Interview: Jeff Johnson of The Arrivals
The Arrivals, is a New York based, unisex fashion brand bridging the gap between architecture and fashion. The Arrivals attempts to blend Scandinavian simplicity with the New York street style, all while staying completely out of the traditional brick-and-mortar business model. We recently visited The Arrivals showroom and sat down with co-founder, designer, and former architect, Jeff Johnson and discussed his past, where he draws inspiration, and more.
You worked for several years as a practicing architect for a number of different firms. What was your experience like working in architecture?
They’re both rooted in problem solving. For example, let’s say you’re given an initial program and you have a site located somewhere where it rains. You have to figure out what the public space is like, and how to get natural exposure, building material that is representative of that area, and not only designing that project, but also thinking about how to create a story that is emotional and that speaks to the people that are going to be using it.
Something that I think was a part of the architectural process that I enjoyed the most was taking these elements of empathy, and seeing how you can connect the dots with the people.
While I was at UN Studio in 2010, I had the opportunity to work on numerous projects ranging in scale from a large university, a museum, single family home, product design, and graphic design. It was really ingrained in the design process in many different scales, which reinforced that idea of ‘how do we set those problems of constraints and turn them into opportunities that evoke an emotional response.’
What was it like transitioning from architectural design to fashion design? Obviously the constraints are different, i.e. from an urban and architectural scale where you’re dealing with program, site conditions, etc, to one based more on ergonomics, fit, etc.
In 2013, I was in the process of being hired at BIG, and it got intercepted by Kal (Co-Founder of The Arrivals). He had some recent success as an investor in style driven, consumer product brands.
He asked me if I ever thought about veering from architecture and starting something new. It began as an idea and later turned into a 3-4 month email dialogue. I moved back to New York and began jumping into this idea that we are going to create something that is direct consumer business. We didn’t know what the product would be, so we were almost working backwards. We thought about creating a 3D printing platform which aggregates designers but eventually I fell in love with producing physical goods.
In New York, there’s a landscape for beautiful outerwear that’s very expensive, and a landscape for outwear like H&M and Zara that is more affordable. We realized that we can source from the tannery used by the same designers we look to for inspiration, design, and trend but by bypassing the traditional retail and wholesale chain, we could sell the product for third of the price.
That was when we created this romantic idea of protection from the elements, attention to detail, performative and architectural notions like modularity, and site specifies that lived in outerwear. That was when rubber met the road and we started trying to understand how to communicate these ideas to a factory. We were there with essentially a blueprint, similar to what I was doing before.
Once we saw the first sample made up of these materials, I had no idea what fabric construction really meant. We then brought on our first designer who was a formal technical fashion designer. We started ramping up our technical skills, but I think in the end it was still about, how one can create an emotional response that transcends every person that you work with at the factory, consumer and story level; to be able to zoom out and see an entire brand, that has this character to itself, which is an important piece to carry from architecture to fashion design.
It’s interesting how you can create the price point for the clothing, but not take away from quality of material and detail.
Back in October 2014, we launched the brand and we received numerous tweets, emails, and messages asking where to try on the product. We realized that online is our only channel, so we opened up on Thursdays for open studio. We also have by appointment booking that people can schedule to come and try on product, but we’re constantly looking towards new ways of how we can test the idea of a physical presence. We’ve done pop-ups here in New York and LA. With the name ‘The Arrivals’, there’s this presence of temporary and physical interaction. Creating that physical atmosphere for the brand, and continuing to test with pop-ups, potentially longer brick and mortar is something that I’m very excited about.
Can you talk about your collaboration with Snarkitecture and how that came to fruition?
The collaboration with Snarkitecture started in early 2015. We reached out to Daniel Arsham and the founders of Snarkitecture, and discussed that we appreciate the direction and process of their work. We ended up setting up a meeting in Greenpoint, and proposed this idea of co-designing a product, and combines the physical space that “breathes” the same concept. Most of their projects are void of colour, or anything that can identify beyond formal shapes. It was about figuring out how to take that same approach to outerwear and strip it of any previous nostalgia, colour, materials, or any articulation, and really boiling it down to the simplest form of an outerwear garment. That led to the idea of a poncho, and we thought, “Can we layer that idea with it’s polar opposite? How does that idea of form and function come together?” Which became an idea of contrast.
“How do we form an interior overblown with all these heat welded laser-cut pockets, a metrocard holder, and a pencil holder, etc; with the exterior being this monolithic shell.” That went into informing space, colour, and being black and white. The space being divided into two extremes of color. One of the elements from working with Snarkitecture was refinement. It resulted in a product that was very true to the initial idea, space, and a story.
Let’s talk a bit about the LA pop-up shop.
The pop-up in LA, was held in Platform, a new boutique community out in Culver City. A lot of co-tenancy with stores like Aesop, Blue Bottle Coffee, Sweetgreen; it’s this little utopia somewhere between downtown Los Angeles and Venice. It’s great because there’s a lot of new stuff happening, but they reached out to us to see if we wanted to expanded out to the west coast. It was something short-term and having an organic audience out in San Francisco and LA that have never been able to see the product actually present a physical store was nice.
You guys often post images on social media from other photographers, graphic designers, and works from other creative disciplines. Would you collaborate on projects outside of fashion? How does social media play into The Arrivals?
The name itself, actually comes from the fact that none of us came from a traditional fashion background. We had an etymology book and we were looking through the origin of words. In alphabetical order, arrival was one of the first words, meaning emergence of a new process, product or phenomena. It was closely relating to the opportunity that Kal (Co-Founder) and I were in, but with that, I think it echoes the idea of trying to promote that creative community and not necessarily being confined to the fashion industry. Looking more into, “who are these core creatives, and what disciplines does it span?” Growing up so inclined, and interested in the way things are put together, look and sound, there’s always that balance. It’s like a balance of a song, or proportions to an outfit. If those things are perfect but weird, it’s exciting, and I think for us it’s not confined to the industry. In that sense we’re always working on going through Instagram, other social media, or through friends trying to figure out who are these individuals pushing the boundaries. That led us to photo collaborations on Instagram and product collaboration with Snarkitecture. I think a core element of The Arrivals is to connect with this creative community and try to look for that opportunity and challenge to produce something that’s truly authentic and meaningful.
We talked a little bit about unisex clothing and fitting, taking ergonomics, and body type and trying to fit it without a sex. How does that work out?
From a creative standpoint, trying to identify cases which are not gender exclusive like being warm in the winter and staying dry during a rainstorm. “Are there silhouettes and styles that are really an expressions of that necessity?” However necessity is not always environmentally based. We look into the physical constraints that make this a good or bad idea. We created a unisex parka last year and the arm length of guys is drastically different from girls so we tried to find a happy medium. Which led to our next iteration, in which the parka has a snap back arm. Allowing the arm to have two lengths which served functional and styling purposes. It’s always this blend of what is that emotional and creative necessity, as well as performative necessity. It comes with making sure you’re not just doing it to do it, but following up with the foreseeable challenges that creating something unisex can do. As well as making sure we’re making smart investments.
Materiality and attention to detail are highly considered. How do you guys go about sourcing your materials and what companies do you go to?
We’re always trying to engineer new identities for materials. Seeing how we can take a material that is covetable because it’s luxurious and beautiful, and then pair that luxury with performance. Pairing that emotion with function, resulting in a suede that was tanned in Spain, which was then treated by 3M to make a waterproof and stain resistant suede. We felt that in that final state it had that emotional response to the fashion community, as this beautiful, luxurious piece that had the quintessential identity of suede, but also smart design that’s not only beautiful and cool, but functional. That’s something that we always try to apply to all of our materials when we’re selecting. We’re always thinking of how we can elevate these classics to something that has true functionality. These materials on their own are really smart. Wool for example is naturally anti-microbial. For us it’s about respecting that nature-tech, but trying to elevate that. We source our fabrics from all over the world. We’re not exclusively US or Italy. It’s typically a product trying to create that perfect experience, and where does that lead us. That notion has led us to Canada and Switzerland for technical fabric that’s waterproof, reflective, breathable, teflon coated, and stain resistant. It has also led us to Peru to find Peruvian alpaca, that’s lightweight. We’re always open to scouting the globe to find the highest quality experience.
Your pieces are predominantly outerwear, have you ever thought about attempting pant or shoe design?
It’s something that we’re always scratching at. Each week we have a design review, and talk about whether we should create bags, or pants, or we think of this t-shirt design. For us it’s more about having an identifiable DNA, and if we create another product there’s so much identity towards what The Arrivals is. That’s what we feel fits the smart design requirements for us. This gives us a lot of room to expand in the outerwear category, but there will be a moment where we’ll expand.
It’s very admirable that you rejected working for Bjarke Ingels (BIG) and decided to go the startup route. Going back to inspiration, how do things strike you? How are people inspiring you now?
At different parts of the day, and at different parts of the design cycle, inspiration is coming from many different places. For example, say we’ll be working on a shoot and I’m doing the art direction, those 2 weeks leading up to the shoot, I’m out taking pictures of everything, sending them to our design team and photographer. This could be me riding my bike through these silo areas and seeing these mountains of sand, thinking we have to shoot there and being obsessive for those two weeks. I’m always thinking of how are these shots going to look, who are the models, what is the landscape, etc. When we’re not shooting, it’s the weekend and i’m walking around the city and I’m looking at what people are wearing, going into shops, pulling up pictures on Pinterest, and looking at graphic design references. As the year evolves, sources of inspiration change. My latest muse is watching ‘Chef’s Table’, and looking through their creative process. Seeing how they go through the same process like us, facing constraint, pressure, and then a breakthrough, but seeing how their perspective is different. Seeing these other creatives and their process of design integrity and how that design is very important to them, is inspiring to me.