If the man in general has been American fashion’s second-favorite kid, you could call the Midwestern man its redheaded stepchild.
It’s no secret women are sartorially sought-after, especially those living in New York City and Los Angeles and lesser fashion capitals like D.C., Miami, Atlanta and Houston, where they are the inaugural beneficiaries of major marketing pushes, flagship stores, runway shows and flashy debuts. Then, once they’re taken care of, it’s the guys’ turn to get some love. Well, at least the guys in those same big-name cities.
But the Rust Belt? The Great Plains? Missouri and Kansas? Men in Missouri and Kansas?
Ship ’em their Dickies, their dungarees and get on with it.
After all, our focus is on the farm not fashion. Us cowtowners, we eat too much barbecue. We’re too fat for a store like Zara. Who in an automotive plant or steel mill cares about Tom Ford? Supreme is streetwear for cities that don’t sleep, not the Paris of the Plains.
Oh, please, I say. S’il vous plait.
Ever increasingly, today’s man, regardless of location, is a renaissance man. He is knowledgeable and multifaceted and plugged into myriad passions. He enjoys the Chiefs and chefs. He’s interested in muscle cars and menswear. Kansas City — and other cities with the most catching up to do — are where you’ll really notice this upheaval of archaic social-gender archetypes.
It’s also where you’re likely to encounter the quiet frustrations of guys tired of being frowned upon and forgotten by bigger cities. When will they understand, many wonder. Our rent is cheap, not our taste.
One wonders if it’s that kind of chip on the shoulder that created the current climate of Kansas City-centric menswear. Micro-patriotism has become both a shroud and sword for Kansas City high-end, casual and streetwear labels. Garments from Baldwin Denim and Made are gussied up with in-your-face Kansas City signifiers as a way to proclaim civic pride and shout to the world, “Yeah, we do clothes, too!” It’s sartorial homerism doubling as social commentary. When you put on a Charlie Hustle KC heart tee you’re not just wearing a shirt, you’re beating your chest.
But where do men in town go (other than online) when they’re looking for the BAPE gorilla instead of the shuttlecock? What’s the destination when Halls hasn’t stocked anything from new “It” menswear brand John Elliott, or when City Gear doesn’t carry the rising urbanwear brand making waves on the coasts? Where can guys in Kansas City go to find those coveted brands typically reserved for the bigger, swankier towns?
Right here, that’s where.
“Come here and hang out”
Joey Mendez and Buck Wimberly realized it after years of working in retail.
“Men were being shortchanged in the retail industry,” Wimberly says. “We were taught women are the shoppers: Cater to women, cater to women, cater to women. The men, they got forgotten about.”
So about a year and a half ago the two began conceptualizing Ulah (pronounced you-luh), a menswear and lifestyle boutique in Westwood about five minutes west of the Country Club Plaza. Using their shared experience in design and branding, Wimberly and Mendez worked to create a boutique designed for today’s man.
“It’s been easy to lump men into categories,” Wimberly says. “There’s the hunting guy, the sports guy, the metrosexual guy. People have been trying to box men into these categories, and we’re saying that we understand that men are more complex. They are multidimensional with a range of interests.”
Range is the operative word at Ulah (the name came to Wimberly while on a trip to Denver. “It sounded like a hip and trendy rustic destination that people would want to go to,” he says). The layout, ambiance and goods have all been chosen to appeal to a variety of men: “We wanted to make Ulah a kind of one-stop shop,” Mendez says, “a place that caters to all different parts of a man’s life, with apparel and other kinds of products.” While many boutiques strive to communicate “a-cut-above” aura, Ulah finds its strength in its egalitarianism.
At first glance Ulah looks like a standard boutique: quaint, generally quiet and neatly organized. Then you notice the contemporary and rustic nuances, like the incredible half-quartz, half-walnut coffee table in the back. Wimberly designed it, and he’ll make one to order if you’d like. Same goes for the cabinets and dressers scattered throughout the space.
That checkout counter directly in front of the Yeti camping gear and next to the barware, fragrances and office supplies? It doubles as a bar. Feel free to relax and enjoy a drink on the house while you mull over options.
“Aesthetic quality is just in our blood,” Wimberly says. “But it’s not just design for design’s sake; its about design and function coming together.”
“You should want to come here and hang out and enjoy the experience of shopping,” Mendez says. “The experience is a big part of it.”
Mendez, who procures the fashions, says most of Ulah’s clothing follows the tapered slim fits popular in menswear today, priced at “both accessible and aspirational” price points. This translates to a smart mix of upscale and economical options: $600 J.Lindeberg gray felt blazers, $250 jackets from Todd Snyder and $135 button-ups from Scotch & Soda mingle with $70 Levi’s jeans and $45 henleys from Original Penguin.
Ulah also carries an impressive arsenal of activewear, including the upscale brand Rhone Apparel (it’s like Lululemon for guys, Mendez says) and foreign brands 18 Waits from Canada, Neuw Denim from Australia and Moods of Norway.
“The goal is to remove obstacles from your shopping experience,” Wimberly says. “That’s the key: What obstacles can we remove for guys so that shopping is fun, easy and friendly?”
Old town, new vibe
Justin Ji faced obstacles before he placed a single shoe or shirt in his Volume 1ne sneaker and streetwear boutique in Westport.
Before opening Volume 1ne (pronounced “one”) in March 2014, Ji struggled to get contractors to understand his vision for the boutique’s layout: “They were like, ‘Why do you need to do that? Why does this table have to go here? Why does this have to go there?’ ”
It’s easy to imagine the clash and confusion. Westport may be known for many things, but modernist design isn’t one of them. Its storefronts are horse-and-buggied, brick heavy and stodgy — perfectly fine for pubs and hipster eateries, but for a streetwear boutique, not so much.
Truth is, Volume 1ne looks more like a showroom loft than a clothing store. Overhead lighting bathes the spotless wooden floors and white walls. The floor plan is minimalist; you’d be hard-pressed to find a clothing store in the city with a greater space-to-merch ratio. A bouncy playlist of trap, rap and hip-hop-influenced R&B vibrates throughout. The attendants are young, attractive, friendly and fashionable. It’s an alchemy of aesthetics that communicates to customers: We aren’t like anything else around town. Which is just what Ji wants:
“I’m adamant about educating the local consumer base,” he says. “I wanted to get them used to shopping in environments like this.”
That has taken time. When Volume 1ne opened, Ji says, shoppers were intimidated. “People were scared to come in. They thought, ‘We won’t be able to afford anything in there.’ But if you go to New York or L.A., this is almost below standard.”
Streetwear fashion began with the youth-driven surf and skater cultures of ’70s California. Over time the style absorbed elements from hip-hop, Japanese street style and high fashion cultures. The metamorphosis resulted in a fashion largely devoid of boundaries: “Streetwear is a really broad term,” Ji says. “Designer clothes can be called streetwear if you wear it on the street.”
Examples vary from vintage rock T-shirts and skinny jeans to tapered athleisure, buttoned shirts and outerwear. Streetwear can mean a $27 hoodie or a $1,000 trench coat. A pair of Vans shoes for $60 or a pair of Kanye West’s Yeezy Boost sneakers for $800.
Streetwear shops like Diamond Supply Co. in L.A., KITH in NYC, RSVP Gallery in Chicago and Walter’s in Atlanta have been vital components to those cities’ fashion identities for decades. Yet before Volume 1ne’s arrival, a dedicated streetwear presence had been absent from Kansas City.
If a local guy wanted threads from popular streetwear labels like Billionaire Boys Club, Superdry or 10 Deep he had to hope a hybrid store like Bunker in Westport or a chain like Urban Outfitters had a few pieces. And even then, Ji says, because of the distance from ports where these items arrive from overseas, it was typical for Midwestern cities to receive only the also-rans — merchandise stores in bigger markets couldn’t or wouldn’t sell.
“I just want to open people’s eyes to the stuff that’s out there,” Ji says. “The whole idea is I want people to know and understand that there’s more. I want to give people options.”
As with Ji, it was the idea of options — or a lack thereof — that inspired Osama Bayazed to open Blvd816, a men’s urbanwear boutique, two summers ago on the city’s East Side.
“I’m in an area where there isn’t much around,” Bayazed says. Blvd816 is in the Cleaver II Blvd. Shoppes, at Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard and Troost Avenue. “I’m the only boutique-type store on 47th in the East Side.”
It’s true that outside of chains like Footlocker, City Gear or Gen X, it’s difficult to find quality stores that specialize in urbanwear. Before streetwear’s rise in popularity and Kanye West’s retooling of hip-hop’s fashion palette, it was brands like Rocawear by Jay Z and Sean John by P. Diddy that dominated urbanwear. But by 2010, as hip-hop became more mainstream and aligned itself with high fashion and its tapered aesthetics, many abandoned urbanwear as its most popular brands failed to keep up with the times.
Bayazed admits as much. But he says urbanwear is catching up.
“It’s happening slowly, but it’s happening,” he says. “Urbanwear isn’t baggy like how it used to be. The cuts are getting more fitted and clean-cut. Sometimes, urbanwear and streetwear go hand-in-hand.”
(Ji doesn’t see a difference between the two, saying the urbanwear tag is little more than a classist attempt to place brands and the stores that sell them in a black urban box.)
At any rate, Bayazed says he finds success catering to men who prefer the baggy. “There are still guys out there who might want to go the street-style route but don’t feel comfortable in the slim fit clothes.” Couple this with the shrinking urbanwear inventories at department stores like Macy’s and JC Penney (“If they do have the brands I carry, they have them at very small amounts and at higher prices,” he says) and stores like Blvd816 have staying power.
Rap music also helps. True to urbanwear’s DNA, a large part of Blvd816’s success is owed to brands birthed in the hip-hop community. One of Blvd816’s most popular brands is Cookies SF, created by San Francisco MC Berner. Stop by the store and you’re likely to hear Berner songs playing from the speakers.
You’ll also catch Bayazed himself assisting shoppers and offering personal styling advice. One customer asks which Grind Addict hoodie (Blvd816 is the exclusive retailer of the local brand) might go best with the pair of denim he’s considering. Another gets teased with a discount if he decides to buy a Cookies brand T-shirt to go with the backpack he’s already getting.
“Here you’re going to get that personal touch,” Bayazed says. “You tell me what you’re looking for, and I’ll either make it happen or find a way to work with you.”
It’s a common attitude connecting Bayazed, Ji, Wimberly, Mendez and their boutiques. They’re meeting guys in the middle.
You don’t have to go anywhere.