. Some of my favorite clothing comes from this country's trivial times, when clothing was either made as a symbol of class or for strict utilitarian purposes. You have overalls, which were born during the Industrial Revolution, jeans from Levi Strauss during the Gold Rush, peacoats and flight jackets from the WW's...the list goes on. Similarly, the same can certainly be said for other country's as well. That being said, I'm an American, being born here and with a lineage going back to the Cherokee Indians, Americana just resonates with me. When it comes to applying that American aesthetic to Knickerbocker I always look to the mid 40's to 50's. You have your military influence with soldiers returning from WWII, many of which going back to their blue collar jobs, which is your workwear influence and then you have the wild ones and rockabilly happening too. Not to mention we have many of the timeless styles from the 20's to 40's still lingering. I think after such a traumatic war, the 50's made for a very beautiful and exciting time. People seemed to have a new lease on life; grateful for the breath they shared and to still have their freedom.
If someone was to visit 3 places in Williamsburg, where would you recommend they go? Ah that's tough. Hotel Delmano is perhaps my favorite bar in the area. Great drinks, very low key and a beautiful setting. Secondly would be House of Small Wonder. Along with Hotel Delmano, they are two spots in Williamsburg, which don't just jump out to you but have to be sought out a bit. House of Small Wonder is a Japanese influenced cuisine tucked away with no street facing windows but all the natural light in the world once you get inside. Last on my list would be Stella Dallas. They have an amazing collection of Chimayo style rugs and blankets along with all sorts of other great upholstery materials and antiques. I'm definitely a sucker for all they have to offer over there.
What about 3 places in Bushwick? Looked like some cool places around Jackson Avenue when I visited. Urban Jungle definitely. Its a thrift outlet that is actually well managed making it easy to find what you are looking for and there are tons of steals to be had. I don't know why I'm sharing this with you actually. Also a big fan of Montana's Trail House, you can find the Knickerbocker crew there every Monday for their burger and beer special. Then you can't forget about Roberta's. Roberta's has been around longer than most of the joints in the neighborhood and serves up some of the best slices of pizza I have ever had.
As you said community is a big part of your business. You've got Max Poglia and Ouigi from BK Circus doing great work - could you maybe tell me a little about each and how you came together? We all come from different countries and each of us runs our own business. Max Poglia runs Poglia, while you have Ouigi who does the Brooklyn Circus. We come from diverse backgrounds with entirely different experiences that led us to here. We also share many interests and beliefs I think that is what always makes the conversation interesting when we come together. We always ran in similar circles, I think it was only a matter of time before we all linked up.
Ouigi has his 100 year plan, but where do you see Knickerbocker in 10 years? Its an interesting time for our industry right now. When you look at the speed at which it is moving and the rise in accessibility for products, it is important that we don't fall victim to trend. With that in mind we focus on essentials. A lot of brands talk about "essentials" as if its a sort of predetermined category, which often goes undisturbed. For us it is our goal to rethink essentials; for essentials to be celebrated for their diversity while still being uniquely yours, the consumer. We would like focus more on our end consumer. To find ways to consistently provide them with variations of these contemporary takes on traditional silhouettes; our essentials. We're trying to break away from our retailers seasonal buying structure of only a few buys per year. With that model the brand becomes increasingly controlled by its retailers and cannot address the needs of the consumer as he would without such control. Our end consumer does not but everything we do for Autumn in September. He picks maybe a couple items then, a few in November and a few in December lets say. If our end consumer shops that way, I believe we should produce accordingly. In moving in that direction we will need to produce quick and efficiently. This fact shifts our focus to the supply chain. To address this, we must ask how can we work within out current manufacturing capabilities but also harness new technologies and manufacturing stateside? I think we will focus a majority of this next ten years on building the supply chain into our foundation and retail model. We will shift our focus to online and look to open a New York flagship. Wholesale will still remain an integral part of our business with our sales teams goal to be finding key retail partners who will embrace this shift in our industry with us. We also have new initiatives such as our Service Program and Souvenir Program where our focus is on creating products with our client. One example would be our project with Unionmade, which will actually be up for sale this week. If your interested more information on these programs is available on our website.
In focusing on direct to consumer one of our first initiatives will be launching The Cutting Room, a web based platform on our website for monthly releases. The Cutting Room is a crowd funding platform, which rewards participating consumers with below retail prices, for helping us in bringing new products to life. Not only will this help the wallet of our consumer but it also allows us to increase cash flow through steady releases and gives us the ability to be more creative and less wasteful as quantities manufactured will be in tune with consumer demand. Consumers will also have the option of purchasing products similarly to say a Spotify subscription where they can purchase the product through monthly payments. This option is already live with our current products. Materialistically speaking I believe people want less items, but with those items they look for greater value, which is where we come in. We aim to give them that added value they seek in their purchases while also giving them the ability to afford such purchases. The Cutting Room is really the beginning of what we are working towards. By focusing on the supply chain I believe we will be able to move quicker, be more creative, more affordable and ultimately satisfy our consumer.
What advice would you give your 18 year old self? I heard something Jonas Salk said, which really resonated with me. He spent all his hours studying and working towards being part of this notable laboratory, which ultimately rejected him. He goes on to say, "There are only two great tragedies in life. To get what you want or to not get what you want. If I had gotten what I wanted it would have been a greater tragedy then my not getting what I wanted because it allowed me to get something else." The event led Salk into working on vaccines where he then developed the first Polio vaccine. At a young age it is easy to get lost in your head. A lot of things seem unfortunate until you change your perspective.
Leave us with some words of widsom. To be consistent but to never lose your creativity. The progress that comes from consistency is astonishing but the familiarity with consistency becomes dull. Creativity then has much less to feed off of. As a child I was totally unaware; using creativity as a problem solving outlet to make sense of the world around me. I believe this is where opportunity lies and it is what led me to where I am now. To continue to innovate and better myself as well as my business I must still find the time and the outlet to open my mind to new opportunities. This is the greatest challenge as a creative business person but it must be embraced. To everyone it is different, but ask yourself how do you remain calculated as an adult is and totally unmethodical as a child is.
Andrew wears Knickerbocker Chambray Service Shirt, 1955 LVC Levi's, 1970's Chuck Taylor's, Accessories as before.