Scott Kuhlaman of Scott James Clothing is not your average menswear designer. Matter of fact, he’s not a really a “designer” at all, he is an architect. We sat down with Mr. Kuhlaman this past month and discussed his inspiration and philosophy.
Scott Kuhlaman, hailing from a small town in Western Nebraska, got his start from his 7th grade science teacher. Apprentice, buyer, owner, designer; let’s just say that Kuhlaman has seen this dish from the beginning to the end. His belief is “that every item should add to your joy of life.” What started with shirting has grown into a full blown ready to wear collection. Scott James has you covered from head to toe. His recent award from Travel + Leisure for his “1964 Blazer” has confirms the fact that his work is receiving the recognition it truly deserves. From the His keen eye, degree of knowledge, and affordability makes James a heavy contender in the rejuvenation of menswear as we know it. Now, without further ado, Mr. Scott Kuhlaman
Mr. Kuhlaman , It’s an absolute pleasure to speak with you. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I grew up in a small town on a ranch in Western Nebraska. In our town we had two men’s stores. After my 7th grade school year, my science teacher said he was buying one of the stores and asked if there was anyone that wanted to work for him that summer. I raised my hand, because I love clothing. That evolved into working for him throughout high school (as well as running the store one summer). This evolved into my collegiate studies in Lincoln, NE, going to work for a store that had three Polo Shops and by my sophomore year in college, was buying/running these three Polo Shops. After college I went to the Wholesales side of the business, working for Joseph Abboud and Hartmarx. In 2002 after building knowledge of both selling and sourcing in Europe, and with many stores trying to produce their own Proprietary Brands, I started a sourcing company, set up in the way an Ad Agency was set up. We would take a project from A to Z or from A to C, we would conceptualize it, all the way thru the design, sourcing, shipping and marketing. While spending most of my time in Europe, I could see these small shirt shops opening on the corners all over the place. So in 2003, we began this concept and eventually opened 60 of these stores. With the downturn and closing all of the stores, in 2009, myself and a friend decided that there was still a niche within the world of apparel, offering amazing Ameripean (European, with an American sensibility), that was attainable. We built the business for a year and then in May 2010, sold it to Hampshire Group, and with their support the hockey stick growth curve continued.
When was that “Aha moment” you said to yourself “I must create my own brand”?
This really came in 2003 when we decided to open these shirt shops. To be honest, we offered the concept to a better department store. Keep in mind this is when the “shirt craze” began. We had the idea of great European shirts, with incredible styling at an attainable price! On top of which we could turn the inventory every 45-60days! After 3 months they didn’t bite, so we went and did it ourselves.
Reading up on the brand you guys preach a philosophy which you refer to as “joie de vivre”. Can you explain this?
Our brand is currently focused on apparel and we believe that every item should add to your joy of life. You should go to your closet each morning and when the doors swing open, a smile should appear on your face. This could be for several reasons; maybe the Scott James item that is hanging there, the last time you wore it, you just felt good. It was comfortable, and above all, you looked great. Heck, maybe you even got a compliment on what you were wearing…..after all everyone likes a compliment. Or maybe the idea of not breaking the bank to buy a luxury item is appealing to you. The fact that you could have spent much more on shirt, or jacket, but because you didn’t, you got all the styling details and aesthetic, but didn’t have to take out a 2nd mortgage to obtain it, this just makes you feel good every time you see it in your closet or you wear it. In general, we are after “the good life”!
How has your personal taste developed or changed over the years?
It has evolved with a modern sensibility. My taste is rooted in American Ivy League. I remember going twice a year to the men’s store with my grandfather who was a prominent trial lawyer in Nebraska. He had an affinity for “Sack Suits”, the old un-darted suits from Southwick. Imagine this small town trial lawyer who traveled the world, with an Ivy League taste, however never buttoned the buttons on the collar of his oxford clothe shirts (sounds a bit Italian!). With that said, when we were doing our version 1.0 (which were all of our stores), that was about the time the J. Crew was being reinvented. Someone asked me what the difference was between J.Crew and our brand. My response was J.Crew was Nantucket Preppy, we are Tuscan Preppy! Because I spent much of my time in Italy, I appreciate the classic Italy way, done in a modern way.
How would you describe yourself as a designer?
I would say that I am more of Chef or an Architect. The way that we design is more about putting the ingredients together. If you think of all the great Chef’s of the world, they are using the ingredients. Now, the quality, the way they process and prepare the food may be different, however the underpinnings of beef bourguignon are the same, it is simply how and when they are put together. This is the same as we do. The fabrics, the yarns, the buttons, etc are all “fresh”, if they are not the best, they are inspired by the best. Then the way we cut and sew or knit the garment is always looking at how the finest tailors and knitters would try to produce the item.
What goes into designing a Scott James piece?
It’s all starts with the “parts”. This could be fabric, a yarn, a button, or a zipper. When we see these parts, we then begin to figure out ways that we can use them. Next, the blocks, or models, are very important and we are constantly tweaking the models/blocks that we have. From this, we are always finding new shapes and details on a garment that we like. Because we are currently focused on menswear, we are not consistently re-inventing the wheel. We try to maintain our current blocks, and then will always throw in two or three new blocks to keep it fresh. Then it is simply about the newness we can create with the most interesting fabrics and yarns.
Up to now, what about Scott James are you most proud of?
Scott James has grown very quickly with a very limited staff. I am proud of what our team has done in such a very short time frame, in a fairly tough environment. The fact that ground has broken on the first Scott James “shop”, which is being done by Shaia’s in Birmingham, AL. Keep in mind Shaia’s will be celebrating their 90th anniversary this year and the Scott James shop is only the 2nd shop in the history of the store. The first one was in 1972, when they opened a Polo shop! I think we are in pretty good company. Ken Shaia and his team have been BIG supporters from Day 1, now the fact they are building our own entrance to the store, with more than 500 square feet carved out (they will also have an opening to their store); this is a real accomplishment. My hat is off to Shaia’s for supporting an infant brand and to our team to incubating this growth.
Where do you find inspiration?
My family is my biggest inspiration (my mother and father, who are incredible craftsman). My mother is a weaver and one of the best seamstress’s to my father who has built much of the furniture in my house. To my wife and daughters, who are really the inspiration of my life. Because we’ve constantly been traveling, over the years, they have pulled me out of the factories and have helped me learn the good things in life; art, music, food and the great architecture of the world. They are constantly challenging me to “keep up”. They push me to not stay in the status quo, yet help me stay grounded.
Beyond family, our little piece of heaven is in the Italian countryside. Our home outside of Lucca, Italy is truly an inspiration.
What next for Scott James?
We continue to develop “Brands within the Brand”. For instance, we saw an opportunity with some very interesting fabrics from Biella, Italy. “They were newness that we had not seen, the issue; they were too expensive for the Scott James Collection. Because we had to offer them, we created the 1964 collection, which was a price point higher then Scott James. With the success of this (we just won Travel Fashion of the Year, for our 1964 Blazer, from Travel & Leisure), this collection has grown into all categories. This collection does not mean that stores are buying “either/or”; this just gives our stores that do carry better price points items that they can merchandise with the Scott James collection.
Tell us a little more about the 1964 collection?
The 1964 Collection started with the opportunity we saw with a couple of fabric resources. They created the “WOW, these are amazing fabrics, now we have to figure out what to do with them”. We also wanted to create something that could stand on its own, however, could also be mashed together with the Scott James collection. 1964 uses all Biella, Italy fabrics, but not the “classic stuff”, think jersey knit jackets, double faced fabrics for trousers and the most amazing hand in shirts and knits. This collection could be called a little more fashion forward, with more “to the body” fits, slightly shorter coats and it a price just above Scott James.
So I have two days in Italy. Where do I go and what must I see?
Because we live in the country, we recommend spending most of your time outside the cities. Of course some of the museums in Rome and Florence are amazing, however hanging out on the beach at Forte die Marmi, looking up at the Carrara Marble Mountains, or sitting in the Piazza of Pietra Santa, watching the art crowd or going to the Spa at Montecatini Terme are also fantastic. All of this is within one hour drive from our town of Lucca!
If you weren’t in fashion, what would you be doing?
I would be spending more time on the family ranch, 2LazyK. I would also be spending more time with our Olive Orchard in Italy, really developing the amazing Olive Oil that we produce.
Ive been working on this time machine, if I can get it to work and you could go back and give a young Scott Kuhlaman one piece of advice what would it be?
Trust your instincts!