Fashion Want to Make It Big in Fashion? Think Small

Fashion Want to Make It Big in Fashion? Think Small


SAN FRANCISCO — Is this a good time to talk about “enoughness?”

It was in long-ago 1973 that the economist E.F. Schumacher first published “Small Is Beautiful,” a seminal (and, to the surprise of some, best-selling) collection of essays critiquing Western economics. Mr. Schumacher was among the first to champion sustainability, localization, small-scale industry and “a humane employment of machinery” to yield a more benevolent form of capitalism, one that utilized human effort and ingenuity for the common good.

“Enoughness,” was a Schumacher coinage. Plenty of abuse was heaped on him at the time — mainly he was attacked as an unprogressive Luddite — yet these days his ideas seem prophetic. Maybe it took a worldwide pandemic to remind us that the antidote to too-muchness may be enoughness. Small may be beautiful, indeed.

Or so it seemed on a recent visit to an airy, whitewashed space in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. Here, on a side street in a once dicey area now chockablock with rambling renovated Victorians, cool retail shops and restaurants, Evan Kinori, 32, operates a one-man clothing label. Here — or rather in an adjacent garage — he creates garments that are manufactured mostly within a one-mile radius of his workshop in small hand-numbered batches, in patterns and fabrics that change by subtle degrees from one season to the next and that, as GQ recently noted, “sell fast and never reappear.”


Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times


Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

In just five years, Mr. Kinori has attracted the attention of specialty retailers across the country, in Europe and Japan (Dover Street Market in New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo, C’H’C’M’ in Manhattan, Atelier Solarshop in Antwerp) and of a growing cult that, while it skews heavily to workers in the tech industry, also includes Bay Area chefs, graphic artists, Hollywood screenwriters and at least one 70-year-old Silicon Valley seer.

Officially, Mr. Kinori’s clothing — patch-pocket chore coats, zip-front jackets of matte waxed cotton, Belgian linen shirts or roomy trousers whose cut falls somewhere between that of classic, early Yohji Yamamoto and something you might spot on a butcher in an August Sander photograph — is men’s wear. Yet it seems increasingly likely that the relaxation of arbitrary boundaries between genders will turn out to be among the beneficial aftereffects of everyone being forced to work at home in hoodies and sweats.

None of this is of particular concern to Mr. Kinori, a sturdy man of brooding good looks with a thick tousle of hair and black-painted fingernails that could use a fresh coat of polish. Neither is he much interested in design in the rigidly formal sense. Mr. Kinori does not call himself a tailor or even a designer. Rather, he is a craftsman, somewhat in the tradition of people like the great Bay Area architect Joseph Esherick, who throughout his career concerned himself less with creating branded monuments to himself than with making harmonious, humane spaces. Think of Sea Ranch.

Mr. Kinori’s clothes bring to mind those houses — careful, deliberate, free of ostentation, handmade. They are cut from patterns he devises himself and sewn with French seams on single-needle machines. They are pieced together from cloth sourced from dead stock or traditional Irish tweed makers like Molloy & Sons in County Donegal or Belgian linen manufactories or kimono cotton mills in far-off Japanese prefectures. When he works, he thinks less about the demands of the industrial fashion machine than a desire to create durable objects.


Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times


Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

“He is a disciplined clothier,” said Jon Robin Baitz, the playwright and screenwriter, for whom Mr. Kinori’s clothes have become a daily uniform.

If most of what Mr. Kinori makes costs a lot (shirts start at $285; pants at $365; and jackets at $525), it is in part because they are produced in such limited quantities.

“It’s not Supreme, it’s not a drop,” he said of the deliveries he announces on Instagram and that sell out almost at once. “There’s a reason for it,” he added. “It’s everything I made.”

The editions are numbered as a form of inventorying and a way of keeping things at a manageable scale. Sales of Mr. Kinori’s clothes grossed him just over a half-million dollars last year, roughly what some designers pay influencers to shill for them. While he maintains a respectable social media presence, his primary means of exerting influence is the handwritten note.

“When you buy his clothes, he sends you a note, not a long one, that he writes himself,” Mr. Baitz said. Often Mr. Kinori’s one employee, Ryne Burns, follows up with an email to see how the purchases are working out.

“It is my small screw you to big companies that can’t number their styles,” Mr. Kinori said.

“It’s the by-hand part that sticks now,” Mr. Baitz explained. What he meant is that, in the era of disposable fast fashion, when the labor required to create things has been effectively erased, when there is always an ugly part of the equation to consider — that of consuming disposable stuff made by an underpaid and invisible work force on the other side of the world — a wholesome alternative may lie in the traditional personal relationship of consumer to maker.

“My design ethos is basically geared toward people not buying stuff all the time,” Mr. Kinori said.

That seems borne out by clients like Kyle King, 33, a clinical social worker who stumbled upon Mr. Kinori’s clothes four years ago at the Reliquary boutique. “There’s so much artifice and false narrative in the marketplace,” said Mr. King, whose wardrobe consists predominantly of garments thoughtfully selected on two annual visits to Mr. Kinori’s shop. “We need to get back to the richness and simplicity of basic, well-designed things.”

Much as the early Bay Area proponents of the Slow Food movement once sought to alert a generation raised on Saltines and Cheez Whiz to the wonders of a locally sourced tomato, Mr. Kinori seems focused on simplifying his chain of supply.

When first encountered one foggy afternoon at his shop in Hayes Valley and then again at his new studio across town in lower Pacific Heights, Mr. Kinori talked excitedly about his sources and varied inspirations. Those may equally include a stenciled canvas duffel bag from his father’s Israeli boyhood; a tsubo jar by the Japanese ceramist Kazunori Hamana; designs from Rei Kawakubo’s famous 1997 “hump” collection or a monumental drawing of a cleft boulder rendered by the artist Afton Love in charcoal and wax.

Though there is a tendency to romanticize indie designers working outside the so-called fashion system, Mr. Kinori resists the cliché and is quick to say he backed into design as if by default.

In his 20s and armed, if that is the word, with a liberal arts education with specialties in philosophy and French, he decided to enroll in the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, a local school with a heavy emphasis on the trades. “It was definitely not predicted that I would be a patternmaker,” said the designer who, though raised near New Haven, left the East Coast at 18 to attend, for a brief and not notably successful period, San Francisco State University.

“It was the first time in my life when I did something that felt completely natural,” he said of his stint at FIDM, as the school is known. “I really had no burning aspirations to have a career in design. I was mostly fueled by dissatisfaction with what I wanted and couldn’t find.”

He first made some shirts, and then, when friends of friends asked to buy them, he sewed some more. He added trousers that hang informally, loosely, but with a deceptively architectonic structure and that are Californian only in the sense that West Coast style has tended to emphasize simplicity. “I was so anti-California for the longest time,” he said.

With the profits from his early efforts, Mr. Kinori ventured into jackets, and in less than five years, by word of mouth, he found he had a name and a brand. When backers approached him with plans for scaling up, he demurred. And while it is impossible to predict whether this may change, he is satisfied for now with the steady growth of a loyal customer base that is not so small anymore.

“I love clothes, I love making clothes, I love presenting clothes,” Mr. Kinori said from behind a protective mask that, while it concealed a characteristically wry smile, emphasized the intensity of his gaze. “Intuition is my home place 100 percent. Building up a story and a spirit with an object is what I’m after. I don’t know that there is much more to it. That’s kind of enough.”

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