I have always drawn; sketchbook after sketchbook, year after year. I distinctly remember, and perusals through the early drawing pads confirm an intrigue with sports attire and the function, graphics, and movement of it all. I’ll also say that as a kid I always wore, or desired to wear, pretty classic stuff: five-pocket jeans (Sears Tough Skins in Husky, not the more expensive, but desired Levi’s), crew neck sweatshirts, plaid shirts, flannel, wool (scratchy then, but worth the discomfort), a Barracuda-like little zip jacket, polo’s, Chuck’s and work boots. Sure there was the occasional nod to something else, which I guess you’d now call fashion; the red, white and blue donut-patterned Tom Jones Shirt, the gold Dickie, to name a couple. There were also the horrible acrylic sweaters every year from my uncle who worked for a knitting factory in Chicago. I knew, even at that age, that some fabrics were for real, and others weren’t.
What does it mean to be obsessive? What drives an insistence to create the very best? We spent an afternoon with Charlie Cronk — the design half of the Kitsbow foundation, to learn about his own personal origins of creativity, and to discover the driving style inspiration behind the most obsessive mountain biking apparel in the world.
So with particular regard to an awareness of elevated style and design, where did it all begin?
The real awareness hit the fan for me somewhere in the mid-high school years. Punk had just broke, and like many of my peers, I very quickly shifted allegiances from Led Zeppelin, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Boston and the like, to The Clash, Sex Pistols and The Jam. As a musician myself, the look of the movement was every bit as enticing as the bite of the urgent chord progressions. My friends and I began customizing our duds on a sewing machine owned by my best friend’s mom. Stuff like tapered legs on our denim, leather patches, zippers everywhere, and custom stitching on our leathers became de rigueur. Also made lots of hand painted tees and stencil art. A high point for me was at a Violent Femmes show when Brian Ritchie singled me out in the pit and asked, “Where’d you get that shirt?” To which I replied, “I made it!”
Music ate up much of the next 15 years or so, but other creativity was exploding around my world. I worked in a very cool menswear shop in my little Mid-Western town. Cool owners. Great music collection. It was an incredibly exciting time in menswear, and I was getting to see, and study, all this stuff. Everything from Calvin, Henry Grethel, Perry Ellis, E.G. Smith, and Girbaud, to Trash & Vaudeville, YSL, Willie Smith, and even the early days of Kenneth Cole — I had the perfect means of discovering it all.
How were you finally able to parlay all of the music and design energy into a long-term career?
Quite simply, Fine Art studies transitioned to Apparel Design. My small town became a big town. My East Coast soon became the West Coast. Shoe design became clothing design; women’s stuff became menswear. Perry Ellis was dead, but I worked for one of his disciples. I helped launch a tailored menswear brand that within 3 years was bigger than Georgio Armani’s mainline business. A large-scale brand experience followed at Levi’s where I got to work on the company’s global consolidation of products and design, and where I also burned-out. Royally.
But the combo of Textile Science and Textile Design classes in college (where my roommate had a small knitting loom) confirmed an attraction to the many fabrics in the world. Science and aesthetic mingled for me like never before. What especially clicked, with regards to performance, was a different take on technical gear. I was more intrigued by things like Purdey Guns & Rifle Makers, the hunting apparel at the old-world London institution, and the leather snow goggles and natural fibers on the backs of Tenzig Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary up on Everest. I also distinctly remember an image from National Geographic of an elderly Irish birder, supine and tucked into the craggy steep rocks of a shoreline whilst camouflaged in Harris Tweed woolens — it was the perfectly statement of heritage, time and place. I could use this image on every inspiration board I ever make from here til death. But ultimately, these are all authentic stories of functional wear, and are all equally impactful.
So where exactly do bicycles fit in this picture?
Throughout my life, at least from age seven on, I had my bike along (I was a late bloomer — didn’t learn to ride a bike until that age!) for every skid, wheelie and curb-riding contest. That turned to adventures out to the woods to hunt squirrels, or adventures just to get lost some days. I’ve always entrusted my own time to think to the hours on a bike. I came to more official mountain biking later in the game in the early 90’s. A quick succession of a borrowed Rockhopper, Marin and a Gary Fisher Hoo-Koo-E-Koo finally led to a Kona Hot hand built by Joe Murray with wheels from Chrono-Metro guru Colin O’Brien.
It was things like the tailoring world of Saville Row, Gieves & Hawkes, Spencer Hart, Richard James, that sang to me. And when something sings to me, it sings for a long time. It wasn’t just the suits, but for being of a tradition of craft and heritage, and for being of the moment in their time of creation. One could hardly compare the output of a Huntsman, established in 1849, to a Tommy Nutter in the “swingin’ London” era, or to an Ozwald Boeteng in 1995, but they each come out of the same tradition of being fit and cut by hand. It was these inspirations that were brought into the design principles behind Kitsbow, which is a culmination of a varied mix of inspiration and classical menswear heritage. But such is design. Together with the touch of a fabric, its toughness or softness, a great detail or color; all of these elements comprise a garment’s ability to do things that make it more wearable and functional. Ultimately for me, it means using the very best fabrics on the planet and tailoring them towards the personal passion of mountain biking. This cross-section of simplicity is what goes into the thought process behind Kitsbow apparel.
Oh, and a lot of hours on a bike with some really weird, great music.
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