Kipper Clothiers: Oral History
Erin Berg for Kipper Clothiers was interviewed on February 25th, 2020 by Kelly Reddy-Best in San Francisco, CA at Erin’s studio space. The interview was 32 minutes. The oral history transcript reflects the history of the brand at the time of the interview.
Oral History Video
Oral History Transcript
BERG: I’m Erin and I’m the founder of Kipper Clothiers.
REDDY-BEST: Can you tell me know briefly, about your background, such as where did you grow up and then, where have you lived?
BERG: Yeah, so I grew up in San Francisco in the Castro. The little joke that I like to tell is that I thought all men wore leather and had nipple rings until I was thirteen years old. I grew up in a very queer friendly house. I was a city kid, and then I went to college out in Ohio. I went to Oberlin, where I studied neuroscience and American studies. I took this train trip after college and tried to figure out where I wanted to live. It was a three-month train trip around the country, and I hit all four corners of the country and I realized that, you know, as a trans person, I really just wanted to stay in the Bay Area. So, it was good trying to figure out where I wanted to go, but I really just wanted to come home.
REDDY-BEST: Which term do you use to describe your gender identity?
BERG: Oh, I’m a trans guy, I use he, him, and his.
REDDY-BEST: What term do you use to describe your sexuality or your sexual identity?
REDDY-BEST: And then, how would you describe your own personal clothing style?
BERG: I don’t think I’ve ever actually been asked that question. I mean, I think that, back when I was in high school and college, I was always very colorful and very “out there” in terms of what I’d be wearing, but I didn’t really have a sense of any of the menswear kind of guidelines then. But since I started the company, I dress in a more kind of traditional preppy way. And we actually did a line called Kipper University, which is just like polos and stuff. And so there was a lot of discussion on like, “what is queering preppy-ness.”
REDDY-BEST: Would you say that your shopping and styling experiences for clothing prior to starting your company influential in starting it?
BERG: Yeah, you know, definitely yes, definitely. You know, I think there’s, for trans folk, there’s a certain amount of pain that goes into shopping. There’s confusion and just… discomfort, right? As I learned more about custom clothing, I felt like, powerful and empowered, I guess. One of the reasons why I started the business was to bring that to people.
REDDY-BEST: What is the significance of the name?
BERG: My old business partner found it. I really wanted alliteration, that’s all I wanted in the name. [Laughs] But my old business partner found this list of old industry terms for tailoring that were super old English terms and a “kipper,” back in the day, used to mean a tailor assistant that would with them. So, “clothiers”– a lot of people don’t know the word clothiers—so when you came here and were able to say the actual full name of the company, I was impressed, because no one can actually say the name of the company. [Laughs] Which is something I find so annoying, but, yeah, people don’t know what a clothier is, so I have to describe to them what that means. [Laughs]
REDDY-BEST: When did you officially become a business?
BERG: So, it was started by me and my old business partner. We started the day after Prop 8 was repealed, because I said, “You know, if we’re going to do this — this is the moment we’re going to do it, “especially because of the industry that we’re in, in terms of queer fashion, because we do 75% of the weddings here. We’re trying to drop that number, but we do a lot of the weddings. So, we started it the day after Prop 8 was repealed.
REDDY-BEST: When did the idea begin in your head?
BERG: So, I’ll admit that I was always thinking about fashion. I was just kind of very out in the industry, but I didn’t really know about tailoring or more traditional menswear until I started working at this place called Tomboy Tailors, that is now closed. That’s where me and my old business partner met, and that’s where I kind of fell in love with the idea and fell in love with the concept. When we first started the company, I was more on the operations side, but tailoring is such a precise art form. It is so intriguing, almost like, in an academic way, you know? [Laughs] As well as, pattern making and things. So now my focus, besides running the business, is the tailoring aspect.
REDDY-BEST: How does your business model work?
BERG: Yeah! This is a brilliant business model, because everything’s made to order, so I don’t actually have to keep anything in the store. I love that. So, what I like to do, before clients even come in, I like to have them bring in Pinterest boards and visual cues, because this is the first time for a lot of clients and they get nervous. They’ll be nervous and excited, and they get overwhelmed because I have a bunch of swatches here, and these books over there that are also showroom swatches. So, people come in, we pick out swatches, we do all the designing. I like to do a lot of education in the process because a lot of queer folk, or masculine of center folks, haven’t had the experience of getting to know any of this. Unless, of course, their like dad has taught them. So, people come in, I give them a little bit of education, show them the fabrics, and then we design it. I measure them, and we do all the fun posture stuff, and then, the garment comes back six weeks later, and we do the round of alterations. So, it’s all made to order. I’m going to be expanding that a little bit, but as much as it is about the clothing, but it’s also about the shopping experience.
REDDY-BEST: What types of items, if I came in here, what could I get?
BERG: So, it’s interesting. I do suits and shirts, but I also say that I’m the only person who sells these three things. [Laughs] I do classic menswear for male bodies, I do classic menswear for women, and then, I’m actually the only person in Northern California that does womenswear, like, classically tailored women’s garments. So, I can do skirts and things, and a lot of people don’t know how to do that and that’s like a different type of measuring, and a totally different type of construction, but a lot of what I do is really trying to figure out what the client is looking for on that spectrum, because we still have to use a dichotomous kind of way of thinking about the body and about the construction. So, it’s really about sussing out what the client wants in their gender expression.
REDDY-BEST: What’s the price point range?
BERG: So, my suits start at $850 and go up to $4000. Clients don’t usually leave here without spending at least $1750 to $2000.
REDDY-BEST: Mm-hm [affirmative]. Suiting is very labor intensive.
BERG: Yeah, yeah. That’s why I do all of the education, but I also do custom payment plans for people. I try to be as accessible as I can.
REDDY-BEST: Mm-hm [affirmative]. Where are your tailors, or where are your items made?
BERG: I have a variety of tailors. I work with like a whole bunch of people. I have shirt makers in New York and LA and then I have suit makers in New York and then out of Hong Kong. I do an LA make also, for the “Made in America” stuff. It depends on what the clients want, but my best make is out of Hong Kong and people don’t understand, they don’t understand the history of Hong Kong and tailoring. They don’t understand, and they think just “Made in America,” and people don’t understand the difference. I listened to this really interesting round table, you know Nick Wooster? He’s in menswear, you should look him up, but he was like talking about what Japan does amazingly well is taking classically American things, and then selling them back to America as better products. He talked about like, denim, whiskey, it’s amazing. [Laughs]
REDDY-BEST: Can you tell me about your role in the company? Like, what do you do?
BERG: I used to have a business partner, and now it’s just me, so I do everything. [Laughs] I do all of the selling, I do all of the consultations, all of the customer service, and I work on the product fender bender relations. I also have to do social media, run photoshoots, which I have to do more of, as well as sourcing everything.
REDDY-BEST: So, it’s a one person show?
BERG: Yeah, right now. I just got a new assistant. I scared the last one away. It’s a lot of work, so I work 80 hours a week trying to manage everything.
REDDY-BEST: I appreciate your time right now; I can’t even tell you how much I appreciate you giving me your time right now.
BERG: Oh, no it’s good! Yeah, I have to deal with all the social media and the marketing, plus the client relationships. Like, the most important thing about this business, I don’t know if you get this from other custom people, is your relationship to the client. Building that relationship to more than just… as a client you’re not just coming in here to buy something, you’re coming in here to buy the experience, to trust me, and to buy me, in a lot of ways, and buy my product that is essentially me, that I make. So, you have to have that kind of side as well, the personal side. If you get too busy to be able to have a personal touch, then you’re not going to run a successful place for customers.
REDDY-BEST: Can you talk a little bit about some of the garments? Can you show us an example of something that somebody could buy, and maybe just highlight some of the details?
BERG: Sure, yeah! This isn’t so iconic, but I like to… So, back before San Francisco, I had this “forever winter.” I’ll show you the two differences between the women’s and the men’s fit. I’m always trying to sell more tweed, probably because of the old English stuff. So, this is one of the women’s garments and, essentially, the difference between the women’s and the men’s garments has to do with the construction of the bust. So here we do a three-quarter princess dart, but we do fully functional button holes, full canvased items, and because you get to design everything yourself, you get to choose the lapels, the type of vent you want, and you get to obviously choose the cloth. People love choosing the lining. This isn’t a fun lining, but I’ll show you one in a second. So, I say to clients like, “bring in your favorite fitting thing. Or the thing that you think is closest to what you want, even if you hate it, because it’s something for us to work off.” On all my construction right now, I do a soft shoulder, so there’s not a lot of shoulder padding. So, this is one of the women’s garments. People come in saying that they want a, just a grey and blue suit all the time. So, this client actually let me design what they were going to wear for their wedding. [Laughs] So, this client decided—and this is our men’s garment, again, and you’re not seeing any of the three-quarter princess darting or anything like that. Again, fully functional button holes This client wanted to be a little more flamboyant with the peak lapels. and then something that I’ve been seeing a lot of that I really like the styling of, is matching the vest and the pant. So you get to choose the lining on the inside, again, and on the back, you know, the lining is one of the ways that guys really show off what their design styles are. I do a lot of that for my clients, because San Francisco isn’t as formal as the East Coast. I do just a lot of pairing with vests and pants. I tell people to just forget the jacket, and just do a lot of pairing with vests and trim on pants. A lot of people come in saying, “oh, vests never fit me and all of that,” and I throw them in something that will kind of fit them and they’re like, “yes, this is what I want! Let’s definitely do the vest thing!”
REDDY-BEST: So what would you say has been most successful aspect of your business, so far?
BERG: I mean, I think everything in this store has been successful.
REDDY-BEST: Just overall, thinking about for the overall history of the brand what do you think has been most successful?
BERG: Okay. Well, I think that the clients are what make it successful, because people are craving this so much. I get clients from all over the country that come here. The client that has come the farthest has been from Germany, I think, because they just can’t find anything like this. So, you know, the suiting is obviously successful. I almost think, I shouldn’t think like this, that the clothes are obviously the most important, but almost secondary to that is how you’re treating the clients: giving them a warm, welcoming place to really think about their identity through clothing. That is the thing that makes it most successful, I would say.
REDDY-BEST: What are you most proud of?
BERG: Oh. That’s a big question. What am I most proud of? The fit in our garment and the evolution of the fit. How I’ve been able to kind of transform the way that I create the garment with people. For example, I like to tell this story about how this client brought in like, half a sketch of something and I was like, “oh, let’s try to make that,” and so we made it, and it was exactly what she wanted. So really, the creation of the garment from step one and us not knowing exactly what people want, but then getting to the “aha!” moment of when they finally see it put together.
REDDY-BEST: Were there any initial aspects of starting a queer focused brand that surprised you? Or that was kind of alarming, or anything like that?
BERG: No. No, I think that it’s in this moment in history that it’s very easy to get like accolades and stuff for starting a queer focused business, but, because there’s no data, it’s hard to show, when looking for investors and things, that this just wasn’t a fad. It’s hard to show that it could be a sustainable business. So yeah, that’s what I would say.
REDDY-BEST: Can you describe some of the past or current, biggest or smallest struggles?
BERG: The biggest struggle, I like to say, is running any kind of business under capitalism. It’s like, surviving, working under capitalism, and to also help the queer community, that is the biggest struggle. [Laughs] That is what I say. So, really being accessible in terms of, you know, price. I’m not going to lie, $ 850’s my rent, and I get that it’s a big purchase for people. So that’s the struggle: trying to be as accessible as possible. It’s all of the financial stuff, because the client base is here and so it was learning about how to run a business successfully and have it be client forward, you know?
REDDY-BEST: What types of positive feedback do you get from folks?
BERG: Oh my gosh! I had a client in here yesterday put on her garments and started crying. Like, I get that a lot. Happy tears! [Laughs] You know, people tell me that they’ve always wanted to do this and never thought it was going to be possible, especially for people in the older age range. Then, in the younger age range, it’s that they’ve always wanted to try something like this, so they wanted the perfect wedding suit and I gave it to them and then getting the feedback of just them having a place to come be themselves and really think about their gender identities.
REDDY-BEST: Do you ever get negative feedback from folks, from inside or outside the community?
BERG: Yeah, of course. You’re going to get negative feedback. I’m not going to go too much into this on camera, but you get more negative feedback within the queer community, but then you also get the hipsters in here that want to be part of the queer community that come and purchase one because we’re branded as a queer brand. That wasn’t negative, but you know?
REDDY-BEST: Can you talk about some of the imagery that you use to promote your brand, like the types of folks you use and why or how you position those images?
BERG: Yeah, so we use mostly masculine of center folks. I’m trying to get more femme folks in here. I just always use my clients as models. I sometimes use models as models, as well, [Laughs] depending on what we’re doing. Also, I always say that I get the best photography from clients because, again, it’s a lot of wedding photography ,so it’s the happiest they’re going to be, and the best they’re going to look, on one of the happiest days of their lives. So, it’s true, at least during a big party. [Laughs] So, being able to show that kind of authentic happiness and energy in the garments is the best imagery I could get.
REDDY-BEST: Could you talk about funding, like how you initially funded?
BERG: So, we have a queer investor, and some of it was self-funding. Then we also did a Kickstarter. Which, don’t do a Kickstarter, it will lose your money. I don’t know how anyone has ever made actual money on a Kickstarter. Anyways, do you know? Have you had people that do Kickstarters?
REDDY-BEST: Almost everyone.
BERG: Exactly! I mean, it’s like you get the money but then it’s like, “fuck, and you forget about the postage and delivery, which is one of my biggest expenses. I didn’t even think about that, oh man.” I still have some people who still need to come get their Kickstarter suits from me, like from five years ago. [Laughs] It’s hard to make money on a Kickstarter. People don’t realize that, they think it’s just like free money.
REDDY-BEST: Yeah, yeah. A lot of people relayed the same types of things, but I would say a majority of folks used a Kickstarter or like some similar thing, but then after that first wave, the people who sort of started after that, when it started to dip, was when I think some of the troubles that can happen.
BERG: Well, you need to do a lot. Like, we had to get a film producer for the Kickstarter. So, you going to spend all this money up front to even like conceptualize the brand. We took a 5 grand budget to make 20 grand. That’s a worst interest rate than what you can get at a bank! [Laughs] Anyways. Yeah, so that, and then we also did a series of Kiva loans. Have you heard of that?
REDDY-BEST: Mm-mm [negative].
BERG: It’s like micro funding. So, a hodge-podge of things. It’s like, “who wants to give us money? Okay, we’ll do that.” [Laughs]
REDDY-BEST: Do any type of community outreach stuff? Is that something that you do?
BERG: I want us to get more into that. Whenever anyone says, “let’s do this thing,” I say, “yes, obviously, let’s do it.” I clothe a lot of people for the NCLR — National Center for Lesbian Rights — for their gala. I’m working on this clothing drive with the Jewish community center right now. Whenever someone asks me to go do a talk, I do a talk, especially at high schools and things, and that is a sector of the business that I do want to grow. Just because, where does the time go?
REDDY-BEST: Yeah, I don’t know. That’s what I’m wondering, I’m like, “how do you have time for this?”
BERG: I like to think that running the business is community outreach, [Laughs] in a lot of ways. So, whenever I’m like not on the clock, but I’m always on the clock, and they’re like, “oh, do you want to go out to this queer party?” I’m like, “no, I want to go home. I don’t want to go out with more queer people, when we’re surrounded by queer people all the time.”[Laughs]
REDDY-BEST: How do they find out about your brand?
ERIN BERG: All through social media, and sometimes Yelp or word of mouth. You know, the queer community is really small. So, if, what is it…if one person, like, every client can either lose or gain you five more clients. Have you heard that before? Yeah, so if they have a good experience you’ve won five more clients, and if they had a bad experience you lost five. Now we’re finally getting to the point where I’ve finally figured out the timing. People will come in for their first purchase and then, they’ll come back another year and a half later for their second purchase and within that time frame, they’ll be talking about the brand. So, I think it’s mostly word of mouth and then, one person I have on the books is my PR person. So, I do a lot of PR and with influencer relations and social media and stuff.
REDDY-BEST: Do you think about fashion trends, in regard to your brand? Is that something that’s important?
BERG: It’s not necessarily important. I can let people know what’s happening in fashion and I can tell them what’s like “in” or what’s on the racks right now, but I try to veer away from that, in terms of us making a creation by ourselves. So, I’ll bring in colors and things. Like, burgundy was last year’s color. I think this year’s color is going to Sage, like, so I tell people what people are wearing this season, but it’s really up to them. They get to decide.
REDDY-BEST: Do you ever like look at different celebrities or style icons or different artists for inspiration?
BERG: Oh, yeah! All the time. You know, I read fashion blogs, I do the whole thing, the research you going to do, even if it’s just scrolling on Instagram and looking at what other people are wearing on the red carpet, you know? All of that high fashion, all of that stuff, trickles down. It takes about a year, I would say. You would know more about that, how it trickles down into more everyday fashion, right. So, I’m telling people that, I’m trying to let people know that skinny is going to be out soon, and that people are going to have to start wearing or are going to want to start wearing bigger stuff, but they don’t believe me. They’re still on the skinny phase and I’m just like, “I want to scoot over so badly. Just wear clothes that fit you!” It’s not that I’m trying to describe the difference between like draping, and just like suffocating your body to the clients. That sounded bad! But people are wearing the skinny jeans and I just hate it, man! [Laughs]
REDDY-BEST: Is there anything else about the history, or yourself, or anything that would be important for us to know?
BERG: You know, I think that I grew up, the The Castro, in a way that being queer has always been a part of my life and being around queer people has always been a part of it, too. I think it’s only from that vantage point that I was able to start a queer focused business, and then have the stamina and the privilege to do it without even second guessing myself. I really think that it is definitely a privilege to run the business, and being able to help folks, and being able to study this. You know should know, it’s obviously not a community service, it’s my life, but it is something that I’m doing for the community.
REDDY-BEST: I just thought of one other question. So, have people come from all across the United States, like the Midwest, all over?
BERG: Yes. I think my favorite story to tell about someone coming here is when this teenager, or maybe they were a college student, but she couldn’t let their parents know that she wanted a suit. She flew out here, using a separate debit card that she had away from her parents, paid all in cash, ordered the suit, and then flew back. Isn’t that amazing?