The Power of Clothing and Bridging the Gaps that Divide Us. A Conversation with ARC Co. Founder Cliff Carey.
Recently, our founder Cliff Carey sat down with a group of entrepreneurs to discuss the American Reserve story and the creative process behind it. We’re super proud of the excitement that the group showed and think that you’ll enjoy the transcript of the session.
Can you give us a little background of American Reserve Clothing Co. and how it came into existence?
Thanks for asking. American Reserve Clothing Co is an apparel shop and a concept built on three guiding principles. We believe in the power of clothing, that there is power in place, and the power of people to create positive change.
The net result, in theory, is to source and empower high-quality, small-batch brands who, while reinvesting in their own local communities, broaden their reach to clothe and affect more people to feel their best, live their best lives, and make positive change in the world.
The idea came to me a little over a year ago and grew from a desire to drive interest in a re-emerging American textile industry and a rugged American style that was picking up steam in select cities here in the states, but also overseas. I was also caught by how divided people had become and wanted to find a way to propose a different narrative than what was being told; that we have much more in common and that clothing is one such thread, so to speak
At the time I was a VP with a medical consulting firm. I loved what I did, and I didn’t want to let anyone down. So, I tried to forget about it. But something wouldn’t let me. After a couple months of sleepless nights, I finally said to myself, ‘if were going to, how would I do it?’ and that started me on a track that finally led to me leaving the firm and creating the business. I burned the ships as they say.
What do you mean by the power of clothing?
We believe in the power of clothing to transform a person in mind, spirit, and enthusiasm. Clothing can have an amazing impact on a person. Near the end of the first quarter of the 20th century an author named Napoleon Hill was putting together a collection of insights that would become The Laws of Success, a precursor to his more well-known book, Think & Grow Rich. Within that first book were the keys to productivity as Hill saw them. One of the Laws was that of Enthusiasm; that without it a person is hard pressed to find success in an endeavor. However, as Hill points out, not every person wakes each day brimming with enthusiasm, so we must find ways to manufacture it. One way to promote your own enthusiasm is to wear well-fitting clothes, appropriate to your task.
How cool is that? Nearly 100 years ago, the psychology of clothing was evident to Hill. Watch for yourself as an actor is transformed as they step into costume. Power suits create confidence. If you’ve never worm a well-tailored suit, you should see the impact. Not only is the effect mental, but physical as you may even find yourself standing a little straighter; taller. In fact, children in developing countries who wear school uniforms see positive impacts in educational development compared with those who don’t. Let alone the health benefit when those children simply wear shoes to prevent illness due to parasitic infection. The short of it is: clothes can make a huge difference.
The second principle is that there is a power in place; that cities and regions give people identity and common values, and that community-focused businesses help drive local economies. Locally owned businesses contribute nearly $.68 of every dollar back into local economic activity compared with $.48 from large national or multinational businesses. The owners of the former pay local taxes and spend profits locally. Additionally, when viewed through the lens of today’s ‘fast fashion’ marketplace, the economic impact is further emphasized by the humanitarian impact. Close to 97% of clothing sold in the US originates from outside its borders. Much of it comes from low-wage countries like Bangladesh, China, and Cambodia where working conditions are virtually unregulated and factory disasters are dismissed as the cost of doing business. Three of the four worst tragedies in the history of the garment industry have happened in those countries in this decade.
No, not all imports are equal. In fact, we showcase some responsibly-sourced goods from overseas. But In the face of this paradigm, we propose a turn to conscientious consumerism.
Can you give more detail about conscientious consumerism and what it means for ARC Co.?
When given the choice or even aware of it -most of us make more calculated product selections. When we’re able to stop and ask, ‘who will gain from this transaction?’, or more times, ‘who is hurt by this purchase?’ we tend to make purchasing choices with more impact. We buy local, we buy fare trade, and we want our dollar to go farther.
And that leads to the third driving principle: the power in people. When people do good work in the world, they can create radical, positive change. Many of our small-batch manufacturers stay close to the products and the process. They love what they do. It’s why they do it. But many don’t have the time or the desire to learn and leverage today’s tactics to reach and acquire an ever-broadening audience.
We envisioned a platform where we could tell the brand stories of our community-focused, compassion-oriented, and responsibly-sourced garment makers, effectively bringing them to a bigger market. And as long as we did our job in educating that market, they’d support those brands and our shop.
So, this is a big change from your previous career. Can you tell us how you’ve approached change?
I love change. There's a cleansing nature to change. It's an opportunity to refresh, rewrite, and repair an approach.
Wholesale change can be great too. It’s easy to lose some perspective when you spend a lot of time specializing or focusing on one set of skills. Becoming the novice again can be both grounding and humbling. But once you’ve dedicated yourself to master the new, you can transform your frustrations into confidence through innovation and problem solving, and perhaps a little bit of productive suffering.
Embrace change, your team will follow your lead. Heraclitus said it best, “The only thing that is constant is change.”
Clearly, you had made it to the top of the organization in your previous company, what did you learn from that experiences?
I have learned that failure is the ultimate teacher. I believe that risk taking, and the inherent presence of failure, is essential to success. I love the idea that one should seek out failures in order to test and develop new strategies.
I firmly believe that there is only one thing in life that we do alone and that is to decide. We can decide our direction, we can decide our effort, and we can decide our attitude. For everything else, we rely on community. Bishop Desmond Tutu tells us that we can walk and speak because someone cared enough to teach us. That the clothes we wear were made by others and that we could buy them because we provided a service to someone (that’s your job) and that they, or someone else, paid us for it (your salary).
I’ve tried not to lose sight of how important and lucky it is to be part of a greater community and that you should be aware of and thankful for. In this regard, humility is a key to success.
I also believe that there is no substitute for hard work or the long form (thank you Ferriss). That is that when you consistently input your best effort, there are very few challenges or barriers that cannot be overcome. I had a colleague once tell me the best advice that he ever received was to simply show up every day. In the infinite game of business or career building, your consistency will overwhelm those who skimp on details, blow off commitments, or go through the motions. Even if those instances are infrequent, you’d still gain ground by showing up every day with your best.
What are the most important decisions you make as the head of ARC Co.?
In our specific model, I’m always looking to simplify our team’s daily tasks without compromising the customer experience. Whatever we can do to free up their time leads to better value for our clients.
I’m also focused on the approach that we take in acquiring and activating our clients. Building and growing the business takes well-placed, and the appropriate amount of, activity and messaging requiring constant learning, strategizing, and redirecting.
I’m also always looking to create the best work environment possible for our team. The decisions relating to the direction of the company that will directly impact the team are some of the most important within my role and ones that I take seriously. Luckily, I include them in the dialogue whenever possible so that we can move forward with the same set of principles and expectations.
On taking risks, do you have alternative plans or strategies in place before you start?
We’re at an interesting point in our development where we are taking many risks as we push for growth and reach. That isn’t to say that we are cavalier, but at this point we’re a little less risk averse than some.
Aside from that, I first measure the opportunity cost of taking on a task or project. That is, what else do I forego by devoting time and resources to this task. Then I try to weigh the perceived outcomes against the sometimes-unintended consequences. Then I measure the cost of not proceeding; of maintaining the status quo.
Ultimately, I make a decision that is a qualified and educated guess. Nothing is guaranteed. There are always variables -both internal and external- that will impact the outcome; some of which you have no control over. In the end, I make the best decision for my customer, my team, and my brand; knowing that no action is also a choice. And not always a good one.
Any advice you can share with other people who want to build their own business but are afraid of the risks?
Risk is inherent in life. Many of us put off action thinking we’ve got plenty of time and risk that maybe we don't. Many of us risk an unfulfilled or unsatisfying life by not betting on ourselves and starting that new business. Yes, failure can hurt. But I’m willing to bet that regret hurts more.
I love what Tim Ferriss proposes in terms of fear setting. Take the idea for your business and think of all the ways that it could fail and write them down. Now take each and think about how you could mitigate or perhaps prevent those worst-case scenarios. Build those alternatives or course corrections into your business plan. Now, you can execute and only have to worry about the real curve balls.
The second part of the exercise is to take stock of where you’re at now and, knowing what you know now, calculate how long it would take to get back to exactly where you are if you had to start from scratch. If the timeline is less than 3-5 years, why wouldn’t you jump?
Do you have any grand plans for your brand in the future?
I hope that the brand can be a platform from which some good can be done in a world where we are much more divided than we need be.
We support high-impact community occupations that are traditionally undervalued (using salary as a measure) or taken for granted like nurses, teachers, first responders, and the military.
Whether we work to keep fire houses open, focus on the social relevance of PTSD in returning vets, or underscore the important -and many times, thankless- role that teachers play, we’d like to shift the paradigm of celebrity fetish in our culture.
I’d also like to see a bridging of the gap between urban and rural sensibilities. We have more in common with each other than we might admit and yet, we allow divisions to be driven between us. Many times, those divisions serve to keep us from working together to progress greater initiatives.
I feel that our brand can help drive this type of change and healing in turbulent times.