Small business Withered Fig operates in its own private sector of men’s fashion- heritage goods. They focus on the intentionality behind clothing, digging deeper into the creation of the goods they sell and the personal stories that come from wearing their clothes into a style uniquely fitted to each customer.
It’s a windy day in Fairfax, Virginia. Fairfax Fall Festival is in full swing, with kids dashing by and vendors selling everything from dog socks to garish tie-dye. Tucked away in a side lot, Richard Lin and Ian Huang eye the crowds, anticipating investigative customers who they hope to charm by the distinctiveness and allure of their products. They are the owners of Withered Fig, a heritage menswear store. Their tent is sparse, with jeans, jackets, and t-shirts laid out on tables completed by a rack of button ups near the entrance. A pair of unassuming-looking brown derbies sit prominently on display, drawing the eyes of those unaware of its worth. Both men are quiet, with a soft way of speaking that relays the passion of their craft but without the fervor of an evangelist. They aren’t mad that families walk up to their tent with kettle corn and Gap jeans on. They take an antiquated approach to fashion, putting heightened emphasis on sourcing and integrity, their only desire to share this passion with others.
Fashion is no longer a rich man’s game. The ease of access has been drastically changed by both the diversification of options and the online channels that target consumers from all sides. According to the Harvard Business Review, 86% of consumers prefer to purchase directly from the producer as compared to boutiques or curators of brands. Consumers trust the brands they know out of loyalty, feeling vindicated after trawling through the internet to make an informed decision just to come back to what they already know. The cost of these practices is paid by both the environment and the fashion industry overall, as the fast fashion niche has expanded and restructured itself around the fickle consumer. BBC reports that in 2018, British consumers were buying twice as many items of clothing as they did 10 years ago, a shocking byproduct of the cheapened system which produces more than could ever be necessary in an attempt to anticipate overnight trends. Yet, as we toss away items in favor of a constant seasonal reappraisal of our fashion, we continue to disregard how this affects the resource infrastructure involved with creating that $3 crop top.
Yet, as we toss away items in favor of a constant seasonal reappraisal of our fashion, we continue to disregard how this affects the resource infrastructure involved with creating that $3 crop top.
Businesses like Withered Fig are the opposite of what their owners consider to be “surface level shopping”. Founded by Lin and Huang last year, they want you to take their word on the quality of their products. The business doesn’t craft any of its own goods, choosing instead to sell “specially curated denim, clothing, and lifestyle goods that are carefully designed and crafted.” This model is high-end, with jeans in the low $200s and shirts around $150. To the average consumer those numbers seem arbitrary and inflated, but with a little digging, you’ll understand the method to their madness. It’s steeped within their mission statement – “carefully curated” – and found within all of their products. Not a single item sold was designed without a reexamination of its creation. With simple t-shirts featuring triple-stitched collars and a pair of jeans with the thread colors carefully explained, the emphasis is on creating a personal image and focusing on the essential details.
Watching customers wander up to their tent gives Lin and Huang a sense of satisfaction and pride, which wanes ever so slightly as they explain their prices to their shocked clientele. The tiniest details are their selling points, and the joy is present when a customer’s upturned eyebrow gives either of the two men an opportunity to dig deeper. They take pride in satisfying a demand for a product that is as much a labor of love as it is simply clothing. The goods they sell are decidedly different than that of large online retailers- aimed at being slow, not fast. Take a pair of 3sixteen $230 ST-120x jeans – a company that was at the foundation of Withered Fig since the beginning. They are a well-known retailer of selvedge jeans, which is an indicator of how their denim is created using a method of stitching the edge of the fabric into itself, creating a clean “self edge” by winding the warp (the vertical thread stitched on the loom) and the weft (the vertical threading) of the thread together. These jeans in particular are dark indigo, with an indigo warp and a black weft. They are sanforized, meaning they have been treated to maintain their sizing and textile strength. These jeans are meant to shrink and change size in accordance with the owner, meant to be a unique expression of the wearer. Finally, the rivets are a custom gunmetal color and the leather patch at the back hip is a dark cognac leather patch from Tanner Goods. As the full picture comes together, the price tag comes into focus as less arbitrary, even if still a hike from the norm.
They take pride in satisfying a demand for a product that is as much a labor of love as it is simply clothing.
The denim world is based on the “story and life behind the clothes,” according to Huang. The ecosystem has its own language and flow as different brands and producers quietly jockey for their own sect of the market. Withered Fig focuses on brands that push proprietary goods, fabrics unique only to one consumer and made only for those willing to hunt for them. Lin tells stories, with a soft smile, of eBay battles for antique sewing machines no longer made and friends cemented by the chaos of trade shows. The core drive for this market was founded upon a hunger for expecting more from what you wear, and the characters in the field seem to be united in both their ideals and seemingly similar pairs of faded jeans.
Lin’s own wardrobe has shrunk throughout the years as he has ventured deeper into the heritage fashion market. Boots started costing more and lasting far longer, denim was worn daily and washed lightly, and even a simple t-shirt was a process decided by “100% organic cotton… Made on original loopwheelers in Germany – one of two remaining loopwheeler operations in the world.” Once you begin to see the fashion choices as less rather than more, the price tags fade away and the quality of the good can shine through. Huang sees it as “supporting a cause” by purchasing intentionally, reaching a point where a more conscious consumer has no need to clear out their closet every season when they are purchasing goods that often increase in personal value as they age to the demands of the owner.
Heritage fashion often has a level of snobbery associated with it. No one really wants to be lectured on why their jeans aren’t selvedge and their shirts aren’t handspun – but that’s not what Lin and Huang want to do. They don’t shame fast fashion even if they know it’s not for them. They understand that for many consumers, the affordability and adaptability are a means to an end. They don’t operate in direct competition with fast fashion products, but in a different ecosystem that thrives in the personal transaction. Their brand, and the industry itself, is built on trust. Trust that two laidback guys can pick a pair of jeans that will last, trust that you are excited for the changes that will inevitably come as the clothes you buy come to be defined by the wear you put into them. This is what Lin and Huang do it for – this mutual exchange, steeped in passion for the creation of really, really good clothes.
Images courtesy of Withered Fig