Andrew Neidinger on Boutique Life and Being a Menswear Martyr

  • June 17, 2014
  • Written By Timothy Nguyen

I met Andrew through Levi mid 2013 when I was invited to a Mortar sale here in Houston. He’s the kind of guy who when you look at him, you know he has style and presence. I was really looking forward to this interview because I have never worked in a high end boutique, so it was definitely an eye opener for me. Andrew delivers an interesting outlook on what his journey through menswear has been like as well as his experiences working at Billy Reid/Mortar. He also takes us behinds the scenes of how an upscale men’s clothing boutique operates.

Can you go over your background and how you got into fashion?

Shirt by T by Alexander Wang; Pants by White Mountaineering; Shoes by Common Projects

I grew up in a farm town called Richmond, Texas, and fashion was never on the radar. I went to a public middle school out there and it was always Hollister/American Eagle, cowboy boots, and rhinestones on the belts. After that, I went to Strake Prep School in Houston where the uniform was essentially khakis and polos.I met my girlfriend Fatima in 2009 and she got me into I guess “fashion”. She took me to buy my first Banana Republic v-neck and me being, for lack of a better term a pedantic, I got into materials and different design aspects of things. I’m also very meticulous and I love intricacies, so that really sparked my interest in fashion and it just snowballed from there.

After my freshman year of college I needed a job to basically make the bills meet. I walked into a place called Billy Reid and there I had my first experience with more “expensive” fashion.

I got introduced to Mortar around late 2011 and got into raw denim, Rag & Bone, Our Legacy and things of the sort. From there I started visiting online communities and it got me heavily into fashion. Mortar started to take a turn, and just me being thirsty for that knowledge, I dove head in and its been like that ever since.

What is your favorite aesthetic and is there anything you wish you could pull off but can’t?

I don’t like to pigeon hole myself and/or subscribe to very certain aesthetics. We are talking about all different types of the spectrum, I have friends dress in strictly Plokhov and Rick Owens, there is Thom Browne, and then the whole menswear/ sprezzatura. You can also digress and talk about minimalism and things like that.

I find that style for myself is just an expression of my mood for the day. So if its hot I wanna be wearing something that I am comfortable in both outside and personally.

It’s a negative connotation, but I am a narcissist and a little bit arrogant. I like to hear myself talk and I wanna look good. That’s the thing.

That being said, I really appreciate people who can pull off all Rick everything and be total street goth with layers upon layers. Although I don’t find it that functional in the Houston heat, where its ungodly hot.It would be horrendous and you would have swamp pits and you would look like those dogs over there *points to two black dogs behind us panting and super hot*. I definitely can’t pull that off and I don’t have the body type because I am more athletically built, but that’s being polite to my own figure as I am less athletic now then I used to be. I would like to be able to pull that off every now and then but I can’t do it all that often.

Can you describe what Mortar was so we can get a full picture?

Mortar was a multi-brand store that offered what we considered “#menswear”. So basically brands like Rag & Bone, and a lot of good fitting collared shirts. For example we carried Hamilton 1883, which just started budding as a ready-to-wear line. I mean GQ just picked them up and put them on a lot of features, so it was readily available to wear in Houston and any market. Nothing was too print heavy, nothing had aggressive cuts, and nothing was too directional. Looking back at it, it’s kind of funny. I grew with mortar and that’s how my aesthetic started. I mean it was Hill-Side tie, 1883 shirt, and some slim fit chinos or a pair of raw jeans for me.

What was boutique life like?

First of all, it definitely wasn’t monotonous. Folding clothes was almost non-existent which was great because everything was hung. I also made a lot of great relationships through that and it actually helped my personality grow tremendously. I got into the whole food industry and scene through Billy Reid and through this boutique life by meeting people like restaurant owners and entrepreneurs. It also helped being out in the communities of Montrose and Upper Kirby (trendier areas in Houston). I am kind of tooting my own horn here, but I am amiable and talkative so the boutique life grew personal relationships with generally interesting people. I met an ER doctor, for example, who is also a restaurant owner and a sailor. I had pockets of genuinely interesting conversations and experiences which are memorable and cherishable.

Day to day life wasn’t that exciting and it was a lot of waiting around. For Billy Reid you are more or less a pawn/peon, which is fine because you have to have that to make the structure work. A non-commission environment also made it a lot more friendly, which was a good thing. It was genuinely fun because you got to sit down and have a drink and just hang out with the customer. It was beneficial for your own personal and store’s relationships.For Mortar it was all that, but also the analysis of margins, events, or sales schedules. Basically asking, “What do we need to bring in or what do we need to re-up on any sizing?”

That’s basically where my boutique life ended and when Mortar closed more design stuff started.

Having worked in different stores with different concepts, do you feel like that traditions retail concept is still viable for the modern market? Will it still be viable in the future?

Concept wise, Billy Reid is a single brand store. It was formerly located in the [Houston] Galleria before moving out to it’s stand alone storefront today. It is Houston’s premier shopping district because you have hundreds of thousands of people that go through these stores and walk through the mall each day. The Galleria is important to retailers because Houston is so expansive that it’s hard to capture an audience that’s viable to what you are looking for. It can be exhausting to sit there and sell things you don’t necessarily believe in. I have pieces I love from Billy Reid. The retail concept of a single brand store may still be viable, but I think the multi-brand stores will be dead very soon, unless you are working with lots and lots of capital.

Using that to segue into the Mortar that we all grew to know and love. I believed in the concept but you can’t compete with the Mr. Porters. Men don’t necessarily try stuff on which helps them shop online and it’s too convenient. It’s hard to compete with something that has a lot more brands/options because they have that much more capital to work with. At the same time, they also get spring/summer and fall/winter shipments sooner than you do and they can discount sooner than you do. They can also take more hits on their margin because they can get a cheaper wholesale price because they buy in bulk. Basically you are playing loaded game and your bound to lose. The only thing that you can offer that an online retailer can’t offer is customer service and even then, the gap is slowly closing. So, with that being said, I don’t think a traditional retail concept is viable. Maybe right at this moment, sure, you can survive andI wish the best of luck to retailers that are hoping to survive and hoping to open up. But in the foreseeable future, you have to have a lot of capital behind you and personal relationships with distributors otherwise you are not getting exclusivity, which is the biggest driver in men’s retail.

You have already touched on this a little bit but have you ever been included in the buy process?

Yes, I had a little bit of input. For the record, I never traveled for buys I only saw sheets and pictures. I was offered to travel, but I wasn’t able to. Buying was difficult because you want to snatch everything up. When you see these margins you want capitalize on this as much as possible. You see Rick pieces that you get 70% off on its hard not to pick it up. Another thing that was hard was not buying for yourself and only buying for your customer. 

Things like that don’t really register when you are putting together certain things and you really have to keep a cohesive buy in mind. What you buy needs to look good in your store and somewhat directional. It really doesn’t look good if you have Rag & Bone next to Rick Owens because it doesn’t make sense.

Buying for Houston really sucks for fall/winter because we have a three month fall winter and it also discounts faster. We have a nine month of spring/summer and by the time we get our first shipment of say, parkas, its already 65 degrees outside and rising. For example, I love SNS Herning. It has to be one of my absolute favorite brands. But you can’t buy heavy knits because its just not viable here. Things like that make it really difficult.

What struggles did you have developing your style?

Man, I’m so ballin’ I had no struggles. I am just so stylish. *laughs* 

I see this a lot too so its not just me, it is a common mistake. You try to dress like models or go peacocking like street style shots. I found myself peacocking or doing things that really weren’t applicable to my lifestyle. For example, mixing too many patterns and wearing a bow tie when I didn’t need to. I was most definitely, and we can put this on the record, a casual bow tie guy. Yes, we all live with our mistakes. I am glad that it was that and not something else. Honestly, I wouldn’t get caught dead in a bow tie now except for maybe weddings right? I guess that’s okay. I have like seven, so you guys need to invite me to some weddings or something so I can wear all these bow ties.

I tried to tow the party line of menswear too much instead of dressing how I should’ve. Now definitely leaning towards utilitarianism. On the flip side of things, I think things like aren’t Rick are very utilitarian. Obviously its not really meant to be, so that’s why I love brands like White Mountaineering or Engineered Garments which are strictly to the point. There are not too many frills and it just works.

That took me awhile to come around to, but at the same time, we will kind of flip the question on it’s head. I grew up in a farm town where fashion wasn’t a big deal and I went to Texas A&M where its even less of a big deal. It was super conformist where 80% of the men there are dressed in khaki shorts and polos which is an acceptable traditional look. You break necks if you are wearing a slim fitting chino and a tee. I was looked down on because of my shoes were said to look like Keebler Elf shoes. I was called a “fag” because of my tight pants, or literally people wondering what the heck I was wearing. It was okay for me because I am comfortable in my own skin but it’s not easy. I would chalk that up to a struggle. There was a stigma towards the way I dressed both at home with my friends as well as at school. It wasn’t like persecution or anything like that. I am not trying to martyr myself for menswear or anything like that. The Menswear Martyr, that’s me. *laughs*  

To be honest, I like being the big fish in a small pond. I like being different and that’s why I do a lot of what I do.

Do you have any final thoughts for the readers?

Just do you.  This is so cliché. Don’t do you.  Just learn from your mistakes. Fashion and style is an outward expression of yourself so if you have any personal experiences that you can express through clothing, you should.  If you grew up in Cut and Shoot, Texas, shout out to Chris McGee, it’s okay to rock dirty cowboy boots and you will be as “#menswear” as anyone else. Portrayal is everything. You can see Ann D, Rick, and look super cool and confident and at the same time if you’re wearing Hollister shirt and J.Crew and you are confident it doesn’t matter.  I worked in high end retail stores, but I’m not about to despise anyone that can’t afford anything or can’t rationalize spending money like that.

With me right now, It’s all about utilitarianism.  I always loved the mantra of White Mountaineering guys, design, utility, and technology.  So, if you can have something that you are comfortable wearing, it works to your lifestyle, and if you want to spend a little bit money because it’s made out of PerTex or GoreTex or some performance wear, why not? It’s about feeling good.   

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Photo Credits: Levi Lemaster


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