At 2017’s Inspiration L.A., there was a lot to be excited about…row after row of booths showcasing the finest in vintage denim, heritage and workwear, plus an opportunity to see what some of our favorite clothing and accessory brands were most proud of (read my recap of the event here).
But what I found most intriguing were the more boutique, emerging brands creating buzz at their booths with truly unique wares and a boundlessly creative approach to producing goods that you genuinely can’t find anywhere else (not even close). Ideally, I’ll get to write about each of those businesses and the men and women behind them, and I’m thrilled to christen that effort with a look at Dixon Rand, “Artisan Made Apparel and Accessories.”
It was impossible to miss or ignore the Dixon Rand booth, as its star attraction was a guy in 10 gallon (at least) flat-brimmed hat hovered over a chain stitch embroidery machine from the garment industry’s thrilling days of yesteryear, busily toiling away at creating some of the most vibrant and beautiful patches I’d ever seen.
I vowed to find out more, and in the following months got to know and speak with JoAnn Jack, Dixon Rand’s co-founder and president, and Abraham Voytek (the guy under the hat), DR’s co-founder and designer. In addition to snagging the last of their limited edition rooster head patches (my Chinese astrological sign), I got to find out not only how the San Diego outfit came to be, but how they strike the delicate business between art, business, and getting attention in a marketplace (wonderfully) crowded with cool.
Heddels (John Bobey): Within the realm of small businesses, there are boutique small businesses, and within that realm there are heritage brands doing things the traditional way, and then within that realm is Dixon Rand. Your patch work is incredible…was it intentional to start a business with such a unique focus?
Abraham Voytek: We always appreciate the compliments. Dixon Rand was founded in 2014 as a contemporary denim menswear company with an emphasis on heritage design. For the first two years we were in business, we operated as a more traditional company; design to sample sew to contractor, and so forth. What was missing was the soul… the true artistic component that drew us towards founding the company in the first place. The acquisition of our vintage chain stitch machine in mid-2016 changed everything and helped us move towards a more fluid development of design concepts.
JoAnn Jack: Dixon Rand started as a pretty non-traditional business model. In fact, the first few wholesale orders we accepted were designed and sewn and finished by the two of us. That was crazy when we had over 72 units to complete in a month! When we added the chain stitching, the design took on a life of its own; oftentimes the chain stitch drives the garment design vs the traditional method of designing a product and then embellishing.
H: Why patches…why chain stitch?
AV: I had always created hand embroidery and loved the way it looked. The challenge was that everything just took too darn long. The chain stitch machine allows us to create one of a kind pieces in a manageable timeframe.
H: Your collections are very thematic…where do the ideas come from, and are there constants from collection to collection?
AV: Design ideas are developed through a passion and extensive research tied to the American West. There is always a focus on the great outdoors in the chain stitch designs (flora and fauna). The constant is the emphasis on the spirit of the West: exploration, independence, and the wonder of the world that surrounds us. Urban Jungle is the antithesis of Dixon Rand design.
JAJ: In addition to the thematic ties to the American West, our design concepts have a true nostalgic element to all of them. Places and experiences from our past are at the cornerstone of each capsule. Our closest friends and collaborators know us to be great storytellers; we love to recount personal moments and somehow that typically comes alive in our designs. This is what led us to our brand tagline, “A Story in Every Stitch”.
H: From where does the Dixon Rand design aesthetic spring?
AV: The brand name, Dixon Rand, was created by merging two of my family names. The Dixons were creatives and artisans (a pretty eccentric lot) who settled in the Point Loma area in San Diego. My grandfather Dixon had a thriving furniture design and production business mid-century. The Rands were politicians and attorneys in the Southeast; traditionalists in the way they settled and established themselves. At the core of the brand is a traditional fabrication (denim) and designs that are approachable with an unexpected addition of ever-changing expression in embellishment.
H: What did you two do before starting Dixon Rand?
AV: After Art School and completing a degree in Fashion Design, I worked for a variety of retailers in freelance pattern drafting and sample sewing. As an entrepreneur, I also worked the obligatory “gig economy” jobs; barista, shipping manager for a T-shirt company, bike messenger.
JAJ: I’ve been connected in one way or another to the garment and fashion business for my entire career. Most of my energy since 2007 has been in retail consulting for both start-up brands and established multi-store operators, everything from brand and product development to securing financing and developing a sales strategy. I was fortunate to teach at FIDM from 2008-2016 and meet many of the individuals who will be responsible for shaping the future generations of fashion.
H: What were the pitfalls of those industries you wanted to make sure not to carry over to Dixon Rand?
JAJ: My experience with start-ups in the fashion business had shown me that undercapitalization and the lack of a solid business plan can be the quick death of many entrepreneurial endeavors. As small as we still are, Dixon Rand operates in “the black” and sticks to a growth tied to strategic planning. New product additions need to make sense, which in the case of an artisan business can be difficult. It’s always exciting to dream up new products, but if they financially don’t make sense, we typically put them on the back burner.
H: Obviously you can’t go to Amazon and order one of your chain stitch machines, how do you come by this antiquated machinery?
AV: I started on eBay, but that is a nightmare for a novice. Through solid recommendations from other chain stitchers and a week-long journey through old sewing machine shops in LA., I found what we needed and was able to get the machine refurbished. That was the easy part. Chain stitch embroidery takes a developed “feel” for operating the machine. I spent two weeks practicing the alphabet and then moving in to simple designs just to get started. My art school background really helped when learning how to create more advanced compositions.
H: Who is your customer, and are they the same demo you’d expected or wanted?
JAJ: When we started, we had this defined customer profile; a male, 28-48 years old, works in the creative field, loves denim and quality products in denim, tinkers with cars/motorcycles, pretty obligatory. Over time we found we were defining a very finite group of U.S. customers but missing the ability to speak to a global community. And from the start, women loved what we were doing and commissioned pieces. The chain stitching made all this even more apparent. We really like our current customer demographic; men and women, 27-50, who appreciate quality and craftsmanship.
AV: I was a little surprised that our “original” target customer did not value quality as tied to price point. Our original guys, with a couple exceptions, seemingly loved what we made but wanted it at a fast fashion price point. So maybe our original target audience was not quite refined enough and this we have corrected over time.
H: Your selection of accessories and menswear pieces is growing, what’s prompting the expansion?
JAJ: The foundation of Dixon Rand is denim-based garments (specifically outerwear). It was the need demanded from the consumer for personalization and customization that brought us to the chain stitch designs. Accessories are just an obvious extension of what we design and craft. Being an artisan house, we conceptualize a “look” over a product. So, if bags or hats or necklaces are a part of the look, we will most likely create those alongside the garments and embroidery. This is the beauty of not having to follow old school rules about scaling production.
H: How do you decide what to release–you seem to be avoiding denim bottoms–a conscious choice or you just haven’t gotten around to it yet?
AV: We release a small grouping of outerwear in every capsule (about every 45 days). For quite a while, we included men’s shirting as well (to this day our Rattlesnake Ridge shirt is our bestselling style), but we’ve drifted from that as the price points are so competitive. Bringing us to the question of denim bottom, it is a very conscious choice not to include them in our assortment. Denim jeans can be found at every price point, heavily promoted and discounted. We never thought this was necessary for Dixon Rand to grow. we always said, ‘why do we want to be one in a million?’ I make all the jeans I wear but we have no plans to add to the line at this time.
H: What have been the biggest surprises–both pleasant and unpleasant–since starting the business?
AV: Surprise (not really a surprise): this business consumes my time and I really don’t have the luxury of just hanging out anymore. The best part of our growth is the development of true friends and fans who make all the work worth it. From denim heads to just those who appreciate the craft, my most rewarding moments every year are spent with these individuals. And my business partner who inspires me and challenges me daily.
JAJ: I’ve been involved with apparel start-ups in the past but I feel I was slightly behind the curve with the understanding of how complicated it is to make it go in today’s marketplace. I’m often asked by apparel designers and brand managers, “what do I need to know to be successful?” The answer is everything…truly everything. An apparel brand needs to have marketing savvy, be nose-to-the-grindstone with bottom-line results, but also be fluid enough to continue to evolve product to satisfy consumer demands. That being said, I have never felt as fulfilled as I am this year with 100% growth while bootstrapping our company and just making it work. It’s the thrill of it all!
H: What advice would you offer to other budding small businesses thinking of setting up shop in the “heritage” space?
JAJ: Be true to yourself but be willing to pivot and evolve. At the core of a brand should be what you stand for. From design to marketing, consistency wins. Have a one-year, three-year, and five-year plans, and be prepared to stick to them. You can’t be wishy-washy in today’s marketplace.
H: What are you most looking forward to in Dixon Rand’s future? Any new releases news you can share?
AV: I’m most excited about finishing the year with a sustained financial growth that will help us grow operations. Get ready ladies…design in 2018 is for you!
JAJ: I am so impressed with our ability to continue to do what we love while growing revenues and looking forward to expanding operations. As far as design, we will continue to develop capsules and hope to become more established in a new classification (that one is top secret). I feel year five is going to be a breakthrough year in every way.
When you scroll through their online offerings, it’s hard not to be impressed with Dixon Rand and not see their unique aesthetic and nod to the American West as a creative breakthrough indeed. While (in my opinion) their patches steal the show (so colorful…so eccentric…how can you not want them all?), their Working Class Hero Oxblood Selvedge Denim Jacket has me drafting a hint-laden note to Santa.
And were I a woman (or a much smaller man), their Western Honey Bee Denim Jacket would have me not minding being seen in conflicting gang colors (I’d like to think that both the Crips and Latin Kings would appreciate good design and give me a pass).
It’s easy to want to support a small business because you believe in what they’re doing…because you’d rather champion them than a big corporate chain. I’m a firm believer in “voting” with my dollar. And while you could certainly see supporting a brand like Dixon Rand as being in step with that philosophy, I want to support them because they make amazing things, corporate or otherwise.
So check ’em out and put them on your radar…and tell a friend. After all, just because we choose to wear different patches (I call Teddy Roosevelt!) doesn’t mean we’re not all on the same team.
For more info and to shop Dixon Rand check out their website.