I don’t think the world needs more clothing, but it does need more free thinking individuals who cherish what they do and tell their story.
Knickerbocker isn’t a typical brand in so many ways, but the spark of the brand is centered around community. Begun by Andrew Livingston in the spring of 2013, Knickerbocker grew out of a simple search to produce honest, dependable goods, but has become a symbol of passing the torch in American production. Since it’s original inception Andrew and his team have embodied a full-force transparency in manufacturing and an ethical supply chain that refuses to compromise. There is an integrous tenacity, and a dedication to “working away and doing [their] thing.” Even Andrew’s parting words to us in so many ways define Knickerbocker from beginning to end. “Good things take time.”
What is your background and how did you start Knickerbocker?
I grew up in action sports and used to be a sponsored snowboarder and rode for a lot of companies, including Billabong. I remember going into the Billabong offices back in California getting to see how designers work. It was fascinating. I fell in love with it, but as a kid I was still busy riding and doing my thing. Later I went through some injuries and things. I was still in high school, but I had the opportunity and the connections at that point to start working underneath a designer at Billabong who showed me the ropes and became a mentor of sorts to me.
When I was 15 I tried creating my own brand, so I took a couple of sewing classes at the local college. I’d show up with my skateboard and there’d be all these thirty something young moms in there. So I got going with that, and then applied to college. NYU was the last place I ever expected to get into but it’s where I ended up going. I was there on a part scholarship for business and did really well. I still loved design, so I’d go to the business classes and teach myself design at night. A few months into school I started a brand with these two kids. My dorm room was filled with cardboard boxes of stuff until I got in a bunch of trouble because you can’t actually run a business out of your dorm room. After that I decided to leave for a year and come back. I realized that my education, as beneficial as it was, wasn’t the direction I wanted to go in.
So I left and the three of us doing this brand decided to open a little shop. The building was terrible, but it was really a cool thing. The neighborhood loved it, and we got a lot of traction, including with this Japanese brand that wanted us to make caps for them. They made this big order but said it had to be made in the States, so I started looking for a factory to work with. There were only a couple of places in the city, most of which were already out of business. We tried working with this one guy we found and we got
some samples back that were terrible. There was only one other place left to try, but the phone didn’t work, no email, no website. You never know with these old businesses, so one day I just showed up. This used to be a really shady area, but this guy came and answered the gate. He had this mask on, and I just thought, man — I’m chopped liver. But he pulled his mask down and had this big grin on behind it. He shook my hand and welcomed me in. His name was Felix and he’d worked for Stephen Whatman, the boss, for years. Stephen’s business was mostly over at this point because so much of it had gone overseas, but I told him what I wanted to do.
Felix became another mentor of mine. I ended up working with him on these caps we needed, so I’d come out here and we’d have lunch and work. I’d been doing that for about seven months when Stephen asked me what I thought about taking over the factory. I was still 19, so I thought that was kind of crazy. But I let it sit for awhile. It was a few months before it came back up, but when it did we gave it a shot. His lease was up in two months so we had a month to get the place up to par, put together a Kickstarter, and a month to run the campaign. But then boom. Everything came through and we bought the place. I don’t think Stephen needed the money or anything. I think he just wanted to see us do something good with it.
We’ve learned a lot since. In the beginning we did the manufacturing for our brand here and I went and did Knickerbocker on my own through the same space. It’s just grown more than any of us expected. Sometimes I feel guilty for not going back to school and taking advantage of the opportunity I was given there, but it always pushes me to study and read and learn as much as possible. It’s been a blessing in disguise when I look back on it, and it’s helped me to transform this place into what it is today. It’s pretty makeshift, but I think that makes you become extremely resourceful. Resourceful people always have a community around them, and that’s been one of the most important things about Knickerbocker. Luckily we all get paid now but it didn’t start out that way. We just really have this atmosphere of people who are genuinely so passionate. We all know we’re not here for a paycheck.
What were some of those defining values that you’re talking about?
We’re in that less than 1% of brands that actually manufacture their own goods, so being honest and being transparent is huge for us. When we started, we didn’t have our own clothing line. We manufactured goods for other people. I wanted to manufacture for people that we aligned with on a brand level, that we would like to be like. I think the transparency of Knickerbocker resonated with people because we hit at the perfect time, when people everywhere were talking about Made in USA. We just pulled back the curtains. Our hearts and our minds were in the right place. We utilized social media to tell that story because that’s what you have when you don’t have money. I think there’s so much out there now that people can read between the lines. There’s so much access to what’s going on in these bigger companies, and we were doing everything right, right here.
How did you build your aesthetic for Knickerbocker?
There are a lot of components, but a big part of being a designer is designing from within. I learned this the hard way, but if you’re a small brand you can’t be trend-driven. One of the beautiful things about being a brand that evokes a sense of heritage, is that there’s always some sense of trust. It’s coming from something original, from this well of history. Understanding where psychology meets economics is an integral part of building a successful brand.
But aside from that, I got into clothing pretty young. When you’re a kid you’re trying to find your confidence and your own stride. In the beginning what I was attracted to was just a feeling. It didn’t come from knowledge or understanding of the past initially. It was seeing certain individuals and the way they carried themselves, like JFK in a black and white suit, or Gene Kelly in a pair of loafers, white socks, and blue jeans. I watched a lot of movies growing up, and I saw how clothing could really transform the way you feel. Look good, feel good. It came from this feeling, which is how most things start. Then you just dive deeper.
But too, this has always been the stuff I love. Periods like the Industrial Revolution, the Gold Rush, the 50’s and the 60’s. I’ve always been into that super utilitarian wear. It just has that grit to it. It says, I’m going somewhere, I’ve got something to do, got something to prove. I always picture designing for someone who’s just come back after WWII, this crazy experience, and it’s hard to move at the same pace as everyone else. He comes back to this blue collar job but still needs this sense of excitement. I think a lot about that person, and what’s in their wardrobe. They were the guys who worked on planes in the war and came back and didn’t know what to do so they started chopping up motorcycles and starting these motorcycle clubs. It was the age of abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock, the Civil Rights movement, and Rockabilly. You’ve got jeans being outlawed because they’re associated with all these subculture movements. Just a lot of people trying to figure themselves out. But thank God for those people because it was the rebels that kept a lot of this stuff alive by remaking it in their own way. We’re not reinventing the wheel or anything, but we like to take from the past and put our own contemporary twist on it. I don’t think the world needs more clothing, but I think it needs more free thinking individuals who cherish what they do and tell their story.
Do you think Knickerbocker is part of a movement to drive standards that make it harder for bigger brands to churn out cheap products?
We’re coming to a point in the market and especially in our industry where it’s really hard to calculate the impact these niche markets and small businesses are having and how it affects the bigger companies. It’ll be really interesting to see how that develops and chips away at things. But the beauty of today is accessibility. Yes, we make clothing, but what we put our chips on is that given the opportunity and the means to do so, people would choose the belief that less is more. That’s part of the business to make sure that you make a great product and make sure you find a way to make it accessible. I chose not to be luxury because I’d rather serve the masses than serve the 1%. It’s just not of interest to me.
But now we have the challenge of trying to make well-made goods that are still affordable. I can’t change what’s in our customers’ bank accounts. How do you make it possible for people to participate in this kind of less but better idea? We try to do that with things like the Cutting Room, where we’ve been able to set up a new way to sell goods where people can come and get a $300 chore coat but they only have to give us $15. We’re the first ones to try this and we’re just trying to figure that out. It’s just another aspect of holding on to your values that comes at a price. That for us is a way to help push this along, because things are changing. Ultimately I think people just have to be happier with less. You gotta pick your battles, and whatever you do, do it well. We’re just rolling the dice, because that’s small business. I’ve done all sorts of crazy stuff just to get something done, but in the long run that’s the stuff you appreciate, that you laugh at and makes you so grateful to still be here everyday. ‘Cause you get through it. You don’t think it’s gonna happen and it does. That’s what keeps you going.
How do you stay inspired?
It’s tough. I take a lot of time alone to think and clear my head. Creativity isn’t linear; it comes and goes and you have to be ready to act on that when you need to. It’s tough, but you have to work on how to create that for yourself. Travel is always great, but you can’t afford to be on a plane all the time. It’s fun for me to get into other people’s heads sometimes, whether it’s working with other brands, or thinking about our customers. It’s like what actors go through in a way, where you try to put yourself in a different environment and almost take on a different persona for a period of time to think through it.
I do a ton of research, too, reading, watching old cinema or documentaries. I go to the museum all the time; listen to older people talk. You just have to keep your eyes open. There’s a lot of really creative people out there and it could be something totally different than what I do but it’ll create a spark. You need a different perspective to stay creative. But sometimes you can go so far looking at how other people think that you feel lost as an individual. It’s back and forth, but the best way out is through. Some people have their routines, they go to yoga or whatever. I go to the skate park; that’s my yoga.
What about your own wardrobe?
Well the time period I’m most inspired by, you didn’t have an outfit for everyday. I wear more or less the same thing everyday. I’m very selective in the things I do wear, but I don’t need a lot. I’m also super interested in menswear accessories, little knickknacks and things. Guys aren’t super complicated but whatever few accoutrements you throw into the mix usually tells a lot about a person. Mostly I’m into shoes, though. You can tell a lot about a person by their shoes.
Do you try to differentiate Knickerbocker from what’s out there?
No, I just try not to look. You spend a period of time absorbing inspiration, but when it comes down to doing the work you try to just reference whatever stayed at the top of your brain. Putting anything together is such a complicated equation, with the fabrics and the buttons and the mill can’t make that piece anymore so — you improvise. Ultimately you’ve got to be inspired going into it and block everything else out. Otherwise you get distracted when you see somebody over there doing something cool. I used to feel like I had to do so many things and do everything so fast.
But — knock on wood — unless I die tomorrow, I got plenty of time. I really struggled with that in the beginning, but it’s part of being young. You don’t understand the breadth of life and how deep it really is. And even now in that aspect I have to be more content with less. You’re not all that and a bag of potato chips. We work and we do our thing, just trying to build a business and hold onto our values. That’s still the greatest challenge of all.