On­line re­tailer Chub­bies courts bros re­luc­tantly shop­ping for clothes

Bro­tail­ers are re­defin­ing how guys buy clothes

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - By Sam “Bro­bart” Gro­bart Pho­to­graphs by Cody Pick­ens

On a cloud­less, 70F Fe­bru­ary morn­ing in San Fran­cisco, wild par­rots fly from branch to branch on Tele­graph Hill, and on the ex­posed, wind­ing Filbert Street steps below, an adult man is dressed in a go­rilla suit, throw­ing empty plas­tic wa­ter jugs at a half-dozen cos­tumed grown-ups. For safety, they’ve put on red hel­mets, an “M” above the brim. Some have fake mus­taches; oth­ers have real ones. They’re all wear­ing shorts.

In­side the go­rilla suit is Grant Marek, edi­to­rial di­rec­tor of Chub­bies, re­tailer of brightly col­ored shorts with thigh-bar­ing hem­lines—motto: “Sky’s out. Thighs out”—and pro­ducer of ex­tremely pop­u­lar on­line re-cre­ations of retro video games. To­day, Marek and his fel­low Chub­bies staffers, mod­ern-day Mar­ios, are shoot­ing a real-life ver­sion of the Nin­tendo clas­sic Don­key Kong. The video’s shaky cam­er­a­work—a gen­er­ous term, given the use of GoPros and selfie sticks—and near-ab­sence of prod­uct close-ups would get an F in Com­mer­cial Di­rect­ing 101, but the Chub­tendo squad doesn’t care.

In Jan­uary com­pany mem­bers reen­acted the rac­ing game Mario Kart, film­ing them­selves rid­ing small plas­tic scoot­ers down the city’s twisty Lombard Street. More than 24 mil­lion peo­ple have watched it, and typ­i­cal Face­book com­ments in­clude “Holy s---, this is hi­lar­i­ous” and “This would be so much fun drunk!” Which is ex­actly the re­ac­tion Chub­bies ex­pects. “We started mak­ing things for our friends,” says co-founder Kyle Hency, 31. “That’s still the guid­ing light for what we do.”

Chub­bies—yes, the name refers to ex­actly what a 16-year-old boy thinks it does—is a leader in a new kind of menswear retail that ap­peals to a dif­fer­ent breed of cus­tomer. He’s not the rum­pled of­fice drone who wants nine suits for the price of one at Jos. A. Bank or the tidy, tailored aes­thete who fa­vors J.Crew. Rather, he’s the id-driven, post­col­le­giate twen­tysome­thing bro, the dude who might call his friend Broseph Stalin and eat a bag of bro­tato chips. The recipe for this guy is pretty straight­for­ward: Take two mea­sures bot­tom-of-your-prep-school class, add one mea­sure earnest goof­ball, stir, and gar­nish with a lacrosse stick. But the way to build a busi­ness around him isn’t as clear. This is a group who hates shop­ping and would hap­pily wear the same pair of sweat­pants ev­ery day if so­ci­ety didn’t frown upon it. So how do you get th­ese guys to buy clothes? This is where Chub­bies and its peers come in. Call them the bro­tail­ers.

Bro­tail­ers are com­pa­nies such as Cri­quet ($75 cot­ton golf shirts with names like You’re My Boy Blue, a ref­er­ence to the movie Old School), Bird­dogs ($55 ath­letic shorts called the Thrusters that come with built-in un­der­wear), and Un­tuckit ($98 tail­less shirts such as the Cote de Beaune that are meant to drape over the belt). They tend to make one prod­uct, which they sell pri­mar­ily on­line via web­sites that also fea­ture ar­ti­cles about “How to Pump the Brakes on a Re­la­tion­ship” and “How to Pitch a Tent When You’re Not Camp­ing.”

Th­ese com­pa­nies aren’t the first to use the In­ter­net to sell cloth­ing and ac­ces­sories to men. In ad­di­tion to ma­jor re­tail­ers, Jack Spade (ur­bane bags), Harry’s (Ger­man-made ra­zors), Jack Er­win (dress shoes), and Bono­bos (chinos and jeans) have all gone af­ter young ur­ban pro­fes­sion­als. But what sets apart bro­tail­ers in this ecosys­tem is that they’re more a mir­ror than an ideal. You don’t shop at Chub­bies be­cause you want to look like the guy in the pho­tos; you shop there be­cause you al­ready do.

Many bro­tail­ers share an ori­gin story: A group of friends

“We’re in this re­ally weird phase of mas­culin­ity, where all the rules are shift­ing. … I don’t think any­one has told the guys what they’re sup­posed to do now”

fin­ish col­lege and get jobs in ré­sumé-build­ing in­dus­tries like fi­nance and tech­nol­ogy. All’s well, but the jobs are bor­ing, and they’re work­ing for the week­end. Even­tu­ally they hear the siren song of the startup and ven­ture cap­i­tal money. “We were grad­u­at­ing school in a time where the job mar­ket was a bit tu­mul­tuous,” says Chub­bies co-founder Tom Mont­gomery, 30, re­fer­ring to the post-fi­nan­cial-cri­sis years of the late 2000s. Mont­gomery, Hency, and co-founders Rainer Castillo, 31, and Pre­ston Ruther­ford, 30, were all newly minted Stan­ford grad­u­ates pur­su­ing ca­reers in bank­ing and busi­ness de­vel­op­ment. Castillo is the only re­tailer of the bunch, hav­ing worked in cor­po­rate jobs at the Gap and Levi’s. “On the week­ends, when it was nice out, the uni­form all of us nat­u­rally set­tled into was a pair of shorts that were handed down from our dads,” Mont­gomery says. “They were the hall­mark of all of our best days and our best week­ends.” Mar­ried to this sun-dap­pled nos­tal­gia was a keen busi­ness sense. They could make a name for them­selves, they thought, by go­ing against the knee-length board-shorts trend dom­i­nat­ing men’s retail at the time. Theirs would be less

Hawaii Five-O re­make and more Hawaii Five-O orig­i­nal. In 2011 the four of them quit their jobs and started sell­ing shorts out of a backpack as they walked the beaches around San Fran­cisco. “Peo­ple would ask, ‘Where’d you get those shorts?’ The re­sponse was just in­cred­i­ble,” Mont­gomery says. Since then, Chub­bies has added swim trunks and col­lared shirts to its in­ven­tory—gar­ments that are “sym­bolic of a cer­tain free­dom and emo­tion the week­end brings you,” he says. Along the way, Chub­bies has also added more than $13 mil­lion in ven­ture cap­i­tal fund­ing from firms in­clud­ing IDG Ven­tures, Burch Cre­ative Cap­i­tal, and Lerer Hip­peau Ven­tures, which be­lieve in the sell­ing power of shorts with names like the Khak­meis­ters ($49.50) and the Great Chil­leri­nos ($39.50). There’s also the Sch­wort ($34.50), shorts made out of sweat­pants ma­te­rial that’s mar­keted with the fol­low­ing de­scrip­tion, punc­tu­a­tion be damned: “We’d equate it to swad­dling your thighs in a gel-in­fused down microfiber fleece lamb’s wool com­forter as you melt into the cush­ions of a tem­purpedic vi­brat­ing re­clin­ing couch while si­mul­ta­ne­ously re­ceiv­ing a Swedish mas­sage as you watch 10 straight hours of NFL foot­ball while be­ing served plat­ters of tiny cheese cubes.”

The late 2000s may have been an anx­ious pe­riod for cor­po­rate Amer­ica, but it was a good time to think about an ap­parel startup—par­tic­u­larly one fo­cused on laid-back men’s cloth­ing. For starters, the de­mo­graph­ics were, and still are, fa­vor­able. In 1975 the av­er­age man got mar­ried at 24, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Census Bureau. To­day it’s 29. Bird­dogs’ tar­get cus­tomer is 25, says founder Peter Bald­win: “He’s got dis­cre­tionary in­come, he’s got to buy clothes, and he doesn’t have a wife to do it for him.”

In the past five years, says mar­ket re­searcher IBIS World, menswear has been the fastest-grow­ing prod­uct cat­e­gory sold on­line, out­pac­ing gro­ceries, shoes, and elec­tron­ics. When The­Bou­[email protected], a fash­ion PR agency, sur­veyed adult men in Jan­uary, 53 per­cent de­scribed their style as “ba­sic bro” vs. “prac­ti­cal,” “pro­fes­sional,” or “rugged.” Al­though many guys still af­fect a preppy look, they’re not go­ing to Brooks Brothers to get it. “If you’re try­ing to reach young men,” says Ty Mon­tague, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of con­sult­ing firm Co: Col­lec­tive, “adopt the tone and man­ner of young men, which is by na­ture ir­rev­er­ent.” The bro­tail­ers have raided Dad’s and Grand­dad’s clos­ets and jet­ti­soned the pre­tense older brands re­lied on. It’s less high-cheek­boned bon vi­vant on a pheas­ant hunt, more dad-bod with a can of Te­cate.

What bro­tail­ers of­fer is more than just a retail ex­pe­ri­ence. “It’s al­most like th­ese brands are cre­at­ing safe spa­ces where dudes can be dudes,” says Heidi Hack­e­mer, founder of mar­ket­ing agency Wolf & Wil­helmine. This isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a pos­i­tive thing. “We’re in this re­ally weird phase of mas­culin­ity, where all the rules are shift­ing,” she says. “Ev­ery­one is talk­ing about women, and Bey­oncé is, like, ‘Go kill it, ladies,’ and Sh­eryl Sand­berg is lean­ing in, and guys don’t re­ally know how to move for­ward. You al­most see this re­gres­sion into a safe space, which is the bro cave. I don’t think any­one has told the guys what they’re sup­posed to do now.”

Chub­bies is happy to make sug­ges­tions to the cit­i­zens of Chub­ster Na­tion. Staffers sort through more than 1,000 pho­tos a day that Chub­bies die-hards sub­mit through e-mail, In­sta­gram, Face­book, and Twit­ter in the hopes that theirs will be re­posted to the com­pany’s so­cial me­dia feeds. The pics pro­vide in­stant prod­uct and mar­ket­ing in­sight. “We’re so em­pow­ered to see what the cus­tomer is do­ing,” says Castillo, who dis­misses the more ivory-tower meth­ods ap­parel mak­ers use to fig­ure out the next big trend. “I don’t need to shop the world to see that. I can see ex­actly what he’s do­ing on my phone to­day.”

The com­pany also main­tains a net­work of more than 300 “Chub­bies Am­bas­sadors,” col­lege stu­dents who pro­mote the brand for free gear. On the am­bas­sador ap­pli­ca­tion (or “chubli­ca­tion” as it were) Chub­bies de­scribes its ideal can­di­dates as “bad*ss shorts afi­ciona­dos in a sea of con­fused cargo and man-capri-wear­ing jabronies.” Re­cently, Chub­bies started mail­ing or­ders with a free set of vin­tage base­ball cards and a note from Ruther­ford, along with his cell phone num­ber. “We were all stand­ing there 10 min­utes be­fore Pre­ston walked down the aisle for his wed­ding,” Castillo says, “and he gets this call, and he an­swers it. He says, ‘Hey, man, I’m about to get mar­ried, so I’m go­ing to need to call you back a lit­tle bit later.’ ”

Busi­ness is good. In 2015, Chub­bies saw a rev­enue gain of 50 per­cent from 2014, and the com­pany says it’s on a sim­i­lar pace this year. There are plans to start mak­ing women’s shorts (both prod­uct di­rec­tors are women), golfwear, and, pos­si­bly, child sizes. “We’re see­ing a lot more dads among our cus­tomers,” says Chub­bies pub­lic-re­la­tions chief Kit Gar­ton. The stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dure is to have as much fun as pos­si­ble, share that fun with cus­tomers, and watch the or­ders for shorts come in. “We’re try­ing to make our friends laugh, bring a lit­tle bit of lev­ity to their day,” Ruther­ford says. It’s not ex­actly hir­ing Bruce We­ber to pho­to­graph Ar­gen­tine polo star Na­cho Figueras for a Ralph Lau­ren ad. At Chub­bies, the big con­cern at an af­ter­noon meet­ing is how many Nerf guns they’ll need for an Amer­i­can Gladiators trib­ute video they’re plan­ning. <BW>

Chub­bies founders (left to right) Mont­gomery, Castillo, Ruther­ford,and Hency

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