As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Martin.
Ryan Martin is a sixth-generation professional sewer and pattern maker. At a young age, he was intrigued by apparel construction and was behind a sewing machine as early as seven years old. That passion never died, and in 2004 Martin received his degree in Apparel and Textile Design from Kansas State University, his father’s alma mater.
In late 2011, Martin took his passion for vintage denim and launched his own denim label, W.H. Ranch Dungarees. This new concept of couture, artisan-level denim was well-received, and W.H. Ranch quickly became recognized as one of the finest pairs of jeans available on the market, with each pair being made from start to finish by Martin in his Colorado studio. In 2014, Colorado Biz Magazine named W.H. Ranch as one of the Top 25 Manufacturers in the State of Colorado. W.H. Ranch has further been honored as one of the best denim labels in the world by numerous print and online publications including The Rake, Financial Times London, Denimhunters, Hail Mary Magazine, Men’s File, GEARPATROL, Inc. and Heddels. In May of 2017, Martin was awarded the title of Greatest Jean Maker in the World after a two-year long international competition named the Artisan Challenge, hosted by The Denim World Championship.
In the Spring of 2017, Martin was asked to assume the role of Director of Design, Production and Development for KC Jacks workwear, a Kansas City startup workwear company. KC Jacks was honored as one of the Top 100 New Releases of 2019 by GEARPATROL and was featured in its November print issue.
Martin relocated his operation back to his hometown of Kansas City in April of 2017 and currently resides there with his five children and wife of fourteen years.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Fast forwarding past my childhood and my beginnings with the sewing machine when I was seven years old, my journey started when I was still in design school at Kansas State, before denim gained its current pop-culture status. I became obsessed with vintage denim and was seeing Japanese companies striving to reproduce the crisp, raw selvage denim of the American classics, which we no longer made. I wanted to produce the jeans from the golden era of denim, the 1950s. However, in the early 2000s, you could not get access to the raw materials without substantial minimum orders, rendering it impossible to make couture, custom-made jeans. This was also at a time the general public was having a collective conniption over $100 Diesel jeans. It simply wasn’t my time, not for lack of exhausting every option.
Fast forward to 2011. Online retailers like Etsy were gaining popularity with craftsmen and artists from the world over selling their carefully curated goods. Gone was Myspace, but in its place came Facebook and most importantly Instagram. You could now tell your story and reach potentially millions of people by doing nothing more than sharing interesting photos. This was the game changer for me. I started my denim company with an end around. I hand made neck ties out of lightweight denim and duck cloth under the (not so clever) name White Horse Trading Company and put up a shop on Etsy. I immediately gained the attention of influential bloggers and editors that found my take on men’s neckwear refreshing. Within six months I had a distributor and was attending trade shows. It was through these trade shows I was introduced to fabric suppliers and companies that could provide the raw goods necessary to start making couture denim. Almost as soon as I began, I launched the first pair of White Horse Trading Company dungarees (the name later changed to W.H. Ranch). I sold all my best cowboy boots to buy the raw materials and offered up 10 pairs of jeans via Instagram. I had around 300 followers at the time and sold out in about ten days. It was off to the races from there and I never looked back, full throttle going Mach 2 with my hair on fire.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
It wasn’t funny at the time but looking back I always have a good laugh. A jeans manufacturer sent me a cease and desist about six months into W.H. Ranch being on the market, claiming they owned the rights the letter “W.” I may not be the brightest bulb, but I also didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. I knew full well you cannot copyright a general term, let alone a letter of the alphabet. I, not so politely, made that case in a very cross response to the company’s general counsel. I suggested they advise their clients to worry less about me and more about their s***ty product. That ended that.
I learned a few things from this: 1) Even though I was a small couture denim label with an extremely niche market — and having only been on the market barely six months — I was making big denim powerhouses (multi-billion dollar companies) nervous, 2) Anyone can try and sue you for any reason, but it costs money to actually go to court, A LOT of money and 3) Stand up for yourself and don’t be bullied.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
The Bible. You’d be amazed the good advice you can find in there. In all seriousness, if it were not for my faith, I wouldn’t have made it six months in this business. It can be a mean and nasty industry, especially when you are the face of your company. I once heard Billy Reid on a podcast called Blamo say, “I have so much respect for anyone that has any amount of success in this industry because it is so incredibly hard!” He is absolutely correct about that.
Various books I have read on Ralph Lauren also guided the brand vision. I became a student of his philosophy towards “lifestyle marketing.” He certainly wrote the book on it and following that model of marketing and branding helped me stand out in what was starting to become a crowded field of “heritage denim” brands. You never saw my product shot on a white background — they were always shown beat up and worn in on real (albeit, good looking) men, not professional models.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Simple: I had one singular goal that I was laser focused on every day, and that was to make the best pair of jeans to have ever been made. I audaciously claimed I was capable of this in a video I once made. It rubbed some folks the wrong way, but, while I learn something new every day and am being humbled almost daily, I knew I was capable of doing it. I had ultimate belief in myself, but I also worked extremely hard to achieve that goal; it took literal, blood, sweat and tears (the tears followed the blood when I took a giant needle through my thumb).
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
To quote Hall of Fame Head Football Coach Bill Snyder “keep sawing wood.” You get up every day and you do the best you can that day. I always look for one area I can improve upon, and, believe me, there is always one to be found. I knew if I focused on making the best product I possibly could, and improved myself every day, the rest would take care of itself. I think inherent in that statement is also the idea of only worrying about the things you can directly control. This pandemic brought that principle front and center. I (try to) only worry about what I can directly control. I fail in that effort about a dozen times a day, but there is fresh hope tomorrow.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
You aren’t kidding. This is largely the area I fail in when trying to only worry about the things I can directly control. We were fortunate to be in a position where both my wife and I work from home and we had decided three years ago to home school our five children. Though it is becoming less stigmatized, we still would get puzzled looks from people considering our school district is top 5 in the entire country. Now, we look like geniuses! We were built for this!
I have been in a position to see both sides of the coin. W.H. Rach is a couture, highly niche, denim label with jeans ranging between $375-$1,000. KC Jacks, where I serve as Director of Design, Production and Development, caters to a very working-class demographic with jeans priced at $60. We obviously saw an enormous reduction in sales with KC Jacks and had to make many difficult decisions regarding how the brand, which has only been in existence 18 months, would survive and keep moving forward. We had to reassess our marketing strategy, cut as many costs as possible and take pay cuts. I am grateful that we seem to be moving away from the darkness and are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Sales are starting to get back to normal and our production pipeline is rock solid, if only because we use raw, U.S.-made materials and U.S.-based production. If you are in this industry and aren’t immediately looking to reshore whatever production you can, I believe you will be in a world of hurt sooner, rather than later. This is an industry where one missed delivery on a season can destroy your business.
On the complete other end of the spectrum, business is up year over year with W.H. Ranch! I couldn’t even begin to explain that if I tried, so I am not going to.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
With KC Jacks, we are scratching and clawing for any sales we can find. We used to take a more laid-back approach, but, when the pandemic hit, we were looking at every penny and evaluating the ROI on every action we took that wasn’t a fixed cost. We completely overhauled our marketing strategy, which I believe in the end will be a blessing in disguise. We started earning back our sales the hard way, literally picking up the phone and contacting past customers to let them know about a sale that might be going on as we tried to build our social media audience the old fashioned way: with good content and engagement. Our return client rate is absolutely off the charts now and our folks know we are only going to email them if it’s important and we have something to say! As a result, our open rate on those promos is also phenomenal. We don’t have to convince those clients to believe in our brand. They already do, which is one of the biggest challenges for a startup right now, simply getting in front of people and getting them to buy in when money is scarce and the future uncertain.
W.H. Ranch continues to be a great mystery to me after nine years. How, in the middle of a global pandemic, business on designer blue jeans can be significantly up almost defies belief. I’ll just call it a miracle because it’s not due to anything I’m doing differently during this pandemic, I can tell you that. I actually put out several posts to my followers telling them NOT to buy my jeans, to do what they needed to do to take care of their families and support local businesses in their area.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Turn off the news and stay off Twitter!! The happiest people I know don’t engage with either. I will say this as diplomatically as possible: In an election year, especially a presidential election year, everything, and I mean EVERYTHING is about the election and everyone has an agenda. Ask yourself, if you walked outside this morning with your cup of coffee, would you necessarily think we are in the middle of a global pandemic? Try it for a week and see how you feel. I unplugged for a month last year and it was the greatest month of my life. I just walked around smiling, spending time with my kids and had such a great disposition. For all its value — and there is undeniable value — social media has the potential to bring out the worst in people, so monitor yourself in this area and unplug as much as you can (much easier said than done!).
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
One big area of opportunity is the potential for an American Manufacturing Renaissance. In fact, during COVID, I had the lightning bolt moment of realization that I needed to start a (more formalized) consulting firm to help new and upcoming designers build their collections in the U.S. or help existing labels reshore as much of their portfolio of products as they feasibly could. The U.S. apparel manufacturing scene now (housed mostly in L.A.) is a very close network. You have to know someone to get into the reputable facilities. The last thing you want is to pay someone tens of thousands of dollars or more to produce your collection and they shutter, locking your raw materials inside and taking your money in the process. Knowing who to go to is a valuable commodity, one that I have, and have earned the right to have over almost a decade. That opportunity didn’t necessarily exist pre-COVID, though our infrastructure was still there. Made in USA was a nice sentiment, but not necessarily a driver of business.
I believe now there is going to be a groundswell of not just support, but demand from the consumer to see more products made here at home. Listen, I’m not naive. I understand no one is willing to pay $5,000 or more for a made-in-the-USA iPhone, even if that were an option. That is not the case with the apparel industry. I proved that with KC Jacks! We are making a military-spec, made-in-the-USA heavyweight cotton t-shirt, made from raw Texas cotton and woven in downtown L.A. that retails for $1 less than our outsourced direct competition. Don’t tell me it’s not possible to produce here and be competitive. I’ve done it. I am doing it and I am going to help others do it too! The infrastructure is here. Those old shuttered factories across the county are just waiting to be revived and it wouldn’t take much. Most of them shut the doors with the necessary machinery inside. The legendary H BAR C Western Wear label that was forced to shutter its 120-year-old brand in the early 2000s has since revived operations. I am designing a collection for them that will employ former sewers in North Detroit in order to produce the collection, and I’m just getting started.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I personally think the natural human desire for a return to normalcy will start to take over sooner, rather than later. A quick scan of the college town bar scene will confirm that. So, to say it will permanently change the way we live is a sentiment I wouldn’t subscribe to necessarily, though you never know. Typically, in a national emergency, federal powers expand through new legislations. This might be the first time in our history they haven’t, which is historically the main driver for a change in lifestyle or the way we live.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
As I explained earlier, I have big plans for my consulting firm and the new marketing strategy with KC Jacks!
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage others to support local businesses as much as possible. The big players don’t need any more of our money. As I said before, if you can reshore your production back to the U.S., PLEASE take a serious look at doing that. I cannot stress this point enough.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!” — Sylvester Stallone, Rocky Balboa
I find relevance in this quote every day. I would encourage people to watch Rocky Balboa — if you’re feeling beat down by life, this will fix you right up!
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