Justin Seale on combining his love of design, sourcing and travel to build ArchiTec
After 20 plus years working in retail, product management and design for notable outdoor-related companies, Justin Seale decided that the time was right to create his own brand – but it had to be different. Combining his sage years of experience with his love of travel, design and textiles, Justin founded ArchiTec – a streamlined collection of men’s adventure apparel based on sustainable materials and inspirational places around the world – designed and built in California. Justin talks about how each collection leads with a particular textile and location in mind to create an experience around a product. He also shares how his trip to New Zealand to meet the growers who produce ArchiTec’s merino wool inspired his new fall’18 ‘Farm to Wear’ New Zealand collection. For more information on ArchiTec, please visit www.architecsf.com.
Justin’s Interview Transcript
Nancy: Hello, I’m Nancy Fendler and you’re listening to Material Wise, your podcast on material matters. It’s my chance to talk to designers, product developers, and other guests in the outdoor, fashion, home furnishings, among other industries, about what influences them to create, how and why they select the materials they choose, and the relationships they built with their customers and industry.
Nancy Fendler: My guest today is Justin Seale, founder and principal of ArchiTec, an adventure and travel-inspired apparel company based in the San Francisco Bay area. ArchiTec offers a streamlined collection of sustainable, fashionable, and durable pieces based on inspirational locales. Speaking from his Bay Area headquarters, Justin gives us a glimpse into how and why he founded ArchiTec, the significant role materials play in each collection, and the forthcoming Fall ’18 New Zealand collection that will be launched this September.
Nancy: Justin, thanks so much for joining me on Material Wise.
Justin: Yes, thank you very much for having me.
Nancy: Yeah… So I’m, I’m so intrigued with ArchiTec after reviewing a little bit of research on the internet and what I know from Shannon. So, can you share a little bit about your background and how you got into design?
Justin: My path was in the outdoor industry, and the design part of it was not, certainly not traditional or straightforward. I actually started out in retail sales of outdoor products and gear back when I was in school at The University of Colorado Boulder, and then went on to live in Hawaii and work on a dive boat. Then worked in … or actually ran an outdoor gear store in Honolulu of all places. And then, lo and behold I found myself back in Colorado attempting to start graduate school in Computer Science. This was the early, late ’90s, early 2000s and everybody was making money in the first dot com industry. Somewhere along that process, I spotted a Chrome messenger bag on the back of a bike. It was Denver bike messengers, and I was like I gotta have one of these things, because I was a total gear head.
I finally was able to track the guys down after, it took me probably a month or two. Rang the bell on their warehouse and it was like, “What do you want?” and I said, “I want a bag”. They said, “Oh great, come on in”. I started talking to them, and they just had this amazing kind of eclectic warehouse space, a half pipe in the back and just a bunch of designs like driven pattern tables and what not. Anyhow I was like, “Do you guys need any help?” And they were like, “What?” I’m like, “Yeah I’ll just like come and help you guys sell some stuff and what not”, and next thing I knew I had a full time job working for Chrome Industries back when they were based in Colorado, and we later moved the company to San Francisco in 2002. I made the move of course and then somewhere, a year or so later. You know, I’ve always been a very product driven sales person. It was kind of for me just embedded in why we create a product, why we sell a product. We create the product itself, like we led with that experience.
I asked Mark Falvai who was the founder of Chrome, I was like “Chrome at one point had done apparel” and I said, “What’s up with all these old apparel sales you guys aren’t running anymore?” And he’s like, “Well, you know, we just don’t have the time, we’re just focusing on the bags.” And I was like, “Can I go ahead and resurrect this”? He was like, “Sure, be my guest.” So, anyhow I basically took a headlong plunge and just started working in kind of my free time on resuscitating some of their older designs and one thing led to another and I basically morphed over from being in a sales driven role into a product line management role and through that and through mentoring under Mark, I just learned a ton about design and development, sourcing, which in turn carried over to our next company, which was Mission Workshop. I was the apparel director there and kind of responsible for handling all things apparel related.
Nancy: Wow. You know when you’re mentioning Chrome, I used to have a Chrome bag. Don’t they have like the car seat buckle?
Justin: Yep. The reason was that those were actually cut out of old cars at the Denver Salvage Yard.
Nancy: Wow. Tell us a little bit about the positioning of ArchiTec and why you feel there’s a need and who you’re designing for?
Justin: It’s interesting because actually the concept behind ArchiTec was actually, born from my wife and really, by that I mean this, I had been over the course of the last like four years I’ve been working as an independent consultant with a lot of start-up style brands, helping them understand the industry and the design components, managing their whole process and, it was great and it was somewhat rewarding, but of course you’re working on other people’s stuff. I had come to a point where I was like, “Okay, maybe I’m just kind of done with this industry, I’ve been doing it for 20 years now. It’s been a good run. I think maybe I’ll just be a sail boat captain or something.” Well my wife was like, “Why don’t you do a brand?” And I was like, “Really, it’s so much work…”
And, as I began to think about it, I was like, “What can we do differently that I haven’t done in the past or that other people haven’t done?” To me it was about understanding, what do we love to do? My wife and I love to travel, we spend three to four months out of the year out of the country. We’re always looking to hop on a flight somewhere. And, at the same time I love textiles. I love sourcing, like you can get textiles all around the world. So, combining the elements of design, sourcing, and travel together, so that we’re building seasonal collections that are based around particular textiles from different parts of the world. Like in this case, for fall, we were in New Zealand for a month working in conjunction with Global Merino, staying on their sheep station, understanding the whole ‘we’re in the wool farming process’. We built the entire collection based around their fabrics. So first, to me, it’s about giving the people the experience behind the product and not just making more stuff.
Nancy: Wow, that’s really interesting. What a lifestyle! I’m envious!
Justin: Yeah, I mean it’s like, it’s sort of like a brand that has a bad travel habit.
Nancy: So, in looking at your website, you have a work bench. I’m just curious about the sales platform. If I understand it correctly, do you launch a collection and then have certain folks preview it first before sale?
Justin Seale: Right, basically the concept behind Workbench is this: we give people an opportunity to purchase products prior to launch at a 25% discount. So first, for New Zealand, we’re launching our New Zealand collection on September 25th, and there’ll be a 30 day period within that where all the items will be available for pre-sale. So as a result of buying in early, you’re able to actuate a discount. After that 30 day period then everything is moved back up to MSRP and it allows us some visibility, both in terms of obviously what styles are getting traction, and maybe modifying our production based on that, and it also mentalizes that the consumer has to act now.
Right, that’s smart. With regards to materials, like you say you love textiles, so we have something mutual in common. Does a particular textile inspire design, or do you have a product in mind and then find the textile for it?
Justin: Well, I would say that I, from a design standpoint, I usually lead with textiles, in the sense of like if I see something that’s new or something that’s inline, and I’ll just look at it and think to myself “Oh that would make an interesting x.” Where we do redesign items we in turn try to look at appropriate textile.
Nancy: Okay. Does a brand name fabric or a consumer recognized material make a difference, do you think?
Justin: The answer to that is, I think is, is really dependent of the clothes of the consumer. There is certainly a subset of consumers, myself included, that are going to recognize and appreciate branded fabric technologies. Now, how large that customer base is, nobody really knows and obviously some goals of them have done an excellent job of positioning themselves as the gold standard in the respective I mean Gore-Tex of course comes to mind. But, now if you’re talking about the wider customer base at large, I would say “no” because the majority of people are just simply purchasing commodity goods based on what they’ll look and feel.
Nancy: Do you think consumers have become savvier about the materials that go in the products they buy though?
Justin: I mean I would like to think that. Again, I mean that we’re talking about a subset of people who actually follow these types of things, then the answer is yes. I think that the greater population as a whole, the answer is still probably no because you need to look at the Zara’s and H&M’s of the world and that’s not a textile play per se and certainly not a branded fabric technology.
Nancy: You know, maybe one day we can be hopeful. I also noticed on your website that sustainable practices are important to you. Do you require sustainable practices in your supply chain?
Justin: We do not really require sustainable practices as a part of our own internal best practices. With that said however, the departments that we’re fortunate enough to work with, they in themselves work through a sustainable model. For instances, in the New Zealand collection we just launched for fall, we worked closely with the good folks who work down at Merino who are based here in California, but source all of their wool from south island of New Zealand. We were very fortunate to actually travel to New Zealand and actually stay on one of the Merino wool sheep stations, so we were actually able to trace the fiber back to the farm level. My wife definitely refers to the collection as “farm to wear”.
So in that regard, yes. I mean sustainability is extremely important to us in terms of understanding our supply chain. I don’t necessarily believe that sustainability will result in a product that has less overall longevity. That is, you can develop a quote-unquote sustainable product that’s just going to fall apart in a shorter period of time as something that’s not quite as environmentally friendly. So yeah, and I think that from an organic fiber standpoint i.e. wool, sustainability is huge. If you’re talking about sourcing a stretch nylon type fabric, in that case buy with air towards whoever wanted to produce a fabric that’s going to last long and perform the best.
Nancy: Right. I see that, I think that’s so important. It’s a common theme among the folks that I’ve spoken to is to try to manufacture or produce garments with longevity in mind. What do you think makes a good textile partner?
Justin: I think a good textile partner would need, obviously, the innovation and to be driven from the mill level. Now, I’ve been fortunate in my career to work with Schoeller Textiles, Global Merino, you know, premium mills who produce premium fabrics and understand their position within the marketplace. With that said, it’s also a personal relationship with the mill. I can’t speak highly enough of Global Merino and their whole team over there and how supportive they’ve been with ArchiTec. We just got this fall product launched and whatnot, and at the end of the day we’re, from a textiles partner standpoint, you’re going to the people that you feel like you actually have a relationship with, and they get what you’re doing. I mean there are a lot of people out there that you could source materials from obviously and the personal relationship goes a really long way.
Nancy: Yeah, it does. So where do you turn for the latest news on design in textile trends? Do you have any favorite sources?
Justin: Textile Insight Magazine is great. You know for me, I tend to obviously go to major industry trade shows like Outdoor Retailer, ISPO, Première Vision in Paris. I’m kind of like, constantly surrounded by mills and textile innovation, so while I’m looking, it’s never like I need to look on a weekly basis. It’s more to the point where I know that probably six times a year, I’m going to be in front of the mills looking at what’s new.
Nancy: So is ArchiTec made in California?
Justin: It is actually, we’re producing everything in downtown Los Angeles.
Nancy: Wow, that’s great. Have you found that consumers are more conscious of where and how their apparel is made?
Justin: No, and again this speaks back to customers’ reputation and core values and whatnot. I do think “Made in the U.S.A” certainly has a certain panache to it. Really what it is, is it requires, again there’s that subject of customer basis to look at that and say “Oh, I will pay more for that as it’s something that’s made in the U.S.A. [inaudible 00:13:20] made in Southeast Asia. Again, we start styling out to a larger commodity goods based brand, of course the country of origin is of little consequence to the consumer.
Nancy: So you have an interesting e-commerce platform which I mentioned. Where do you think retail’s going in the future?
Justin: Everyone has been predicting the demise of brick and mortar retails in the last ten years, and of course that hasn’t happened. I would say that within out competitive space, obviously brands want to be involved and in control as much as possible their B2C experience. It’s good because I just really like apparel, particularly like premium technical apparel where margins are often times tight. The ability to sell direct allows you a lot more latitude in terms of what you’re designing and how you’re not subject to having to build in wholesale margins, or operating a wholesale calendar and all the other things that come out of that.
With that said I still, this is quite an experience as I’m getting older, actually feel the tactile product in person, so our plan right will probably be opening up about four to six shops, not our own brand shops, but placing product with select retailers for fall and maybe in the spring, just to give people the opportunity to see stuff in person. To answer your question, I think B2C will continue to grow and increase in market share, but I still think there’s a place out there for traditional work that knows what they’re doing and is able to present product in a public context.
Nancy: So, do you have a favorite ArchiTec piece and, if so, why?
Justin: They’re all kind of like my children right. The Merino wool hoodie. It’s just a classic wearable hooded piece, it actually has an asymmetrical cowl-neck style. It has a double-lined hood and a good stash pocket on it. I just don’t ever take it off, so to me that design, meaning utility and hitting that perfect middle of the Venn diagram.
Nancy: That’s the one. Do you think that you will be designing for women in the future?
Justin: Given the pressure of my wife, yes, we have an eye on some womenswear, but I myself will probably not be the one designing it.
Nancy: What professional challenges keep you up at night?
Justin: God, there’s a lot, but it’s mainly, the thing about operating a small brand is the fact that you really do wear a myriad of hats. There are times when it’s incredibly rewarding, when you see how much you get done with a small team, but there’s certainly times when you just simply feel overwhelmed by, “God, there’s just too much stuff to do.”
Nancy: In times of self-doubt, how do you pick yourself back up?
Justin: For me it’s all about getting outside. If I’m too focused on the computer, or just too focused on friend related items, and kind of spinning my focus circle, I need to go out and spend half a day on work, ride my bike or go sailing. Basically just remove myself from the context of “the now” and put myself in a different space.
Nancy: Definitely recharge. What can you say you’re most proud of? This can be within ArchiTec, or in life, whatever.
Justin: It’s an interesting question, and I mean I guess I’m proud of the fact that what was not intended to be a career ended up manifesting into a productive body of work that I’m proud of, and I’m proud of what we’ve launched across Chrome and Workshop, and what we’re currently doing here at ArchiTec. And also the people that I’ve been able to surround myself with, just really passionate designers, developers, factories, mills and whatnot who believe in what they’re doing. This is not an industry where we’re getting rich, or if it is and it’s your number one priority you’re probably in the wrong industry.
Nancy: What’s next for ArchiTec?
Justin: As I mentioned earlier, we are launching our fall winter New Zealand collection later next month, and then following up for Spring18 we’re going to Japan and the Philippines. We’re actually sourcing some Japanese textiles for the spring launch, and then we’re going to Philippines to product test and experience all that.
Nancy: Wow. That sounds so exciting. So, can you leave us with a memorable fabric story?
Justin: Memorable fabric story? You know, I guess my favorite textile style is Merino wool, not to overstate that, but it’s sheer versatility in terms of application and clothing styles, it’s amazing. So, unfortunately I don’t really have a specific kind of stand-out story in itself, it’s more the body of work, and for me that would be just all the things I’ve been able to create over the years using various manner of constructions – and to be able that still on the streets from ten, fifteen years ago is very rewarding.
Nancy: And actually, just even going to New Zealand, and perhaps seeing how it’s sourced and all that too, must be pretty remarkable.
Justin: Yeah, there was a lot of things working on the textiles kinda things, even operating at the mill level either you’re with the mills, it’s hard to adapt to the actual grower side of things in this case, you really get a full breath of insight. There’s a lot of things that I thought I knew that I just did not know.
Nancy: There’s nothing like it, experiencing it firsthand. So where can folks find your products?
Justin: Our website is ArchiTec.com
We currently have our fall collection product that is winding down, and the New Zealand collection will be launching next month and you can actually hop on the site and click on the look book posted up there for the New Zealand stuff.
Nancy: Great, well thanks so much Justin, I really appreciate your time and I look forward to seeing more of the product and meeting you in person, hopefully someday soon.
Justin: Thank you so much Nancy, and I will hopefully be seeing you soon.
Nancy: Okay, take care thank you.
Thanks so much for listening to Material Wise. I’d like to thank the incredibly talented Woods Creative for their help in producing this broadcast. Jake Nevrla mixes our episodes, and our theme music is by Activity Club. For more information on Material Wise please visit materialwise.co and please subscribe, rate, and review wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you again, and until next time, take care.