California Cowboy: Clothing In a Golden State of Mind
It isn’t often that there’s disagreement over what to cover here at Heddels–we’re a relatively like-minded bunch–but the newish brand California Cowboy was not universally embraced as a good fit. And I can understand why. There are a few gimmicky elements to their pieces that, had I not looked beyond them, would have been a deal breaker for me, too.
But I know more than most (inbox full of PR pitches, I’m looking at you) how hard it is to have brands break through and get attention in the crowded marketplace, especially when going after a younger demographic that has money and options. So sometimes you gotta scrape off a layer of frosting to get to some damn good cake. (I’m speaking metaphorically–never ask me to scrape off actual frosting…never!)
Beneath the bottle pocket, koozie and bottle opener, and “Conversation Cards” lies a collection of smartly designed pieces in luxurious fabrics with a spot on contemporary fit. Embracing my first (and, ideally, last) opportunity to quote Kid Rock, “I wanna be a cowboy, baby.” Forgive me.
OK, so the gimmicks. Just because a shirt comes with a pocket to hold your beer doesn’t mean it has to be used for that. (As I imagine you have a wallet and keys, right?) The bottle opener and can koozie? They’re what junk drawers were made for. And the Conversation Cards (more aptly titled, Please Throw Your Drink, Or Better Yet, Punch Me In My Face Cards) are best not read but recycled with the box and tissue paper. Now all you’re left with are cool clothes. Shall we move on? Yes, let’s.
Interview with Founder Drew Clark
Before I dive into my thoughts on what I like and love about the California Cowboy collection, maybe it’s best to hear a bit about the thinking behind the brand and their “social technical” features from company Founder and CEO, Drew Clark.
Heddels (H): California Cowboy…how did you come up with the name?
Drew Clark (DC): Our name is inspired by the pioneering, rebellious, and free-thinking “cowboy” culture of California. In Texas, cowboys ride horses. In California, we ride surfboards and skis. And just like a Cowboy hitting the saloon, we know how to socialize after we get out of the water or come off the mountain. The Golden State where we grew up inspires our sense of humor and our products. Our goal is to spark conversations and bring people together. We’re social, active, and optimistic…break the ice, and mix it into cocktails.
H: I know you worked at Levi’s for a long while…what’s something from that experience that you’ve integrated into this new brand?
DC: I learned a lot about brand while at Levi’s. I also learned how powerful the idea of California is around the world. At Levi’s, I traveled extensively in global markets, and I learned that people on every continent are intrigued by the state in which I was born. This dates back to the gold rush when people migrated to California to seek fortune and glory. Since then, every generation of Californians has been pioneers in their own right. Our cowboy culture has led the globe in music, film, surfing, skiing, lifestyle, and design. My vision is a global lifestyle brand, and much of that vision was crafted from my travels while at Levi’s.
H: The message on your web site stresses your belief in putting down our devices and having some good old fashioned “analog” interaction? How do you feel that idea meshes with your collection?
DC: We design Social Technical apparel for the extrovert in everyone. We do it because we believe that style can bring the world together, one interaction at a time. This mission and purpose are reflected in that we craft high-quality garments that command attention. When someone puts on a floral print, they’re usually going to do something fun. They may be signaling to the world that they’re feeling laid back and loose that day.
We command attention with our prints, patterns, and colors, but also through clever and fun hidden function. Both our aesthetic and functional design enhance the wearer’s social experience by giving them features to talk about. How many people have a bottle pocket on their shirt? It’s no mistake that our dry pocket for your phone is on the back. Harder to feel it buzz, and…out of sight, out of mind. We even include stacks of conversation cards with every product order. Even our tees have a signature pocket designed to hold our conversation cards. We marry visible fun with hidden function.
H: You’ve gone a long way to integrate genuine utility into a number of your pieces, like the terry lining of your High Water shirt. What inspired that decision?
DC: First, I’m an extreme extrovert, and I spent a lot of time alone during an illness in high school. During this time I realized how important having genuine social connection was in my life. This experience inspired me to design social technical apparel. Athletic brands have this nailed–you can buy sneakers to make you a better runner and pants to make yoga more comfortable, but no one in the lifestyle space has ever created technical apparel to enhance your social experience.
Second, the style and aesthetic inspiration are simply about where I grew up and what I spent time doing. I was on the beach in the summer and on the mountain in the winter. I surfed and skied, and what I enjoyed most was camaraderie. Plus, I’ve always loved vintage surf and ski style. The High Water shirt specifically was inspired when I couldn’t find a modern version of the old terry cloth lined “Cabana suits” from the ’50s. Most utilitarian gear doesn’t look or fit that well, and I wanted to blend the two more seamlessly.
H: The beer pocket…bottle opener…”conversation-starter” cards—for some I’ve spoken to, they seem like the “headline” of your brand rather than, as they do to me, some very small print. While I can certainly appreciate the marketability of elements like those, do you ever feel like their “gimmicky” quality could be a distraction from the real features of what are clearly super high-quality pieces?
DC: We do have some functional design elements that you might not expect to find on premium made-in-the-USA products. If you don’t know they’re there, you tend to miss them, and the wearer may choose not to use or otherwise emphasize some features. We allow different customers to gravitate towards different elements. Some people care less about one feature but fall in love another.
I talk to people every day who tell me something different about why they bought one of our products. I put a lot of thought into fit and aesthetic features to ensure they would appeal to a fashion-conscious guy or girl. Hiding our functional features was also a conscious choice. In this way, we’re able to let the customer choose what appeals to them, but not overwhelm them or make features feel too obvious.
At the end of the day, we want people to decide who they want to be that day, and to invite them to make our product their own. A single guy may wear the High Water shirt to a pool party in Vegas. We also have parents that love our product…baby bottles are bottles too! We focus on the customer telling their story versus us telling ours. This is also why our collection features very limited branding and use of our logo. We built our brand for you, not us.
H: The Waygu Fleece that’s used in your sweatshirts—am I late to the party or is this a new variety of fleece you’ve stumbled across? And considering its softness, why isn’t everything made from it? (Not just your clothes, I mean literally everything.)
DC: Our Wagyu blend is definitely an amazing fabric. Knit in Los Angeles, it mixes bamboo with spandex. We love it. Our Wagyu is a great casual fleece and we have a few things in store for product expansion here.
H: So much of your stuff feels like a natural fit for West Coast living (as Jimmy Kimmel says, we only have one season but it’s the best one). Are you seeing the same embrace of your designs across climates?
DC: We’ve found that people everywhere love our product. We’ve sold to all 50 states and 16 countries and military bases around the world. “Sunny California” is a bit of a misnomer. There are some amazing ski resorts in and it gets pretty cold even in summer months in areas North of the Bay. Canada is actually a big market for us across categories. Our High Water shirt sells well year-round, and the High Sierra shirt kills in the winter. We’ve got a few things on deck next year across categories—new prints, patterns, colors, and some new product categories.
H: How do you see your brand evolving over time? The clothing business is pretty volatile—what’s your strategy for staying alive and, more importantly, relevant?
DC: Change or die! We will continue a relentless focus on the consumer, and stay true to our Californian roots. We’ve built some amazing products thus far, and we have an ability to expand into so many more. Our social technical approach will remain at the core of our design philosophy, and we will expand into products around that central idea. Expect more fun with color, print and pattern, expansion of sales channels, product innovation in new categories, and some collabs with other brands.
H: Your Yukata robe has turned me, never a robe guy, into very much a robe guy. It feels inspired by slacker heroes from Hawkeye to the Dude. Where’d the idea come from?
DC: The inspiration here was multifaceted. We had a lot of men buying our women’s robes (kimonos), so there was a natural product extension. With the High Water shirt, we took an iconic product category that no one had innovated since its inception, so we took the same “human-centered design” approach to the Yukata. We gave it our own California Cowboy twist by designing the Garibaldi print, a damselfish that is the state marine fish of California, and similar in color to koi fish I had seen on a trip to Japan. We infused many of our social technical design elements and turned the staid and stale robe into a statement piece that can swim gracefully to the pool scene at a Hollywood hotel or on the beach in Malibu.
H: Any other surprises we can look forward to?
DC: Let’s just say that I’ve got an ace or two up my sleeve. I don’t think I could call myself a Cowboy if I let you know what they were, could I?
The Products of a California Cowboy
Yes, there is definitely a hint of bro energy woven into the fabric of California Cowboy, but I’m willing to concede that these days it’s a hint woven into the fabric of the state as well. And to me, the “social technical” stuff is marketing copy hammering on the wrong nail and taking itself way too seriously. (Imagine if today Levi’s went on and on about pockets reinforced with copper rivets…as though that’s needed because we’re all prospectors stuffing our 501’s with nuggets from our latest strike).
Drew’s message overemphasizes the social tech, and I believe he’s crowing too quietly about the other features of his garments (all designed and Made in California, U.S.A.) that has really made them current go-to pieces in my wardrobe. They are, from good to best…
Their graphic (pun intended…once I quote Kid Rock, all bets are off) Califuckyeah Dogtown Wash t-shirt ($38) is good-natured wearable profanity, much in the style of the infamous shirt Keith Richards is wearing above, mixed with some hometown pride. It’s absurdly soft (as all t-shirts seem to miraculously be these days) and yes has a little pocket for the conversation cards, but I can confirm it will also hold your car’s key fob. The California Cowboy cut is universally slim, so I’ve sized up here to an XXL and won’t be tossing it in the dryer.
The High Water shirt ($135) seems pricey for a floral short-sleeve shirt, that is until you factor in the domestic manufacturing and the fact that it’s terry-lined, acting as a towel for when you emerge from the surf (or for me, the shower…sorry Kilgore, Johnny Don’t Surf either).
I love the print, as it’s fun while still showing some appropriate restraint. And it’s got two pockets, one a “dry” pocket protecting your phone while around (not necessarily in) the water, and another for a bottl…something else like money or gum or keys. Again, I’ve sized up to an XXL and love the clever mix of form and function.
The High Sierra shirt ($148) is decidedly Pendelton-ish, though better, in my opinion, thanks to quality imported flannel (from Japan or Portugal) and lined in their custom developed “cotton modal thermal” fabric. The shirt’s weighty enough to save you a jacket layer (at least here in San Diego), and it’s really, really soft. Again, I needed to head north to a XXL, and yes, it’s got the same two pockets.
California Cowboy offers two sweatshirt varieties in two fabrics—the Dogtown Wash Fleece ($108) that’s a dreamy 70/30 cotton/poly blend, and their Wagyu Fleece ($108) that’s a mid-weight 94% bamboo and 6% spandex. Both are as plush as (insert reference to the belly of your favorite small animal)…this is comfiness usually reserved for baby clothes.
I went with hooded versions of each (the color Rose Ave. in the Dogtown and an olive green in the Waygu), and love that they chose to skip the drawstrings and opt for the shawl collar look instead. I was my standard XXL in the Dogtown but managed to sneak into an XL in the Wagyu. Drew was right that the logo-branding is subtle, and while these may be steeply priced for sweatshirts, they’re worth it. (For me, 100% cotton gets stiff after repeated washings, but this poly and bamboo alchemy has kept my sweats nice and tender wash after wash.)
Saving the best for last, Drew was kind enough to send me an early release of his El Garibaldi Yukata Robe ($148)…a kimono-style wrap that, to me, harkens back to the wonderful slacker uniforms of old. Like the High Sierra, this is also lined with their proprietary cotton-modal terry cloth, which works beautifully as a built-in towel. Best—and perhaps, most appropriately—of all, it has all the features like the pockets plus side slip pockets, a sunglass loop, and interior ties to prevent it from opening and me starting a “conversation” with a police officer.
See, due to the extreme comfort and bold print, I wear this around the house (and out) long after showering as “outerwear” to check the mail, grab something from the garage, do the laundry, and generally make me feel “dressed” enough to seem like a functioning member of society. It comes in two sizes, and I grabbed the L/XL. If I’m inside, chances are good it’s on my outside.
In the end, I hope you’ll agree that California Cowboy was indeed a good fit for us. We can debate the merits of one style over another all day long, but what isn’t subject is that this is a brand turning out American made clothes of uncompromising quality that fit nicely into the lineup of our usual suspects. And trust me—when you feel and look this good, you won’t need some cheesy card to start a conversation.
To check out more from California Cowboy, visit their website.