How an online leather jacket cult disaster, a few entrepreneurial failures, and a fresh perspective helped two brothers take on one of the most firmly entrenched fashion industries.
The leather jacket. A timeless classic whose style has literally not changed since the 1920s when Schott perfected, well, the Perfecto. The only piece in a wardrobe that can scream individualism in your face while also representing a well-tested history and sense of pride in craftsmanship. The recognizable brands, Schott, Belstaff, Wilson, have each been around for almost a century and still produce the same styles and quality the industry has come to revere.
When I first heard of Independence Brothers, a pair of fresh-faced brothers who sought to reinvent the leather jacket industry, I was both intrigued and skeptical to say the least. What was there to improve? Here is their story.
The Fashion Cult That Was a Disaster
In 2014 Reddit’s fashion community for men, aptly named r/MaleFashionAdvice was in a bit of a crisis. TempleOfJawnz, a south-korean based online-only manufacturer of custom fit leather jackets with a devout cult following had started to push stretch jacket timelines to well over a year. They simply became too popular, too fast, and hundreds of anxiously waiting customers who had shelled out upwards of $800-$1000 per jacket were becoming impatient to say the least. News of the embezzlement of funds in a restaurant venture and the owner showing off luxury vehicles on Instagram began to surface throughout the community. One of these customers was Scott Kunz, who had been waiting 9 months at this point with no end in sight. He immediately sought a refund which was granted (but only when another customer simply took his place in line by buying him out) and thought to himself, there has to be a better way.
He searched online for leather jackets that had custom measurements. Finding one on eBay, of all places, he took a gamble and ordered a jacket for a fraction of the price of TOJ. It arrived from India a month later, and he was astounded. The quality was not Schott, or TOJ-tier, but the the fit was spot on and the leather felt supple, strong and most of all it looked fantastic. “I was frankly hooked from that moment. I knew that you could make these jackets for a fraction of the price others were offering and offer custom measurements. The only thing left was to figure out how to increase the quality, tighten up the manufacturing, and get the product in front of customers.”
The Start of Something New
Over the next 2 years he worked on weekends and nights after his engineering job, taking individual orders from customers on Reddit that he reached out to personally, making barely a profit but providing impeccable customer service. “I knew my business would live and die by my online reputation, so every customer to me was essential to make 100% happy, and frankly, I wouldn’t want to run a business where I wasn’t proud of what I had made.”
Starting in India, he then moved his operations to Pakistan where he found higher quality leather, but also higher prices and manufacturing problems. “One of the biggest challenges of our business, and probably why frankly almost no one else does this, is that we offer complete customization. We can make any style a customer sends to us with just a photograph. And because every single one of our jackets has custom measurements, our quality control has to be insanely high. We found that it’s incredibly difficult to communicate across not only a language barrier, but across 15,000 miles and time zones.”
Scott took their manufacturing efforts somewhere closer to home. They hired a local in a medium-sized city called Leon down in Mexico to scout out potential partners. They had heard Leon was a city with a rich leather manufacturing history other American leather goods companies such as Thursday Boot Company and SaddleBack Leather had found success in. “When we looked for manufacturers, almost every single one hung up the phone when we mentioned we only wanted to do single jacket orders. They were used to making 50, 100, even 1,000 jackets at once which frankly made their lives much easier and profitable. We were upstarts, no one wanted to deal with us.”
A Breakthrough in a Small Town
Then one day found their holy grail. After a few samples from various factories and tanneries they found a smaller, family owned shop that was used to doing one-off, custom orders and was willing to work with the brothers’ high maintenance needs and demanding customers. “Frankly, most manufacturers in the world try to cut costs as much as they can. I don’t blame them for it, but there’s a good reason why American manufacturing is respected so much today. When we found this little shop in Mexico I was beyond ecstatic, I knew I could finally put manufacturing in the back of my mind and move on to other tasks.”
They weren’t content to stop there however, they started to upgrade piece by piece other aspects of the jackets. From quality improvements such as switching the source of leather to a better tannery with higher standards, full-grain and aniline dying, to finding a manufacturer that made a silky smooth lining called rayon and shipping it to Mexico as a premium option to offer to customers. They even found a supplier of tough synthetic thread in the US because they didn’t like how the cotton thread frayed over time.
First You Must Fail
Throughout this all, Scott’s brother Robbie was working diligently behind the scenes on marketing. The brothers had been entrepreneurs since they were in grade school, Robbie had started a manga import business before Amazon even existed, contacting Shonen Jump magazine in Japan directly using his high school Japanese knowledge to bypass language barriers. Scott was an avid videogamer and would buy and sell World of Warcraft accounts through eBay. In college they had a few briefly successful ventures such as selling SEO/website design services to American companies and also selling a language learning book Robbie had written on his own website. “…ultimately, I’m glad I had those failures because it because it led us to this jacket business which takes elements from everything we’ve learned and puts it together.”
They used their experiences and knowledge of small business and how quickly they can go wrong to cautiously promote their jackets, one at a time. Slowly they built a reputation online, from Reddit to Blog articles and Instagrammers. Being a small company with no retail space they knew customers would be suspicious, especially after the TOJ incident. One tactic to dispel this anxiety of purchasing a high ticket item from an online store was to run an ‘Ask Me Anything’ on the Male Fashion Advice subreddit, where potential customers could ask any question they could think of. This type of open ended honesty and transparency would have been unheard of 10 years ago in a clothing brand.
A Fresh Perspective
New startups these days in the fashion industry are a dime a dozen, from subscription boxes to custom tailored suits. These companies all offer a new way of thinking about fashion which is born from a growing understanding about how fast fashion is ruining the world’s environment and increasing the wealth gap. Instead of shopping at retail stores with thousands of garments that get thrown out after the season (infamously burned in huge garbage heaps a la Burberry recently), customers are now headed increasingly online, purchasing more expensive but ultimately better made, and often custom-tailored clothing.
Independence Brothers seeks to continue that trend by offering sustainably made clothing that not only will last a lifetime, but can and should be repaired. “I love the idea of a leather jacket. Not only has the style not changed over the past 100 years, but people continue to thrift, patch, and customize jackets in this perpetual, endless stream of ownership. People pass down their leather jackets, I even have one from my father he wore riding his Suzuki in the 70s. What other part of someone’s wardrobe could possibly last that long, and still be cool enough to wear?”
Scott and Robbie one day hope to bring their manufacturing efforts home to Pennsylvania. “Ultimately, our dream is to have my own manufacturing shop in Philly. I would love to bring manufacturing back to America but currently it’s just too expensive for a small brand like ours.”
With loyal customers behind them, and superbly made jackets in front of them, the brothers pursue their quest to become one of the standard bearers in the leather jacket industry.