image: Joel Henderson

image: Joel Henderson

Despite the fact that the market is chock-full of fashion brands, no shortage of which are forced to ultimately shutter given the demands placed on new fashion businesses and the current strain of the retail market, in general, new labels continue to pop up each season. So, when Luis Morales and Jason Wagg thought about launching a new menswear label, they thought again.

Instead, the two fashion industry vets, who cut their teeth at Ralph Lauren, Neiman Marcus and Tom Ford, took a different route. Putting aside their plan to add yet another new brand to the noise of the already-crowded menswear industry, they saw a lack of platforms to support existing design brands, and it is here that THE ENSIGN was born in January 2017.

Morales and Wagg talk about the current retail landscape, what men want, and how they put their egos aside and changed direction …

TFL – Tell me a bit about your backgrounds?

Jason – I worked in luxury retail at Neiman Marcus and Anthropologie for 7 years before moving into operations at Tom Ford and business development at Ahalife, a digital marketplace. Customer service was always a part of my career and moving behind the scenes gave me an appreciation for how to build something that gets people excited.

I left fashion when I realized how ossified the hierarchy was. It was hard to find opportunities within fashion where I could continue to develop and excel, in many ways my first indicator that fashion and retail was in trouble and there were major changes coming.

Luis – I’ve been on the product side for huge menswear brands, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, specifically, for the past seven years. Product has, and will, continue to be my major motivation within this industry. I’ve always been inspired by inventive product, design with a unique point of view, and clothing that tells a narrative.

Working within huge corporate brands, the focus is constantly steered toward reducing cost and protecting margins within the traditional wholesale/retail structure. Ultimately, I wanted to try and get as far away from that philosophy as possible.

TFL – I love that started out wanting to create a menswear line and ultimately realized that the market doesn’t necessarily need another brand and instead, maybe needs more spaces for great existing brands.

Luis – As we began to design and put the pieces into play for development, we examined both the challenges and the opportunities ahead of us in this new venture. We didn’t just want to be another clothing brand on the market, so we started thinking about how to differentiate from the current crop of amazing men’s designers. We began discussing this idea for a network for new brands, like ourselves, as an opportunity to create exposure and an outlet for building our own distribution capabilities. We then realized that this network, a central hub for American menswear designers, is critical to the continuation of the American fashion industry.

Jason – Once we started moving in that direction, we realized there is a major gap in the market as most of the brands we researched had very little visibility in the U.S., with accounts mainly in Japan and a handful of select boutiques in the U.S.

It made sense for us to focus on a platform for forward-thinking menswear product, being designed and created domestically. We decided our opportunity was to use our experience within the industry to create a community around the next amazing brands in a way that supports their work and encourages their creativity.

 image: Tommy Lei

image: Tommy Lei

TFL – How hard was it for you to say, ‘Ok the market doesn’t necessarily need our new brand?’

Luis – Once we started picking up momentum and fully pursuing the designer platform, it was an easy decision to pivot. There was still a strong component of creativity involved, as we understood we were going into uncharted waters with both our approach and business model.

We felt early on that the impact of creating THE ENSIGN might be more valuable than creating another awesome jacket or pants. We haven’t given up on the original idea though, and hope to return attention back to this in the near future.

TFL – What is lacking in the retail space right now? And how, as far as you can tell, are men shopping now that is different from in the recent past?

Luis – What is lacking in the retail space right now is a true sense of ambition and risk taking. There are very few retailers who are truly unique in either their product selection or their business approach. The choices are either huge volume chains struggling due to staleness in their product offering and dwindling foot traffic or a specialty retailer in competition with other specialty retailers selling the same “IT” designer brands.

Ecommerce has leveled the playing field and consumers are comfortable with searching online to see how they can get luxury designer product with the best deal possible. Consumers want deals, but we feel they also want to understand why a product is important or priced accordingly.

Is it just the label or can it be something more? Variety is important within this industry and we need to continue to support retailers who champion emerging designers. In that sense, Opening Ceremony still has our respect, as they take risks with their designer selections which helps reinforce their own voice and brand.

Jason – In regards to male shopping habits, they have become more confident in investing in their style. This was not considered normal even 10 years ago. Now men want to express their individuality in a unique way. They want their clothes to speak to their interests and ideas rather than just wearing a society uniform.

Men also have a tendency to be more brand-loyal but are harder to convince. They like predictability in style and fit and rely on their own comfort level to influence purchase decisions. Our biggest struggle, as a retailer, is attracting enough interest to encourage men to express themselves through the designers available on our site.

TFL – With that in mind, what advice do you have for menswear brands or emerging/indie brands in general?

Jason – Talk to everyone. There’s a great ecosystem being created around emerging brands, from incubators like CFDA or Manufacture NY, to marketplaces, like THE ENSIGN, with a massive amount of industry expertise and resources. It’s easy to incorporate a company but hard to refine and execute your vision. Menswear is an open community of amazing people who all want to make the industry a better place. Getting feedback on the most granular level possible will reduce your propensity for failure and get you in front of people you wouldn’t think you would have access to.

TFL – Domestically-made garments and accessories come with a markup that reflects that. Practically speaking, how do you think we should/can go about getting people to spend that extra amount?

Luis – It’s about having an open dialogue with customers and explaining why goods made in America are higher priced, but also of higher value. It’s not really any different that buying designer brands which are made in Italy or the EU, which are often much more expensive than those made in the U.S.

We need to be transparent around designers leveraging domestic manufacturers to create innovative product, all the while ensuring that those factories can support their workers.

Jason – If we don’t back and support domestic manufacturing in the U.S., soon we won’t be able to produce the next great American brand like Proenza Schouler or Thom Browne.

As we rebuild the ecosystem that sustains this cycle, it gives our designers more creative license to advance the aesthetic and appeal of American fashion. The US consumer has progressively defined fashion for years and US designers are shifting their manufacturing to connect those style statements with a value chain that is more direct and authentic to them and their customers.