DISCOURSE: July - Ryan Devens
Welcome to DISCOURSE, my monthly blog series in which I shoot and interview a different individual each month and have a discussion on creativity, innovation, passion, and heart.
Ryan Devens is, without a doubt, the most consistently well-dressed and dapper man I know. I was honored to sit and chat with him about the clothing industry, his tailoring business, music, and definitions of success in San Francisco.
Tell me a little about what you do right now and how you got here.
I moved to The City about 4 years ago, from Nashville, TN. I was finishing up a master’s degree in business at Middle Tennessee State, but lived in Nashville proper. I’d always lived in the South: grew up in East Tennessee, moved to South Carolina for undergrad, then moved to Nashville. Once I got here, I found myself lacking an identity. I was this super fashion-conscious person that had worn suits every single day back in Nashville, coming into this city in which nobody wears suits, and nobody cares as much about dressing up as people did back there. So I took a job with a company called Taylor Stitch, and they immediately threw me into the deep end by putting me in charge of making the custom suits, which is what got me to move out here.
So I started working part time, making minimum wage in San Francisco tailoring suits for people, really not knowing what I was doing, using a manufacturer out of Massachusetts to produce everything… I made a lot of mistakes but made a lot of friends at the same time. I was there for about two years and then got this itch to do it on my own.
I feel like I was the one that always made a lot of the decisions and really knew everything but I was giving all my earnings to someone else. I didn’t have to bear any of the risk but where’s the reward? So I thought a lot about it, started business planning and pitching the idea to friends and family like “What if it was this really cool shop, you would come in and I’d make you a cocktail….” The customer service would be really relationship-based. We want to get to know people, we want to have events and really root ourselves into the city.
At first I wanted to have an alteration shop and give a high level of experience to people who wanted their clothes simply altered, not made custom. I drafted a business plan and then left Taylor Stitch but didn’t implement it; instead, I took a job with another company called Autumn Lane, and it was basically the same thing. I was hired to open the SF shop downtown. The pay was ok, but i think for me it was another way to delay what I really wanted to do because I was scared. So I took the position, trained, learned everything I needed to learn, opened the shop with a coworker and it just was the two of us. Six months later we both left. We just felt this urge, this yearning to have our own environment, have our own store and do things the way that we thought we should do it. Back at that company there was a lot of miscommunication between clients and corporate, and the company had gotten big, to the point where it was hard for a client to walk in the door and feel like a relationship could be established, because there were so many walls and barriers put in between them and staff. Because of that, we really wanted to set out to change that and have a shop with a local feel, where everything was made ethically and sustainably, and of course the fit would be perfect. So my then-coworker (who had been business planning before he took the job too) and I ended up literally comparing notes, and discovered that we both pretty much had the same vision for what we wanted to do, so we put our heads together.
I had a sewing machine in the house at the time that had been given to as a gift one year for my birthday. It had just been collecting dust at the back of the house and honestly it was really that sewing machine that got us started, because with it, we could start altering clothing and making slight adjustments on people’s clothes. I remember it as clear as day: we ended up both putting in our notices, and in the meantime we had been talking to this owner of a building that was across the street. He’s pretty hard to get in touch with but we have gotten to know one of the tenants in the Drexler Colombo building, which is the one directly diagonal from the Transamerica building. It’s been there forever; it’s a historic resource. It was destroyed in the earthquake and rebuilt. That was at the turn of the century, so it has been kind of in that same state ever since. We eventually sat down with the owner, and he tells us he has a space for us. We have no money, we have no investment, we have no savings to put into this thing but all we know is we want to start our own business.
So, we end up both putting in our two week notices, grabbing our business plan, naming ourselves Tailors' Keep, and started selling suits immediately out of the upstairs part of another one of the spaces in the building. The owner gives us free rent for a month or two. We are literally leading people into this empty space, leading them upstairs, talking through suits, measuring them, placing orders, and we had to really win the trust of a lot of people. It was kind of a sketchy situation. It wasn’t our space, we weren’t paying rent, we didn’t really have a website, we didn’t have any creative… we were like “Hey we know how to make suits. Come and buy suits from us.” For a while, it was just friends and friends of friends, but we were able to dramatically build our business just from a really, really gracious owner, someone who believed in our vision and then other people, to the point that they would buy something from us and allow us to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes on their dime, which is unheard of. We ended up getting to the one year mark and then we ended up scoring a permanent location in the same building. That’s where we’ve been ever since January 2016, so we’re a bit over a year and a half old now and this has been a roller-coaster ride. Owning a business in San Francisco that’s not Tech is a very different experience.
What is the reaction and the demand of people here for custom tailored suits or for the work that you do?
It was a little bit of a weird concept because you have companies who sell custom suits for a lot less of a price. Now is the experience as intimate or as genuine? Who’s to say? But I think our vision of what buying a custom suit looks like was “We want to build our relationship. We want to get to know you. We want you to feel comfortable that you can open up and talk about your body and the things that you want to hide and the things that you want to showcase.” It sounds kind of weird when you’re talking about it, but if you would walk into a department store, you wouldn’t be opening up about your sports injury that you had when you were a kid, or how your shoulder was damaged at birth, or how one of your arms is two inches shorter than the other one due to a deformity, or your posture is a certain way because you had to this type of work when you were younger and it kind of warped your body… you wouldn’t really open up about that stuff to just anyone, so the fact that we can get guys to come in and really tell us what they want out of a suit, not just the color and the fabric or the buttons is pretty cool.
I think once we cracked the code on what people are afraid of as far as wearing a suit goes, we were able to figure out the holdups, the mental blocks that people have that keep them from investing in a nice quality tailored suit. Once we figured some of that out we were able to push forward and gain the respect of a lot more people. The right approach is not saying “there’s a problem here, people don’t know what they’re doing,” that’s more of a negative outlook to have. People here are creative, they’re wonderful people, they are experts at expressing themselves in so many ways, and clothing, the way I see it, is the next step.
To me, a suit or tailored garment is the finishing touch on your appearance when you’re going to an event, or speaking, or going to a wedding, or really anything important in life. Having something tailored and looking impeccable says to people “Hey, I really care and I’ve taken the extra step to make sure I’m being respectful to who I’m around whenever I’m attending these things” and then on top of that I have clients all the time that want to establish an identity. There are so many things that we can say or think about someone when we first see them. I’m not saying to buy into that completely, but I am saying that there’s always a way to express ourselves in what we wear and put on every day, and the way we carry ourselves. It just depends on how genuinely we want to be portrayed.
Do you find that people that you interact with (both clients and people that you partner with) see these things the same way?
I would say so. Our aesthetic and our brand attracts a lot of people but I think there’s another type of person that doesn’t want that relationship, that wants to just get something fast and move on, but a lot of our clients that we do attract definitely tend to really appreciate the relationship and the friendship that you can build because for a lot of people, the bigger the city the lonelier it can be because they’re working all the time. You’re working 50, 60 hours a week, 70 or 80 depending on your position. For a lot of people walking into a suit shop like ours where we’re sitting down with them and hanging out and asking them questions about their life, we’re not talking about work the whole time, because that’s what they don’t want to talk about. So we say our shop is kind of an oasis to get away from the daily grind.
We also do a lot of day appointments where guys come in during work and get fitted or bring their fiancées in to talk about wedding suits. It’s become this really cool way to connect with people on a deeper level. We have guys that come in on their lunch breaks just to say hi, and these are people we didn’t know before we made them a suit or shirt. They just walk in the door and they're excited to be there. I have guys that share music with me, they tell me great food that they’ve experienced lately, or places to visit in Sonoma that he and his wife enjoy... all these things that people really care about and enjoy. We’ve created an environment where they can share those things with us too.
Where do you see the industry going in the next few years and how do you see yourself being part of that?
I think that there’s a big divergence in the industry. The middle class has always been broken up into two parts. I think the suiting industry in general is going more towards custom because I feel like people are discovering “Hey, custom is a big difference because I’m a weird body type or I have a certain preference of fit that I can’t find off the rack” so I think the suiting industry is inching more towards a place where custom is more accessible to people. It’s not like something that you have to shove out a billion dollars to have a custom suit, because you can get a suit now for $400 to $500 custom, so I think the suiting industry is diverging in a way that a lot of it is going towards this really fast fashion, custom suiting style where there’s no experience. You’re going online, you’re plugging in your measurements, you’re crossing your fingers to hope that it’s going to come back fitting right and that way they can keep costs down because they’re not having to hire employees and there’s no brick and mortars to think about. A big chunk of the industry is going towards the more low cost leader model, where they don’t care about production, they don’t care about ethics; they just care about how many custom suits they can make for the lowest price possible.
That’s one half, and the other half of the industry is going back to the roots, focusing more on craft and experience, how to build relationships, how to gain legitimacy in a community, how to make people feel really good about what they’re purchasing, and it’s something that you can invest in. You can really kind of go either direction, and I think that we of course would probably fit into more of the camp where it’s experience driven, because we’re human and at the end of the day, we desire relationships. We don’t want to just stare at a computer the whole day and never have any interaction with anyone ever. I think at the core we really do desire that, and that’s what we’re aiming to do as well in our business.
Tell me about your background in Music and what you’re doing now.
I’ve been performing and writing music ever since I was six. I took piano lessons every single week from about six years old, all the way until I was a senior in high school. So I’m a classically trained Pianist, but to be brutally honest, I am extremely burnt out on it. I haven’t sat down and played music off a page probably in 5-6 years. I picked up a guitar while I was taking piano lessons and that’s what pulled me away from piano. I started writing music on guitar pretty early, around 7th Grade. I started writing music and playing in bands with other kids in the neighborhood. That’s really how we spent our time: we didn’t play sports, we played music in our garages with each other and at talent shows.
I was more in Punk and Metal Bands at that time. I always had rejected Folk and Country Music because I grew up in the South and I just always hated it, but when I moved to Nashville, I just got swept up in it. I let go of my hesitation and just started loving old school Country like Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, and Dolly Parton. All these older records were written when the singers were in their twenties and early teens, and it’s such a different vibe from what Country Music is today.
When I finished up my full length Metal record that I had produced myself, recorded all the guitar, programmed all the drums etc, we played one swan song performance back in my home town, Johnson City in Kingsport. And I was like, “Alright, so what’s it gonna be now… I want to try my hand at Folk Music and see what I can do.” So I started this project called Grow & Twine back in 2010, and it was just this anthology of songs that had a certain mood and a certain vibe. It’s cool to have them as a snapshot of how I was feeling back then.
When I moved here, I left all my instruments back in Tennessee. Six months in, I realized that I had to have a guitar again, I couldn’t handle not having a musical instrument. So my mom shipped me my acoustic guitar in the mail, but I didn’t play it for a couple of months. And I remember finally waking up one day and catching the bug again and I was like, I really have to write again. So I wrote a lot of songs and I found musicians to play all the music with me, and we started writing again and ended up finishing up a whole EP, which was with a friend of ours, Jacob Montague, who did a fantastic job. We ended up getting signed onto a licensing company who offers our music up for sale like to commercials and online publications and things like that.
We’ve been playing in the city now for about four years now. We’ve played all over California and we’re working on writing a record right now. Trying to do a full length this time, instead of a six song EP. I’ve never been able to live life without having a musical project somewhere going on. So it’s been fun to push and pull a little bit. Some musicians come and go, they have their own projects to think about or they get involved in other things or life gets in the way and then you part ways for a while, and maybe come back again.
My business is more the analytical side of my brain and the music stuff is the more creative side. To me, music is all emotionally based whereas in business, emotion is not always the best thing to have infused in your business model, because you can make bad decisions and waste money very quickly. But in music, the more emotional you are, the more real and unconstrained you are, the better the music turns out.
It’s interesting that you put it that way, how you devote the majority of one side of your brain to doing your business and the other side to music. I think a lot of people aren’t able to do that. They either do only one or the other. For you, how do you make the two co-exist? And do you ever find that you run out of time or you aren’t able or don’t have the capacity to do all that you want to do?
Yeah, I feel like that all the time. I mean there are seasons that the music takes priority for a month or two. Life is all about priority, and there’s always going to be things that have higher priority. But they won’t always. I think it’s completely ok to switch and devote more time and energy to something for a small amount of time in order to get it started. Like my business right now, we’ve spent the first year crafting systems that are sustainable and don’t need a ton of attention to maintain. So whenever we bring on more people to help run the shop or sell or promote, it should be pretty simple to keep duplicating myself. The challenge is creating a system in which my time is more freed up, but the job is still getting done correctly.
Music has definitely gone on the back burner for the past year and a half. We were in the studio writing this record almost all of last year, and it kind of just sputtered out because I didn’t have the schedule to devote to it, and the band drifted apart. But that was actually a blessing in disguise, because it gave me a lot more time to think about what I wanted to do on my record.
So yeah, there are definitely seasons where the business is the priority. There’s seasons where my friendships and my social life are the priority, and there are times where the music is for sure the priority. I think it’s about having a healthy balance and not being so bipolar about it where people start losing faith in you. Because if you’re deeply involved in your community for two months and you’re out every night and you’re going to everyone’s birthday parties and you’re inviting people into your home and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, you disappear, people are like “oh, I must have done something wrong or he must not like me,” or “I wonder what’s happening in his life that he can’t be around anymore”. So it’s important to have moderation and not being so hot and cold about things, that can really turn people off and demotivate them to care.
Yeah, I guess it’s okay if you take a break from something as long as you still hold onto it and maybe come back to it over time.
What’s your take on the music scene here? Both in general and as well as compared to Nashville?
Here it’s much smaller, and much less serious too. There are some great bands here but unlike Nashville, I don’t think a lot of the bands that are here are really trying to be a big deal. A lot of musicians and bands here are very good at what they do and often much better than people in Nashville even, but I think because this is such a tough city to make it, even as a working professional, making it as a musician alone here is much less feasible. So a lot of people have to move out of the city, they have to move to Oakland or South San Francisco, or even further to LA. And so I think music, just like anything else artistic in San Francisco, has been pushed out just a little bit just because of the Tech boom. That is a big part of why the music scene isn’t as strong, isn’t as unified, because being a musician here is such a struggle, so many people are coming and going.
In Nashville it’s not so much of a struggle. It’s cheaper, and everybody has a car, so it’s easier to bring equipment to places whereas here, if I have to go to a show, I have to get an Uber to bring my guitar or I have to ride with my roommate, unless he’s not going to the show... it’s always this extra stuff that I don’t want to think about. But back there it was like it was just easier to play more often, you meet a lot more musicians, a lot more people on the music scene, not just as musicians but as music people in music business too. Here, the city is more like a music listener city, rather than a music playing city. I just don’t meet a lot of musicians here, like I don’t meet a lot of people who play guitar or play piano or sing, whereas back there if you don’t play something, you’re odd.
Here it’s like “Oh, you’re not involved in Tech? Well, why are you here?” I get that all the time, like when I’m riding in a Lyft and someone’s like, “What are you wearing a suit for?” I’m like, “I’m going to work.” “What do you do?” “Oh yeah, I own a custom suiting business.” They’re like “Oh really, that’s really cool, how is business?” You can tell they’re like “How is this successful? It’s not Tech so how are you making money?” No one cares about anything other than Tech a lot of the time here. But with that being said, the reason we’re successful is because of Tech: it’s because people make enough money to do well here, and those are the people who are buying suits from us all the time. So I don’t have any complaints about it, I have benefitted from the Tech Industry without have to work in it.
You studied Business, so did you ever consider going into Music Business, and if you did, what made you decided to go into clothing instead?
The music business was definitely a big interest of mine. The reason I ended up in Nashville for as long as I did, was that I did a summer internship there, where my undergrad paid for the whole summer. So I went there to intern for this recording studio, where they would record and produce jingles and music for commercials and radio and things like that. So it was definitely in the music business side of things but it was also like recording and learning how to use equipment and set things up. So that was kind of my first exposure to the music business side of things, while being a musician. I thought about going into the music business industry, but I just never really went for it. I saw a lot of people become disenchanted with the music industry because they were studying it and having a hard time making it through life. And so I realized that I couldn’t be a musician and be in the music business as an executive eventually.
That’s what definitely dissuaded me away from it, and at the same time, I was working in retail stores like J. Crew over the holidays. Everybody there was so great and just loved what they did, and it was like this family that I became a part of and I got into clothing big time while working there. I was kind of obsessed, I would spend hours online every night just reading every product description on their website and learning about all their sizing and how everything fit and what fabrics came from and where that particular piece was made, as well as researching style blogs to figure out how to style their stuff and how to make it look good, and so that was kinda my introduction into that industry.
Eventually, I started to value making tailoring more accessible and interesting to people. Being here as a suit wearing person, you have to think about suits differently. You have to think: how I can wear a blazer in a way like a tech guy would wear a blazer? Most guys don’t wear suits for fun, although I think eventually we’ll get there. I think suits are coming around, and it’s been cool to see that, especially in a city like this. I see people dress up a little bit more often. There are times where I go out for drinks after work and I see a guy decked out in a suit and I’m like, wow, I’m not the most dressed up person in this room, that’s great.
What are some people or publications that you admire and look up to?
Honestly I’d say some bartender friends of mine have taught me a ton about customer service and customization and responding to different levels of particularness and requests. I know some guys that bartend at Bar Agricole and Trou Normand that I learned so much about cocktailing and bartending from. A lot of it is the same type of thinking for providing an experience for someone. You’re sitting down, you’re having a conversation, you’re learning about that person, you’re learning about their preferences. What they like, what they don’t like and then you’re creating something for them that they may or may not have experienced before. You’re exposing their palate to something new, something interesting and then they’re leaving that encounter with a story to tell, with something that they can share with someone else because their knowledge has been expanded.
As far as publications go, this is a book that I bought right before I started Tailor’s Keep and I just love the title: Monocle Guide to Good Business. Basically the point of this whole book is little snapshots of businesses that are of various sizes and focuses. There’s stuff about things like a boutique hotel company, book publisher, design shop. A lot of these people have similar stories, it’s cool how they started things, their perspective on business and how to create a sustainable model that, really at the core almost every time, is about the people. It’s either about the people that work for you or the people that you work for, aka the client. So yeah, I mean, a book like that just has so many stories and anecdotes and snapshots of what other people are doing, that are doing what I’m doing but in just different industries.
What would you say is your definition of a good life?
The other day, as I was watching someone driving a Ferrari around downtown, I thought: how many suits would I have to sell to buy one of those? How much money would I have to make in December to take this much home? How much money would I have to make in 2017 to put this much money aside to do this, this, this… I think the good life is not having to make those calculations every single day of your life. Not having to say “I want this thing, what do I have to do to get it”, and sitting around and think about those things all day is so materialistic. And so I think my philosophy is if you build it, they will come. But it doesn’t just stop there: if you build it and you build it well, you build it sustainably and you treat people well, you close loops. If you do what you say you’re gonna do and it’s not about money, I think you’ll always be taken care of. I mean you’re going to get what you want in the end and if that’s a lot of money and a lot of things, that’s gonna come at the sacrifice of a lot of other things that may have led to a much more fruitful, enjoyable existence.
I could invest all this money into this car that could get smashed up tomorrow, while I’m paying thousands of dollars in insurance and car payments every month. It’s like of course you could make it work, you could stretch to get things but why? What’s the point? Is it just so people can see me drive this around?
What I want is for someone to walk into my shop and have a conversation or buy something from me and have a really genuine interaction. That’s the riches to me, to be known as someone that runs an ethical business. To get philosophical and religious, I really want to run something that would be representative of Christ. That’s what my goal always is, is to treat people right and ethically and to give when it might not be feasible to give because I feel like we’ll be rewarded later in life for those things.
Well it was awesome to talk to you. Thanks so much for taking time out.