With the Brooklyn Circus, Ouigi Theodore and Gabe Garcia, Communication Design alumni, produce and sell stylish clothing—and a cultural manifesto.
by Jonathan Vatner
How does the Brooklyn Circus smell? Like the sweet yet manly pomegranate candle custom-blended for the shop, burning by the entrance. How does it sound? Like the tunes of Al Green, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Frank Sinatra, Jay-Z, Fela Kuti, and even Phil Collins, issuing from the speakers. What’s on its bookshelf? A two-volume history of the circus, published by Taschen; 100 Years of Harley-Davidson; and Freedom, a photographic history of the African-American struggle for self-determination.
Indeed, the Brooklyn Circus, now five years old, is not just a clothing shop in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. It’s a melting pot of cultures and races transmuted into commerce. It’s a lifestyle inspired by men of taste—most notably Ouigi Theodore and Gabe Garcia, co-owners of the brand—but also jocks and dandies from the first half of the 20th century, a golden age of tailors and barbershops. “It was a time when gentlemen really put that extra effort into their daily regimen,” Gabe says.
Ouigi, the founder and philosopher-in-chief of the Brooklyn Circus, sums up the brand: “It’s not just a fashion statement. It’s a cultural statement.”
THE BEARDED MAN
Ouigi can be recognized by his neckerchief, which he used to see on laborers in Haiti—where he spent the first eight years of his life before moving to Crown Heights, Brooklyn—but which also evokes images of Boy Scouts and French sailors.
He also sports an eight-panel cap. “If you look at history, everyone’s wearing a hat,” Ouigi says. “It’s such a beautiful thing.”
But his most distinctive feature is his luxuriant beard, which juts out from his face at a gravity-defying angle. People stop him on the street and accost him with, “You’re the Bearded Man from the Brooklyn Circus, right?”
He’s resigned to the moniker—and to the tourists posing for photos with him. “I’ve spent five years in this beard,” he says. “The beard will stay.”
Ouigi aims to refine urban style. “A nice blazer and jeans and a polo shirt and shoes, that’s urban to me,” he says, “as opposed to a loose dirty t-shirt and sneakers. When those kids grow up to be men, where do they go from that? Into a three-piece suit? We attract the guy who doesn’t want to dress like his grandfather and probably doesn’t want to dress like his 18-year-old brother.”
The brand draws a fantastic array of shoppers, both locals and tourists, from guys working for GQ, Esquire, and W to the UPS man. “The customer is not black, is not white, is not young, is not old,” Ouigi riffs. “He has a particular taste and knows what he’s looking for.”
In the shop, t-shirts, shorts, shoes, and socks are laid out on a ping-pong table by the entrance. More socks are packed in an open suitcase. Jeans are piled on an antique trunk. A roughed-up pair of boots stands atop a stack of old books. Sure, the hats and shoes are arranged on shelves, but the weathered wood structure looks like it belongs in an old factory, not a retail store.
“We’re always fine-tuning,” Ouigi says. “If a space isn’t vibrating the way it should, people feel it.”
The shop sells classic shoes in the British style—with ornate broguing and serration—by established brands Tricker’s and Grenson, and brightly colored Happy Socks. Inside a glass case, antique watches and shoehorns are laid out like specimens. But almost everything else—eight-panel caps and porkpies (Gabe’s hat of choice), button-down shirts, leather and wool varsity jackets, combed cotton shorts, Japanese selvedge denim, and more—is by Brooklyn Circus.
The clothing line came about incrementally. In the early days, Ouigi and Gabe started manufacturing graphic tees to get customers wearing their brand around town. Now they produce a continually expanding line of signature apparel, designed by freelancers and manufactured mostly locally. Long-sleeve shirts retail for $140, short-sleeve for $125. Varsity jackets range from $320 to $480.
Perhaps the entire philosophy of the Brooklyn Circus can be summarized in the hang tags on the clothes. The painstakingly stained paper tags show the store’s logo, an adult elephant leading a baby—representing the previous generation showing the way—and the date, 1920, when Ouigi’s grandmother was born.
“My grandmother always taught me to respect old things,” Ouigi says. “Things of value are things that last, not just things that shine, and not just things that people want in the moment.”
That ethos has pushed the Brooklyn Circus’s offerings toward a higher quality product. “It’s really about long-term stuff with us,” Ouigi says, “versus something that flies off the shelf and people get two or three wears out of it.”
Ouigi never dreamed about selling clothes. In 2003, he opened a clothing shop (called Race) because he wanted to make use of extra space in his graphic-design studio.
Gabe, on the other hand, always wanted a clothing boutique. As far back as he can remember, the California native cared about his duds. He used to write down what he wore every day so that he wouldn’t duplicate an outfit. Deemed “best dressed” in eighth grade, he often came late to school because it took him so long to pick out clothes.
The two met during Gabe’s first semester at FIT. “He had a pair of Evisu jeans, and I could tell he had a similar interest in clothing,” Gabe says. Then Gabe found out Ouigi owned a shop. “I immediately thought, ‘You have a shop. I want a shop.’ I was going to find out how he did this.”
Gabe kept stopping by the shop to pick Ouigi’s brain and buy something. Then he started hanging out there. Then he started helping out wherever he could.
“He was cool,” Ouigi says of Gabe. “I always had a fascination with California, and he always had questions about my style.”
In 2006, when Ouigi decided that Race wasn’t working, Gabe agreed to be his apprentice for a new endeavor: the Brooklyn Circus. “I had a retail background, and he knew the business aspect,” Gabe says. “I had creative ideas, and he knew how to bring them to fruition. I let him lead the way, helping where I could.”
Gabe now serves as the art director and handles the wholesale business. The two play an equal part in creative decisions—though there’s always a battle. They are opposites: Ouigi constantly reexamines his style, drawing from historical photos. Gabe gravitates toward simplicity and stability.
“I know what Gabe is going to be attracted to, and it’s probably the piece I hate,” Ouigi says, but diplomatically adds, “We’re from two different coasts, so our different backgrounds create a synergy and balance.”
MADE IN THE USA
About 90 percent of Brooklyn Circus clothes are made in the U.S., in factories that date back to the ’30s. A factory in New Jersey makes the hats, the shirts are made in Manhattan, the jeans in San Francisco.
“Modern factories are trying to replicate what the older machines did,” Ouigi says.
He selects manufacturers mainly by instinct, shaking the owner’s hand and glancing at the workers and the way the place is laid out. “Sometimes it’s about how many units they can do, and they put you at the bottom of the totem pole because your quantity is lower. The guys we work with, though, are absolutely meticulous about everything. If you’re doing ten, that ten is just as important as J. Crew’s thousand or million.”
He is often disappointed. When the son of a shirt factory owner in New Jersey took over, the quality declined, and Ouigi stopped ordering from him. And for some items, such as ties and bowties, he still hasn’t found a solution. The steady closure of America’s factories isn’t making the search easier.
Working in such small quantities has proved a challenge. Once they bought too many shirts to get a volume discount. Summer passed and they didn’t sell out. Winter came, and customers wanted jackets, not shirts. “Two years later, we’re still trying to get rid of shirts,” Ouigi says. “You sold as much as you could and you can’t put it on the floor again. You’re stuck with 75 extra shirts, and that’s your profit margin. And you get taxed on your inventory, too!”
They also regret spending too much on the design process. For their hat collection, they sampled 50 designs and produced only 12. Because they pay for each sample, 25 to 30 pieces per year adds up to thousands in unnecessary expenses.
“We’re starting to realize that there’s a balance to be found,” Ouigi says.
In early 2007, Gabe decided to fulfill his original dream and open a Brooklyn Circus of his own in the Bay Area. That way, he and Ouigi would each own a store and be equal partners in the business. A 600-square-foot spot—slightly smaller than the shop in Brooklyn—opened up next door to Harputs, Gabe’s favorite sneaker shop, and he pounced, in order to trade on some of the time-honored retailer’s cred. The Brooklyn Circus opened July 4, 2008.
Despite setting up a pop-up shop inside Harputs during the buildout, as well as aggressive sticker campaigning, business was off to a crawl. “The street wasn’t known for shopping,” Gabe says. “The only shop there was Harputs.” It probably didn’t help that he had opened right before the recession.
But special events, like a happy hour combined with a private shopping night, helped build up business. Three years in, he’s finally seeing consistent sales.
The retail operation continues to grow. The Brooklyn shop moved a few doors down in 2008, and the former Brooklyn Circus became the duo’s office and studio—and now, a vintage boutique. They’re also looking to open stores in other cities, possibly in Atlanta and Austin, and very likely in Tokyo.
The clothes have already found their way to Chicago, Sweden, and Japan, and through the store’s online shop, which debuted in 2009, even more places.
The success of those efforts has led Ouigi and Gabe to wholesale more aggressively. This year, they debuted a collection of sweaters, hats, and varsity jackets at Project, a contemporary-fashion trade show in New York and Las Vegas. But they are proceeding warily. “We don’t want the wholesale aspect to go so fast that the retail is affected,” Ouigi says. “We want them to parallel each other.”
All of this would be small potatoes compared with what might be on the horizon. Several big-name companies and a few celebrities have offered to invest in the company and grow it much faster. But the two entrepreneurs, who built a brand on attention to detail—and financed everything from their savings—have been hesitant to relinquish control, which these companies all have demanded. “We’re honored and flattered to be at the table five years into the business,” Ouigi says. “But if they want you now, imagine what they’ll do for you three years from now.”