IN CONVERSATION: with American designer Andrew Livingston of Knickerbocker

IN CONVERSATION: with American designer Andrew Livingston of Knickerbocker
‏If you’ve been paying attention to the heritage menswear scene in the past decade, you’ve probably already heard of Knickerbocker. The Brooklyn-based brand burst on to the scene in 2013, turning heads with their crisp vintage-inspired garb and operating out of a century-old factory (in which they installed a skate ramp). At the helm of this exciting upstart is Andrew Livingston, a San Diego kid who went from professional teen snowboarder to workwear clothing designer in the span of a few years. I caught up with Andrew recently to discuss the history of Knickerbocker, the difficulties of manufacturing, and much, much more…

So I was reading some other interviews you’ve done, and I was blown away by how young you were when you started Knickerbocker. I just want to clarify what the timeline was, how old were you?

‏Well, before Knickerbocker I had another business called Ferris, which doesn’t exist anymore. I started it in October 2011 when I was 18 with a couple friends. I was at NYU on a scholarship, but after my first year my advisor said “look, you have something you wanna do, take a year off. You can keep the scholarship if you decide you wanna come back.” And I just never went back. We opened a shop in Williamsburg and it was like three grand a month. Upstairs living, downstairs retail, and we had Ferris out of there. We were really young and had no idea what we were doing, but it was super cool. Thinking back about how I ate and everything, I couldn’t even imagine that today, just flying through life by the seat of your pants. Anyways, I didn’t get along with one of my partners and I wanted to do something more.

‏We had an account from Japan that gave us $20,000 orders for t-shirts and we were like, “oh wow, ok.” That same account—we still work with them today through Knickerbocker—needed hats and I said sure, though I didn’t know where to make hats. We ended up producing with a factory on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. I got super close to the owner, and one day he said, “hey you wanna take over the factory?” I was just getting over the thing with my partner and I didn’t know fuck all about the economics of it, but your mentality at that age is that you’re kinda invincible. So I found two partners (Daniel Rickard Guy & Kyle Mosholder) to go in on it and he sold it to me for fifteen grand, which was a lot of money to me at the time, but for the business proposition it was a steal. It was a way out from the business I had, so I did the kickstarter, got the money for it, and just moved forward from there. There was such little planning involved. I was 20 when I took over the factory officially.

Man, that’s wild. Being that young is almost an advantage in some ways because you’re so naive that you’re like “yeah we can do that!” You’re like a toddler walking through a minefield, just stumbling onto the right route.

‏That’s pretty much it. There was so much energy, wide-eyed and ready to go. I always recommend that young people do the same. You don’t have a kid, you got the whole world in front of you and now’s the time to do it. I’m definitely grateful to my advisor for not telling me to go back to school.

I’m also curious about how you got into making heritage clothing. I read that you got your start in clothing being sponsored by Billabong as a snowboarder. It feels like a big jump, going from a teenager who wears Billabong tees to making American workwear a few years later. How did that happen?

‏Man, even as a kid I always hated the stuff they put me in. I grew up in California surrounded by workwear. Dickies, Chucks, that was the uniform. Even if I rode for Billabong I’d still be wearing that stuff. I always wanted something that was more timeless, and the heritage world is just that. I was also into the utilitarian aspect, and the history and vintage as well. There’s so much storytelling there and I definitely got wrapped up in it. Billabong was crazy graphic tees, and I went to the opposite of that. For a while we wouldn’t even do graphic tees because I hated them. But now I think if you do them the right way you can make it work. It was a pretty natural progression.

That’s funny, I feel like it’s a common trajectory. When I was 14 I went to Hawaii with my aunt and I bought a t-shirt at the Billabong store in Waikiki. I thought it was the sickest thing in the world. I wore it every day, and by the time I was 17 I was like wow that was whack.

‏(Laughs) Yeah you’re like, “I can’t wait to get this out of my closet.” And that’s how people’s style changes, mine does as well. You just adapt.

Are you a vintage guy? Do you collect vintage clothing or use it as inspiration?

‏Yeah I do, but I’m not as much of a hoarder these days. I don’t have the space for it, and also I lost a bunch when my previous place was flooded. After that happened I took a different stance on collecting. But I pick up stuff all the time for inspiration, designing collections, textiles, but typically once I’m done with it I end up selling it. There’s a few things I’ve kept which are really special to me, but vintage isn’t my business anymore. I’ll only ever be wearing Knickerbocker, vintage, and Converse. I still like sifting through it, but I’m not spending a lot of money on it anymore.

So what specific things do you find most inspiring? Any specific pieces of vintage clothing, moments in history, eras, people?

‏I would say eras. American history is so rich across the board, we have so much to pull from. Definitely mid-twentieth century is the main one, with people coming back from war and that mix of military, blue collar workwear, Hollywood. But a lot of what we do can straddle the line between that stuff and counterculture symbolism, surf culture, motorcycle culture, rat rods. Sometimes its tough because there’s so much we wanna do as a brand, but the brand has to stay in its box somewhat. The most exciting thing about creating a brand is building that box and building the DNA. Then you gotta ask, “how do we progress but stay within that box?”

‏So yeah, much of Knickerbocker is derived from the 60s, 40s, a lot of decades that were action-packed. And you know, this relates to everything that’s happening right now [with the Black Lives Matter protests], cause those decades were very similar to how the 2020s are shaping up. So much history and culture that we’ve pulled from to inspire, elevate, and move the brand forward comes from times very similar to our own. In the past we’ve tried to stay out of politics, but I thought we’d be such hypocrites if we didn’t say something when all this super important stuff is happening. I think you should use your platform to amplify your voice and put good in the world, so we definitely wanted to speak up, but then you have to ask how involved do you wanna get into the world of politics and that? It’s tough.

Yeah you can’t be quiet during times like this, but then you gotta figure out how to navigate it. What do you think are the vehicles for small clothing brands to make a difference, whether it’s socially, environmentally, whatever? We get a lot of lip service from big corporations, but I find that lots of smaller brands now are making a concerted effort to push a more political, ethically-charged worldview.

‏I’ve always felt that a brand has to feel human in some way. People need that emotional connection and attachment, cause otherwise you’re just selling, especially when you’re at a higher price point. There’s so much clothing out there. If you want a chambray shirt, there are so many options, why come to me? Of course, it’s not just about selling stuff, don’t get me wrong, I’m just saying a brand really needs to operate in a human way. You can’t serve everyone, so it’s about finding your voice and community. Our brand has always been propped up by community, but in terms of amplifying our voice, I don’t feel comfortable going out and speaking for an entire nation, you know? We try to operate at the local level, where we understand our community, and then it’s about inspiring other people to do the same within their own communities. Like with COVID, we helped some small businesses that we like, so it had a much more intimate impact. I think the most important battle is one on a smaller scale.

‏As for the protests, its tough man. Like, I posted something on my personal Instagram, and a lot of people are trying to put the right foot forward, but there’s also a lot of people shaming others and people with personal agendas, taking a soundbite from somewhere and running with it and never digging deeper. So the ultimate goal is to create a community that’s inclusive, where people can converse and better understand each other. I’ll admit we’re not full force on that front yet, we’re tip-toeing it a bit cause we don’t have all the answers.

Yeah I agree. If you’re a small business, you’re truly just a collection of people, and you function more as a group of friends as opposed to a monolithic organization. So you just have to behave like a person, cause that’s who you are. You’re just a couple people.

‏One hundred percent. You gotta speak up, and people expect that from brands now. I’d feel like a hypocrite if Knickerbocker didn’t do something. But for those who usually don’t speak up, you have to, because otherwise people are gonna move on and find a brand that resonates with them. People respect and appreciate the fact that you’re standing up for what you believe in and it’s not just about selling clothes. It’s about having a core set of values and morals, and willing to be part of change.

Yeah totally. Ok, I’m gonna switch topics here for a second…

‏(Laughs) Yeah man we could talk about this all day.

Yeah it’s real big. My next question is about your guys’ manufacturing. The fact that you guys made your clothes in house was a big part of the brand identity early on, but now the brand has outgrown the factory. How has expanding your manufacturing to other factories, and now also to Portugal, affected the evolution of Knickerbocker?

‏You know, it’s had a lot of positive effects and a lot of negative. I’ll start with the negative. The factory was amazing for community. It brought a lot of people together, and in a sea of brands it was a major differentiating point. Losing it was tough cause we felt we were losing some of that New York community, that physical space where people could get together. There was also a whole “made in USA” thing going on, and brands started lifting up the curtain on their operations, and transparency has become increasingly important. The factory put a lot more eyes on us for that reason alone.

‏On the other hand, I was so fucking naive when I got the factory. I thought “made in USA” was superior for value, working conditions, everything. Now I realize that’s not the case. Quite frankly, the way the supply chain is set up in America makes it difficult to produce real quality goods and be competitive. In the beginning, I never wore the Knickerbocker stuff cause it would drive me insane. I’d notice something and I’d want to change everything I was wearing. Also, the whole narrative is bullshit. Just cause it’s made in USA doesn’t mean it’s better quality or better working conditions. In fact, it masks a lot of the issues. You go into most of the factories here and the working conditions are a hell of a lot worse than our factories in Portugal.

‏Anyways, the factory was amazing cause we could sample and fail fast, but we were really strapped for labour, machinery, and the supply chain. To scale the business, it became clear we either had to be a manufacturer or a brand. I wanted to grow the brand, but to do that I needed new partners beyond the factory. After travel, research, visiting people, I realized there were better places than the US. In Portugal, I had a really warm experience meeting with different factories, seeing what’s up and breaking bread with these people. I was able to peek behind the curtain and I thought “this is the level Knickerbocker needs to be at.” And that was the whole move. As long as your value system remains the same and you’re not compromising your morals, that’s the most important thing. We found a supply chain that worked for us, so we expanded in Europe to bring better products into the States. We did it for a lot of reasons, and we gotta tell that story.

Yeah it seems a lot of brands are making similar decisions. With so many brands that I respect and love, you flip the tag over and it says “made in Portugal.”

‏It’s truly some of the best. It’s because their supply chain’s incredibly complex, and they have a really rich textile history. There’s a lot of capability there, and Portugal is amazing if you want to have a smaller footprint and save money on costs. Freight and duties are one of the biggest costs in fashion, so you have to get those textiles as close as possible to the finishing factory. Portugal solves a lot of those problems people have with scalability. It’s also great for small brands because a lot of factories can do smaller runs because of how robust their supply chain is.

Do you have any intention of bringing more of your manufacturing back Stateside eventually, or is Portugal the future?

‏We would always like to do more production here. It would be easier on us for shipping but the textile supply chain is difficult because so much of it is out of the country. On a broader scale I think production here will come back, but I don’t think Knickerbocker will have a massive influence over it. I think it will be the bigger brands because it’s going to cost a lot of money. Nobody’s really invested in technology in the American apparel industry, cause we’ve always been able to take advantage of cheap labour offshore. I mean, compare the iPhone to a single needle Juki. You got a ten thousand square foot factory and people doing crazy manual labour all day. Eventually, machinery replaces labour. So yeah, I think it’ll come back, but when it happens I don’t think it’ll be because of labour. I don’t wanna sit at a sewing machine all day and neither do most of the youth. I think it’ll come back in a different way, cause at the end of the day, the one thing you can’t change is the size of the world. And capitalists, not that there’s anything wrong with that…ok there’s things wrong with it (laughs), but their mindset is just how do we increase profits year after year? Eventually you’ve exploited all the cheap labour, what’s next? Well, you should manufacture closer to the point of sale to cut costs on freight and duties. Also your product can be more tailored to the market cause you’ve got different body sizes around the world.

It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out in the next while. Anyways, that’ll do it for me. Thanks so much for taking the time man, I really appreciate it.

‏Yeah no problem, I hope you got what you need. Don’t make me sound like a total asshole alright?

Nah, I think you did a good job of sounding like a decent person.