Westword, but we'll be featuring the complete interviews in a series of posts through the end of the year. Up next: Matthew Brown.
As co-founder of Fancy Tiger Clothing (along with wife Jamie Jennings, who now owns Fancy Tiger Crafts), local fashionista Matthew Brown has not only altered the course of small business on Broadway, he's also spiced up the wardrobes of its residents. "The only way I can sell something is if I'm passionate about it," Brown said in a recent interview, when this connoisseur of couture opened up about his fashion-forward childhood, business as an art, and why men have a difficult time admitting they love to dress up.
Westword: You have such a sharp eye for design, is this something that's been with you since childhood?
Matthew Brown: I've never really been obsessed with brands or labels, but I remember in fifth grade I used to tailor my pants. I remember wanting pants that were tapered, but all they made were the zipper jeans for women. So I would go to the hobby store and get those little snap buttons that I would put on the ankles of the jeans. But eventually I just started wearing the women's zipper jeans.
In fifth grade? That was pretty brave of you. What was the reaction?
Well, I didn't grow up in some hip neighborhood in New York, it was a really conservative community in Texas. In middle school I started getting detentions for coloring my hair purple; the principal said it was a distraction. Then my parents stepped up and threatened to sue them. My parents were always supportive in whatever I wanted to do creatively.
So at that time did you think you wanted to own a clothing store when you grew up?
Not at all. I look back and wonder why I didn't consider a career in fashion, but it wasn't until I was around 32 that I first thought of opening a retail store. I got a liberal arts degree, worked in a few restaurants, and then opened up a coffee house in Galveston Island with Jamie, my wife -- who now owns Fancy Tiger Crafts. We did that for five years, then came to Denver in 2005 with the intention of opening up another coffee house. But then I had an epiphany that I needed to go into retail clothing. I originally wanted it to be a men's clothing store, but that seemed too risky.
It does seem that men have a more difficult time admitting that they're into fashion, that it's somehow emasculating.
I think more women shop overall, which I think is mostly due to social convention. Guys have been told that you have less options in what you're allowed to look like. Men's fashion changes less, too; it's a little bit less dynamic. Each year there might be a different fabric for button-up shirts, yet button-up shirts don't change that much from year-to-year.
Though Fancy Tiger appeals to the fashion-forward male demographic -- seems like a risky business move.
I'm very thankful that I've had a lot of opportunity in my life, that I can go with the flow. My parents always told me they'd support me in whatever I did, so I studied comparative religion, which doesn't have the widest career opportunity. Now that I'm older and am doing everything on my own, I'm more independent than I've ever been, which changes your mindset. I think someone who put themselves through college would think more pragmatically, but since I had support from my parents I had more of a see-what-happens attitude. But I had twelve or thirteen years experience in restaurants, which really lent itself to what I do now. If I'd studied business in school, I would've gotten burnt out on it and probably wouldn't be where I am today. And it doesn't seem like Fancy Tiger is overly concerned with a profit margin. I'm sure it's on your radar, but if you were only concerned with making money you probably would be selling more mainstream clothes. From my perspective, Fancy Tiger appeals to a demographic that sees fashion as an art-form.
I think you're giving me more credit than I deserve.
I'm just saying there are easier ways to make a buck than what you're doing.
True. There are lines that I could carry that I know would sell well, but I don't carry them. I'm not really a salesperson. I don't come from sales. The only way I can sell something is if I'm passionate about it. I always encourage my staff to learn about new [fashion] lines, to have a role in picking them and get excited about them. And that's how we sell stuff. We're genuinely excited about what's in the store. And we can talk about it without sounding contrived, as opposed to someone whose goal is to sell you something regardless of what they think of it.
And that's what stands out about Fancy Tiger. Even Buffalo Exchange will put stuff on their racks that no employee is excited about, but they know will sell.
We're definitely much more of a specialty store. They probably do much bigger numbers than me, but they cast a wide net. I respect what they do, but I could never be happy doing that. It's a brilliant business model, but, yeah.
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I could never be happy just selling a product. At the end of the day, that is what I do, but I get excited about throwing events, putting art on the wall, working with people one-on-one, helping to build South Broadway. You believe in what you do so much more when you have a relationship with the community. I could make a lot more money just focusing on selling certain products, but I have to have the events side of [Fancy Tiger], I have to have artists in the store, meeting locals, looking for that next jewelry designer in Denver that we can get before anyone else and have some excitement around it.