Repping Your Hood: Kansas City Designer Matt Baldwin
It’s 5am on a late summer night in 2009. Matt Baldwin is on his hands and knees in the basement of his Kansas City home. He’s hovering over dozens of jeans splayed out over his unfinished concrete floor. It’s late, but he needs to finish numbering and signing this first batch of Baldwin jeans. As he carefully scrawls on each pair, he recalls each step of the process—buying the denim at Cone Mills in North Carolina, sending them to Japan where they’re woven on selvedge looms, working closely with tailors in downtown LA, and finally shipping them back to his offices in Kansas City. Each pair in this batch is sentimental to him not only because they’re his first, but also because he’s selling them in his hometown: Kansas City.
Baldwin, 38, was born in Wichita, and now resides in Kansas City. After spending time in Colorado, he moved back to KC with his wife Emily in 2003 to open Standard Style, a multi-brand clothing store in Leawood, just south of the city. But after six years, Baldwin, who attended the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in LA, was ready to embark on his own collection and open a shop, despite the tumultuous market—denim brands were shuttering en masse.
“It was in that post-9/11 era when most people were afraid to enter the marketplace,” says Baldwin. “That is exactly why I thought it was the perfect time to open a fresh brand with a voice based in real quality.” Baldwin developed a plan to blend American cotton with Japanese craftsmanship and a modern fit that’s tailored for today’s customer. It’s a model that would’ve been right at home on the streets of Williamsburg or Venice Beach. But Baldwin wanted his hometown to be the inspiration for—and home to—his new endeavor.
“I was always going to run this operation out of KC,” he says. “It was never a question.” It turns out he wasn’t the first to run a successful denim brand out of the city of fountains.
“If you look at the history of denim, Levi’s represented the West Coast, operating out of San Francisco. Wrangler occupied the East Coast in North Carolina, and Lee Jeans was in the Midwest—just outside Kansas City. And while we were taking a modern approach to this line, we really felt like we were picking up on this hundred-year narrative of classic American workwear.”
In late 2009, Baldwin designed his first sleek, monochromatic store in Leawood. “I’m a complete modernist,” he says. “I express my love for design and architecture in my stores, which I take great ownership in,” he says. You can find Baldwin’s modern design aesthetic all around him—even on his body. Tattoo sleeves cover his right arm and left leg. They’re a mix of Japanese art, ancient geometry and imagery from the Pacific Northwest.
That clean aesthetic has carried over into his line as well. Baldwin developed three custom jeans: the Reed (straight), the 76 (skinny), and the Henley (slim), named after his oldest son—the line’s best-selling fit to date. These pieces represented a return to quality and fit that reflects one of Baldwin’s personal fashion mantras: own fewer high-quality items and let them age beautifully. For raw denim, which he sees as the most versatile and valuable item in anyone’s closet, this means welcoming holes, tears, fading, whiskering, and other signs of age that tell the owner’s story and take on the wearer’s personality.
“I always tell people that they can beat up their denim as long as they care for it. Go as long as you can between washes. Just wash them cold, hang to dry—never use a dryer—and get back in them. After a few years, each pair becomes one of a kind,” says Baldwin. To that end, he offers free repairs for rips and tears on all of his denim to help extend the lifetime of each garment. It was that concept of jeans telling their owners’ stories that inspired the #MYBALDWIN program, wherein the brand buys customers’ old jeans and uses their natural fades and whiskering as inspiration for the following year’s washes.
Confident in his mission, Baldwin found validation in his customers’ response. “We sold 22 pairs in three hours that first day. That’s when I knew we had something special,” says Baldwin, adding he was outselling top brands like Nudie Jeans, Simon Miller, A.P.C. and Levi’s LVC collection. “We knew we’d struck a chord,” he says.
Baldwin eventually expanded his line to include more fashion-forward lifestyle pieces like leather jackets, tailored sweats and fine-gauge knits. It’s a move that’s diluted many denim brands in the past.
“Every denim brand has lifestyle apparel now, and it often falls flat,” says Michael Stefanov, market editor for Esquire magazine. “Baldwin is one of the few lines with a lifestyle range that I actually want to own.”
Since the brand launched, Baldwin made an impression on the international fashion community. He’s also attracted the attention of fashion publications, earning a spot as one of GQ’s Best Menswear Designer of 2013. That allowed him to collaborate with Gap, which brought his designs to a mass audience.
“That line went bonkers,” he says. “It sold out in more than 200 stores worldwide.” From there, his line’s momentum continued. That same year, Baldwin opened another store in KC’s Plaza district.
In 2015, he was nominated as a finalist in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, and the process was documented on Amazon’s “The Fashion Fund.” It exposed him not only to a wider audience, but also to influential fashion icons like Condé Nast Artistic Director and Vogue Editor-In-Chief Anna Wintour.
“She’s the most intentional person I’ve ever met,” says Baldwin, citing her constant composure and candor in the feedback she gives about his brand. “She’s the one who urged me to put Kansas City on our new label. She said, ‘Show me this city you come from.’ That was very affirming to know she wanted a piece of KC, too.”
Wintour isn’t the only one. Today, one of Baldwin’s signature pieces is its navy “KC” hat that’s popping up all over the world and on celebs like Jason Sudeikis and Olivia Wilde. “It had this profound connection with people well beyond just Kansas City,” says Baldwin. “The cool thing is that people have made that hat their own.” To him, the now iconic cap came to represent not only the concepts of high quality, American-made goods, but also the importance of local culture and what Baldwin calls “repping your hood.”
“To me, local culture is highly interesting—I don’t care where you go,” he says. “Whether it’s a small town in Japan or back in Kansas City where I’ve grown up and put down my roots.”
To Baldwin, his line represents a modern voice for Kansas City in the global style narrative. “KC and the Midwest haven’t been tapped into fully. That’s why I’m so excited,” he says. “Because I’m uniquely poised to tell Kansas City’s story to the world.”
All photos by Attilio D’Agostino. This story appears in ALIVE’s “Express Yourself” issue.