One defining characteristic of our corner of the industry—call it “heritage,” call it “craft menswear,” call it what you will—is a reverence for what has come before. To some extent, there is even a fetishistic quality in this fascination with the past, an obsession with the details of a bygone era.
While some brands go the repro route, others carve out a place for themselves by tipping their caps to the past while still striving to move forward in unique and original ways. Brothers Andrew and Matt Brodrick of Freenote Cloth have taken this path.
It’s been over a year since we first profiled their story last March. We thought we’d check back in and see where the Brodricks and Freenote are now.
Their headquarters rests in the city of San Juan Capistrano, a place with literal foundations built hundreds of years ago, before the United States was a country. Walk about a minute from their office, and you arrive at Mission San Juan Capistrano, a monument to the Spanish origins of the town. Walk a minute the other direction, and you have very modern housing developments. In this respect, San Juan is the perfect town for a brand like Freenote.
As Matt tells it, “When building Freenote, we wanted to place ourselves in an area that reflects the brand. Many parts of Southern California have become synthetic, even over the past 10 years, but San Juan Capistrano is one of the few places keeping the classic California vibe alive. Our office is next door to a 1700s Spanish mission, down the street from a Western saloon, and just a few miles from both working ranches and the beach. It makes for a unique mix of elements that echo throughout the Freenote collection.”
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit their headquarters a number of times, and it carries with it a reflection of its surroundings. While it’s mostly business downstairs, with chainstitch machines sitting side-by-side with rolls of denim, the upstairs portion of the office is dedicated to design and the clothes that have made the brand a favorite of guys across the spectrum while maintaining an atmosphere of a mid-century lounge where you’d want to pass the time while telling your wife you’re working.
(I’ll be honest: I’ve gone down there with the excuse of working on an article just to sit on the oxblood leather couch—salvaged from their dad’s medical practice—and talk shop with the Brodricks and company.) The mid-century medical supply cabinet, once home to more traditional remedies, now serves as the HQ’s liquor line-up. The pool table by the door is both a game table and a place to mix it up while turning over the latest fabrics from Kaihara or Cone Mills.
The challenge of any fledgling brand is to create something new without going so far into the realm of the weird that the consumers find themselves scratching their heads in bewilderment. This is particularly tough in our corner of the market, one in which people hold to the past with an iron grip. But beyond going the way of repro, how do brands distinguish themselves? The raw selvedge five-pocket just isn’t going to cut it in a niche market flooded with every iteration of what Levi’s and Wrangler have been doing for a hundred and forty-two years.
Matt and Andrew asked themselves the same question when starting Freenote, and it’s a question that they ask with each design discussion. Andrew and I were talking, and he said, “This whole Americana thing… All these brands are trying to do it, but they’re from everywhere else but here. Yeah, there are a lot of American brands coming up, but a lot of them look the same. How do we make it new?”
So what next? The global market has shrunk to the size of a screen, and more and more men are getting hip to quality menswear. When I asked Andrew what he saw for the future of the company, he said, “We are still a young brand, so our current focus remains on the US and Canada. Our overall strategy is pretty simple: offer the best product and best customer service humanly possible.”
It’s no secret that I have a deep respect for Freenote and the ethos it espouses. Fast fashion pumps out looks a mile a minute, and the clothes serve their purpose: to ride out a fad and to crash and burn. The garments fall apart because they were meant to last a season, two at most. They cost as little as they do because they’re made with paper-thin fabrics, synthetic materials, cotton that has come from who-knows-where.
The transparency of the process in the raw denim market forces brands to be accountable for their sourcing, their production, and their marketing; for all of it at every step. It’s rare that one can walk up to the co-presidents of a company, shake their hands, share family pictures, and sit down for a beer. But that’s where Freenote is. They’re getting bigger every day, but they still manage to maintain that small-company, family feeling.
In my countless conversations with the Brodricks and the rest of the Freenote team, that’s the one thing I hear mentioned again and again: family. I know by now that family means not only blood, but the relationships one cultivates in all areas, professional and otherwise.
Though I’ve known the Freenote crew for over a year now, and had many chats, slightly inebriated and otherwise, I always go back to that first talk I had with Matt and Andrew over Bad to the Bone BBQ. We talked a lot of shop, but in the midst, Andrew said, “I hope that our relationship is the start of a friendship.”
Sure, I’ll sit and talk selvedge until I drop dead; yeah, I’ll rap on Japanese textiles until the listener falls asleep; but it’s nice to be able to sit with like-minded people and talk about the ridiculous things our kids said the other day or what the dawn-patrol surf-check yielded at San Onofre.
One of the times I went down to visit Matt, we talked about Bukowski and other books for an hour. He looked at his watch and said, “Shoot, we didn’t even address the next article.” There’s always time for that. But first, the more important matters at hand: Brotherhood. Friendship. Family.
That’s Freenote now.