When the private investors behind Baldwin, the Kansas City, Kan.-founded heritage denim brand, decided to make the leap from a mainly men’s niche business to a global ready-to-wear company, they knew some things needed to change.
With the blessing of founders Matt and Emily Baldwin, who launched the brand in their hometown nine years ago and grew the business into one that became a men’s fashion magazine darling and a CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund finalist, the torch was passed to new president Johnathan Crocker, who had spent nearly a decade as the marketing mastermind at AG.
Crocker was also up for the challenge, having grown up in the premium denim world and wanting to move beyond it to create an American rtw label that could compete with the New York runways and woo majors with a sophisticated women’s and men’s offering. The goal is to take Baldwin from a ratio of 70/30 men’s/women’s to 35/65.
First order of business: relocate the majority of the company to Los Angeles, where the design and sales talent pools were larger and the creative momentum at a peak. Crocker recruited nearly 20 employees, from designers to production managers, sales and marketing directors, solely through word of mouth and one-on-one interviews, and set up shop in January in a converted warehouse space in the downtown L.A. Arts District.
“Our approach is a bit left of center, but at the same time very clear. We’re building the next chapter of this American ready-to-wear brand to wholesale globally. I understand there’s no silver bullet but we’re trying to tell the story in a way that creates a dialogue, and we do that through being intentional and meaningful with every decision we make,” said Crocker.
As he sees it, a customer’s first touchpoints with a brand are its Web site and its social media platforms — both of which relaunch this week — followed by its retail presence. The clean, cool aesthetic is a palette cleanser for the directional product that’s to come — from crisp poplin striped shirting and oversize gingham check suiting in saturated pastels to tailored denim blazers for women, and leather moto jackets, coated canvas trenches and striped sweaters for men. Despite the focus on rtw, jeans remain a priority for the brand, and are retooled with new hardware.
Baldwin currently has six retail stores, with a seventh opening in Austin in October, but its current M.O. is to recapture the specialty department store business while amping up its boutique accounts such as Mario’s. Early feedback from majors such as Nordstrom has been positive.
While the team is creating product, Crocker created a groovy working atmosphere meant to inspire the team, with aesthetics steeped in American design icons such as Florence Knoll and Donald Judd. Even the logo, which until now has been unremarkable, much like most of the past season’s product, was retooled in a modern American typeface sans the consonants (it now reads “BLDWN”) and will also sit left of center on the newly launched Web site come Spring ’19, when the first redesigned men’s and women’s wear pieces will hit retail. That collection debuts today at Project in Las Vegas. All pieces are priced under $1,500 retail.
“There’s only so far you can take denim before it gets one-dimensional so we’re creating strong outwear pieces and a linen T-shirt program alongside fashion pieces for men,” said Crocker, who cited brands like Rag & Bone and Frame as examples of successful crossover from denim to rtw brands.
Crocker is well aware of the changes and challenges that have beset retailers and manufacturers, and he’s also aware that the Kansas-based family-run private investment company behind Baldwin is giving him a longer runway to take flight.
“They’re making a huge investment in rebuilding the foundation and handing over the keys, so to speak. So to me, omnichannel is defined as not focusing on just one aspect of your business, but minding the whole at every step of the way. We have a huge opportunity to tell a new story through exciting product and digital platforms and wholesalers and our own stores.
I’ve had to go back to majors who carried us in the past and say, ‘Hey, are you willing to sit down and hear about our new chapter? It’s humbling but it’s also validating when they say yes. We’re all going back to basics in a some ways, and looking completely outside of the box in others.”