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Noble Conversations:
Shea Parton, Co-Founder and CEO of Apolis

Category: Clean Luxury

Apolis is a lifestyle brand based in the Arts District of Los Angeles. Not only have they played a major part in catalyzing the urban rejuvenation of that area, the company is also an example of merging great product (think Oxford shirts, chinos and leather goods for the global traveller) with clear social impact (community building, innovative retail experiences, providing jobs across the developing world).

SHEA, TALK TO ME A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR ROLE AT APOLIS AND WHAT YOU GUYS DO.

I’m the CEO. I focus on the business while Raan, my brother, does everything creative. We’re a socially motivated lifestyle brand that empowers communities worldwide. The word Apolis translates to ‘global citizen’ and we believe all people are created equal and should have equal access to the market.

YOU ARE PRIMARILY MENSWEAR FOCUSED, BUT YOU’VE ALSO MADE A RECENT FORAY INTO WOMENSWEAR WITH YOUR JAPANESE COLLABORATION, RIGHT?

Yes, womenswear will be a big part of the company in the coming years. It’s important to understand that the garment and textile world has a foothold in most jobs within the developing economy, from the grower to the sewer, and if you’re not conscious about building a brand long term, then you’re not going to sustain jobs and think about it holistically. So, we’ve been really conscious about building a men’s brand to start, but a women’s collection will be the next level to scale.

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE GENESIS OF THE COMPANY?

We grew up in Santa Barbara and our parents knew that we would be complete Southern California monsters if we didn’t see the rest of the world. We expected to see all these differences when traveling, from different currencies to languages, but we were blown away by the similarities. Everyone has the same desires to laugh and learn, to provide for their family. That really stood out to us.

Our parents had this proverb that focused on the idea of teaching people to fish, rather than giving them fish. There’s plenty of well-trained fishermen in developing economies, but they don’t often have the right bait for a large enough pond. We saw an opportunity to co-design products with communities and co-operatives to bring to them a wider audience and a stronger market. Again, the word Apolis anchors our vision and keeps it based on equality, of giving people equal access to the market.

HOW DO YOU COMMUNICATE SOCIAL TRANSPARENCY TO YOUR CUSTOMERS? SOMETIMES IT’S A FINE LINE BETWEEN BEING SOCIALLYO-ORIENTED AND LOOKING LIKE A NON-PROFIT, VERSUS BEING A B-CORP WITH A FANTASTIC PRODUCT. WHAT DOES STORYTELLING LOOK LIKE?

I think that the generation of brands preying off of people’s insecurities is over. Now, it’s more like a generation of people looking for brands that are willing to listen. Brands have to take the posture of making the customer the hero, rather than the brand, so that the customer has a level of leadership in the brand itself. Purpose is now expected within product. If that’s not implicit you’re not going to be around very long.

For us storytelling is very simple, whether it’s publishing the longitude and latitude of factories, or updates on job creation and specific products created. We also wanted to have a lot more holistic accountability by becoming a B Corp. It’s just a simple black and white appreciation for how you’re audited on an environmental-social standard. If you’re the 1.1% of world that understands B Corp and sees the value, then you’re further convinced and confident in the brand. It’s a natural evolution and a level of appreciation for having accountability, and ultimately getting smarter in a space that’s very smoke and mirrors.

But while B Corp was helpful for us, everything continues to be based on the fact that good design sells. If you don’t lead with that, nothing else really matters.

“I think that the generation of brands preying off of people’s insecurities is over. Now, it’s more like a generation of people looking for brands that are willing to listen. Purpose is now expected within product. If that’s not implicit you’re not going to be around very long.”

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ABSOLUTELY. YOU ARE INTERWOVEN INTO THE FABRIC OF DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES, HOW HAVE YOU GROWN SUCH A LOYAL CUSTOMER BASE?

It boils down to the fact that my brother and I are like our customers, we are always thinking about content, events and different amenities within a retail experience that we would appreciate. We love our friends that have built amazing brands, but it’s often built on an appreciation that they’re going to exit in a couple of years. We want to do this for a long time, so everything has to relatively be in ratio to what we can sustain.

Over the years we’ve done speaking series with great friends who have allowed us to learn from their experiences, leaders within the food, music, and media industries. Selfishly, we wanted to get these people together to learn from them and build events around it. We’ve also done different workshops on skill building and ways to impact your local or global community… Things that have been centered around relevancy, not ‘What’s gonna be a checkbox for doing good?’

I think that’s the brand trying being the hero. It’s looking for some kudos, but you’re not really listening to the market. Everyone appreciates something really terrible in Africa, but there’s ultimately only so much bandwidth for these issues, and that’s why popular culture takes up over 95% of the social media/web. People can only handle so much after a long day.

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT SOME OF THE MAJOR MILESTONES THE COMPANY HAS GONE THROUGH?

I guess it would start with getting everything moving when we were in high school in Santa Barbara. Our neighbor was the head of organic manufacturing for Patagonia. His mentorship early on was a huge milestone.

AMAZING THAT YOU HAD THAT GUY NEXT DOOR.

Yeah. His name is Dale Denkensohn, he’s no longer with Patagonia, but he was there early on with Yvon building their organic program. He was a great tuning fork for being conscious of almost doing too much good, in the sense that our pricing was out of whack for what a commodity item would really be valued at. We wanted to do an organic and job creation push with the brand, but it was just unrealistic for what people would be willing to spend when it came down to product.

That was a great moment of appreciation for brand identity, but realizing you still need to be sensitive to where the market is, and how to consciously think long term on scale, because if you’re just selling a couple of units it doesn’t do anyone any good.

Fast forward a few years to 2007 and we got out of college and into Downtown Los Angeles. That’s when Apolis became more of a full time project.

WHICH WAS A PRETTY UNIQUE TIME TO BE IN DTLA, RIGHT?

Yeah. It was really intense. Skid Row was into the Arts District at that point. We got our car stolen, we got broken into. We were living out of our office in this converted garage around the corner. It was a great time to learn the whole process. We were less than 10 miles from all of the Los Angeles studios that we manufactured in. We were immersed in understanding garment textile manufacturing to the point we understood how to make things quickly, respond to different forms of demand, and minimize a lot of waste just because we could move a lot more nimbly.

The next major landmark was opening our first store which gave us more independence. We’ve been able to build a direct business and better understand what people are looking for to better understand our next location. Now, four years later, we’ve found the place in New York and have the benefit of being conscious about how to control an environment. When you start to immerse yourself in a different region, you start to be more methodical about the products needed and ways to be a more holistic lifestyle brand.

I think that our stores have been huge milestones. I think there’s been a handful of collaborative products that have been really great milestones. I think probably the biggest milestone is that I’m still friends with my business partner and brother.

YOU HAVEN’T KILLED EACH OTHER YET.

Yeah.

“If we want to just be at the mercy of media, we’re gonna consciously be driven by fear. To just be super clear, there’s evil in the world and I’m not to try to undermine the reality of that, but we have a lot more in common with someone from an Arab background than we think.”

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A COUPLE OF LAST QUESTIONS… YOU RELEASED A VIDEO ABOUT ISRAELI AND PALESTINIAN MAKERS WHOSE CROSS-BORDER COLLABORATION WAS BUILDING BRIDGES, AND APOLIS PRODUCT, IN THE MIDST OF CONFLICT. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT?

The biggest thing that jumps out at me about that story is that if we just want to be at the mercy of the media, we’re going to consciously be driven by fear. To just be super clear, there’s evil in the world and I’m not to try to undermine the reality of that, but we have a lot more in common with someone from an Arab background than we think. You get to know them and you’re blown away by their humanity, humanity that is often boiled down to fear by the headlines.

An individual from Silicon Valley brought this story to us from the Middle East. He was surfing with this guy in Tel-Aviv, went to his house and saw everything happening there. We happened to be working with this this guy – a Jewish designer and third generation leather craftsman – in a small capacity, but we had never understood the cross-border collaboration element.  [The craftsman’s manufacturing partner was in Hebron.] The designer in Tel-Aviv felt that a Western company would think there was too much red tape to be associated with someone in Palestine, so never brought that detail to us.

At that point our manufacturing was really small so they weren’t doing any of our manufacturing in the West Bank of Hebron, but it was always a possibility if we were able to get some scale. Our Silicon Valley friend, who narrates the film that we put together, thought we would be into telling the story of how businesses bridge amidst conflict.

That story between Israel and Palestine is summarized by this quote by the Palestinian leather manufacturing partner we interview in the film:

“We go to work every day and each transaction with builds trust and friendship… and who knows how far that can go?”

It just gives me shivers to think about how simple that is. When you start to break down the geography of that part of the world, Palestinian culture is dependent on the ports of Israel. They need to have that access point for trade. Then the Israeli world is really dependent on the labor of the Palestinian world. It’s this obvious daily dependence.

IT’S SUCH AN INTERCONNECTED RELATIONSHIP.

You spend time over there and everyone is kind of like ‘yeah we work with them’. It’s not like the biggest deal, but it’s something you don’t really hear about in the media because it’s thought of as a less romantic headline.

We’re still blown away by how that story has helped solidify our brand message around business with responsibility and doing good, because I think people think of business as capitalism and greed. If you can sit back and just find good leadership and really emphasize the word responsible free-market capitalism, it’s incredibly powerful. Our friend, Dan Pallotta, wrote the book Uncharitable, and he studies the nonprofit sector. If this sector focuses on a worldwide epidemic, it’ll take 50-100 years to see change, but if you responsibly adopt free-market capitalism you could see change in 5-10 years.

LAST QUESTION. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEBODY WHO WANTS TO START THEIR OWN BRAND?

I think the biggest thing is what is your group of friends like? If you’re surrounding yourself with people who care more about your success than your sanity, you’re going to burn out. You’re going to have some tough seasons and be really isolated. So we’ve been really thankful for a great group of friends. They ask the hard questions, and want to make sure that sales supersede expenses. Which is, unfortunately, really unique in any creative industry because it’s often built on an exit strategy or Oprah wearing or endorsing a product. Without focusing on the long ball I think we would have burnt out a long time ago. I also think we could have been sucked up in a form of arrogance and wouldn’t have made product that people really want. We would just been making things we think are cool.

It’s a question that I’m maybe too philosophical about, but I think it’s really based on the friends that you surround yourself with.

I LOVE THAT. THAT’S A GREAT ANSWER. THANK YOU.

 

 

FOR MORE VISIT: APOLIS
Top images Warby Parker, all other images courtesy Apolis.

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