Pressing Questions

The Gilt MAN Q&A: Carl Chiara of UNIONMADE

The co-owner of the San Francisco-based mecca of heritage menswear on timeless style, good food, and the power of standing up for quality.

Inside UNIONMADE's Sanchez Street HQ in San Francisco

In 2009, after spending 15-plus years working in creative for the Gap, Todd Barket opened up a small men’s shop on Sanchez Street in San Francisco. Called UNIONMADE, its operating principles were pretty much diametrically opposed to those of his former employer: quality over volume, and authenticity and timelessness over trend. As it happens, authenticity and timelessness have become borderline trendy, themselves, and the store has been a huge hit since the day it opened. (There are now locations in Marin County and L.A., as well as San Francisco.). In 2010 Barket took on Carl Chiara, who spent many years as a concept director for Levi’s, as a partner, and since then the duo has expanded UNIONMADE into the West Coast’s leading purveyor of, well, pretty much the best made, longest lasting, and downright coolest clothes, shoes, accessories and more you’ll find anywhere.

We are incredibly thrilled to be working with them on Gilt MAN. I talked to Carl this week to get the story of the brand. When you’re done reading the Q&A, be sure to check out the slideshow of Carl and Todd’s favorite pieces from the sale, plus a few shots of the inside of their amazing San Francisco shop.

What makes something worthy of being carried by UNIONMADE?
We’re really looking for best in class. And I think that’s something we learned in corporate, where it was always about making things cheaper, cutting corners, and copying things, and not really being authentic to your heritage. We’ve grown to really cherish being authentic, standing up for quality, and having faith that the customer will want to pay a little bit more to get something that’s a bit better made and is going to last longer.

We don’t go and try and find the cheapest alternative. We don’t go looking for wool and acrylic sweaters that are made in China. We go to Scotland and find the best lambswool, and buy it in 18 colors, and play with the fit a little bit, and that’s why it works. It’s that simple, really.

How do you decide what brands to offer?
We just want the best, and we think our customers want the best, and we have faith that people want to pay for he best. And you bring all these things that are best in class together, you really can’t fail. When you start cutting corners and taking shortcuts, I think that’s where it gets really dodgy and the veneer starts to crack a little bit. It’s kind of about having standards and wanting everything to be the absolute best. That’s a reaction to our years in corporate, when it doesn’t have to be the best, it has to be the cheapest.

How much does UNIONMADE reflect a San Francisco sensibility?
I think that the UNIONMADE aesthetic is really kind of worldly. One of the beautiful things about working in corporate is that we traveled so extensively all over the world, and I think you kind of have these references when you do that, and I think that’s really what UNIONMADE is. We’re pulling stuff from all around the world, and we’re bringing it to San Francisco.

I think there’s something about the food scene in San Francisco that relates to what we’re doing. People are so into where the lettuce is from, and where the bacon is from, and who made the English muffin and all that stuff, and I think that it’s all sort of the same logic.

Just like with food, people want to know where their clothes came from, and they want to know that they’re well made.
And I think there’s a sustainability message in all of that. The organic farmer up in Sonoma County who’s been doing this with his family for 150 years, it’s kind of the same people who’ve been doing lambswool in Scotland for generations. It’s all kind of the same idea, and at the end of the day it’s about the best tasting, most nurturing food – or sweater, or jacket.

And on Gilt, you get it for a great price.
Absolutely. There’s something kind of great about getting a little value in there. At UNIONMADE, we want everyone who comes in to be able to buy something, whether it’s a $10 sock or a $15 magazine or an $800 jacket. We want everyone to be able to participate in some way.  We’re excited about getting a bit more reach with the Gilt sale, and letting people who wouldn’t necessarily shop at UNIONMADE come away with some of these things that are so well made, so they can have that experience.

It sounds like win for everyone involved.
It sounds good, right?

Shop UNIONMADE on Gilt MAN now >

Click below for five of Carl’s favorite items from the sale, plus pics from the SF shop >

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