Interview: 30 Minutes with Gabe Ricioppo, Creative Director of Need Supply

Features By Photo by NS

Editor’s Note: If you haven’t already heard of Need Supply Co, then there’s a good chance you’re missing out on one of the most superbly well-curated mixes of contemporary brands out there. With a pitch-perfect mosaic of unique finds, denim, and other style finds, they rarely misses a beat.

At the helm is the creative brains, Gabe Ricioppo, a refreshingly down-to-earth guy who’s emphasis and understanding of brands and design have cultivated Need Supply Co into the one-stop style resource it is today. Gear Patrol’s Matthew Claudel recently checked in with Gabe to discuss not just his background, but the genesis of a shop that combines all that we love at GP: design, stories, and great products.

Our chat (head’s up, it’s a lengthy one) begins right after the jump.

Our thanks to Effen Vodka for helping make this interview possible. To check out more stories on influential players in the world of design and style, read the full Defining Style series on Facebook.

Gear Patrol: Where are you originally from? Tell me a bit about growing up.

Gabe Ricioppo: I’m from Virginia Beach, Virginia, and lived there until I was about 22. I grew up surfing – my friends and I were always going down to the beach – I think it was really a good way to grow up. I was immersed in surf culture. I left when I was 22, came back for a minute, but I haven’t lived at the beach since then. Richmond is about 1.5 or 2 hours away, so I try to get down there from time to time.

GP: I wouldn’t expect to find a surf culture in Virginia…

GR: Actually, Virginia Beach has a pretty big scene going there. There’s one big contest, a pro event, which happens every summer, so a lot of the young touring pros who are not in main circuit go there. Actually a lot of good surfers come out of Virginia Beach. It has the best access to Cape Hadaras, in the outer banks of North Carolina. We always went down to outer banks and surfed.

GP: Does surf culture continue to resonate with the work you do?

GR: I grew up in it, and at that level, you either surf or you don’t. You’re really into it – all of your brands are surf brands. I always wanted a clothing company, and I thought it would be in the surf industry. Looking back now, I realize that with surf style, all brands are really similar. To me what it’s built on is brands. Why you wear Billabong or Quicksilver or you like RVCA or whatever, it’s really built on what brand resonates with you. That’s what I really took away from it. And now I’ve come full circle and come back to clothing industry, I always remember how important brand is – that’s what I focus on.

We also try to keep it normal; to bear in mind the normal guy. What we do is not from the world of fashion, but more about life. The guys who wear our clothes obviously do things, like ride a bike, and go to work.

GP: What was the other half of the circle? What were the intermediate steps between surf culture and where you are now?

GR: I went down to Atlanta and studied web design. It was funny – I left the beach, went and traveled to the Middle East, and was out of the country for eight months. I just trekked around and saw a lot of stuff, but when I came back home, I knew I wanted to study something. I had always been into design, and when I worked at a surf shop, I would sketch t-shirts or graphics for surf boards. All of a sudden it just hit me: I should go to school for graphic design, because you can get a job and make a living doing it. When I went to school, the web was really taking off, so I jumped over to it. I learned a lot about programming as well as the design side. The school I went to focused more on programming, but I was really interested in design. I worked in Atlanta for various studios for a while, doing interactive work. And then when I left Atlanta and came up to Richmond, I got involved with Need and was working on the brand side of it. My background in interactive design led to going online, and that has created a much bigger presence for the store.

I feel like in everything I’ve done, one thing leads to the next. In everything I do, I learn something, and that creates the next experience.

In Atlanta, I started a t-shirt line, and ideally, I hoped it would evolve into a full clothing line. I did t-shirts, you know, the graphic side of it, designing them. Then I started to make pillows – I thought they were pretty cool as a medium, something I could design for. I didn’t really push selling those, but I learned how to sew and it was kind of a neat thing. But with the shirts, I started shipping shirts everywhere in the world. Literally, just about every country. I saw that this industry is very viable, and it led to the idea of taking Need online.

GP: So you first became involved in menswear through sketching, t-shirts and graphic design.

GR: It started way back in surf shops. I took a fashion marketing class in high school, and I think I was the only guy in it – that was kind of funny. I always had an interest. I told myself that I wanted a clothing company when I was younger. But then I kind of got out of that idea and that world, and I got more into technology and websites. In my spare time, I created my little side project – “Service,” was the name of the clothing company – and then one thing led to the next. And here I am, involved in clothing again.

GP: Yes, you’re back to clothing, but you’re now approaching it from different angles. Tell me more about your take on branding and marketing.

GR: In relationship to Need or how I feel about it in general?

GP: Well, does one relate to the other?

GR: I will always go back to brand. I think working with branding and agencies… you see these really great ones, like Apple. People always refer to Apple, because they do a great job, keep it simple, and it’s easy. I think that people complicate so much. A brand needs to be simple and clean – I really just try to clean everything up. I really believe in that – it’s even how I shop for groceries. Why to do I buy this jelly over that jelly? Because it has the cooler label. If a company cares about their label, they probably care about their product, and so on. I enjoy creating the visual, and sometimes it ties in with experience, when you go that far with something. Like with Need, I lay out the store and the user experience, and the website is the same way.

But for clothing and branding – any company, really – you have to have the whole picture figured out. There are some people who make a great product, but they don’t know how to present it in a way that you see it and think “wow, that’s fantastic, I have a desire to own it, because of what you guys have created with your brand.”

I’m not a trained men’s buyer or anything, but when I got involved with Need, I knew that I wanted the men’s department to be something I wanted. That’s how it started. I wanted to walk in and want all the stuff. I figured that if I want it, my friends will want it, and their friends will want it and so on, and it kind of… well, it just worked. We’ve worked really hard over last years to grow that with the brands we love, that we’re excited about and that build a really great product. The whole picture on that, though, is that you also have to find stuff that’s affordable that anyone can wear. Finding the good ones who are doing that – that’s a little more challenging. It’s easier to find really nice stuff that is really expensive.

GP: How would you describe the Need Supply aesthetic? An obsession with quality is an important factor, but is there a Need Supply aesthetic?

GR: We try to present a range of stuff that is affordable and the stuff that’s nicer and obviously a little more expensive, and we don’t stray too far outside of that. We try to make sure that it’s all covered – not all high-end stuff and not all low-end – you can mix and match. You can find some pretty basic trousers and then a jacket that you really like, that’s a bit more aspirational, and you save up for it.

We also try to keep it normal; to bear in mind the normal guy. What we do is not from the world of fashion, but more about life. The guys who wear our clothes obviously do things, like ride a bike, and go to work. Some of them might be designers but most of them are not. So in terms of a Need aesthetic, I don’t summarize it all that often. Hopefully it’s something that connects with a lot of people. We try not to alienate people, we ritually have fun, and we laugh at ourselves. We don’t take it too seriously, but on the other side, details truly are really important. I think people get all of that subconsciously, whether or not they notice it.

GP: Does that levity balanced by attention to detail influence the way you’ve crafted the retail store space?

GR: I think so. I’m always fascinated by the idea… I’m on the inside, but what is it like to people on the outside? So I’ll ask friends, and sometimes its like “Wow, really? That’s how you saw it?” Sometimes it can be a compliment. You kind of have to ask. We went around for a long time until the color of wood was right – but that was just me, I’m kind of nuts about that stuff.

What people get out of Need, it’s different to everyone, whether they come into the store or they just know the site online. Need has been around for 15 years, in Richmond, so there are a lot of people who have worked here or come through here. We are somewhat unique as a retail space, so there was a lot of awareness. It has shifted in the last couple years, but I think people are enjoying it and have enjoyed being part of the process.

It’s a small store, and there are a lot of friends working here. In such a small team, everyone cares about what they’re doing and cares about each other. The store space itself is pretty simple. We renovated an old building last year, tore everything out, and now it has concrete floors, and white walls – pretty normal stuff.

To me it’s still all about design. Earlier we talked about quality – when that’s there, and the design is there, and the experience is there, you’ve got something nice.

GP: You’re talking about a small community – do you get loyal customers who come in season after season, or is it more customers who stumble upon the shop?

GR: It’s probably a bit of both. I actually had a funny experience. I have to say, I’ve known of Need Supply since it started, just because it was friends who started it. I remember that, when I came here, there was basically one place to get jeans in Richmond. If you’re buying jeans, you come here, because there is nowhere else that jeans are widely available. So there was a focus on denim for a long time (whereas now people are wearing a lot of different things, not just denim). I remember once, I saw someone on the street with Cheap Mondays on, and figured that Need was the only place in Richmond that sold them, so I figured he got them here. I asked him where he got them, and couldn’t remember. I mentioned the name, and he still wasn’t sure. I thought it was funny that he got the jeans here and didn’t even know the name of the store. So you have that kind of customer, and then on the other side of it, there can be people who come here and shop for most of their stuff. So it really ranges, but I assume it’s typical. So the short answer is, yes, there are many people who are loyal to the store. There are a lot of friends – one degree of separation. Maybe they don’t work here, but they have a friend who works here, and they become part of the culture.

GP: Tell me about starting out with denim and branching out.

GR: Need Supply originally started as recycled denim in the very early days. That was the original concept, and then it evolved from that to apparel. Fashion changes with so quickly with time. Like, you can really see the period of a movie based on what they’re wearing. You definitely have to change and evolve so that you don’t repeat the same thing over and over. For us, that was transitioning away from denim. Men are wearing a lot more trousers right now, but I’m sure that denim will come back and be pretty big again. I don’t think that denim will ever really go away.

GP: Washes come in cycles also…

GR: Ya, I’m seeing, especially in the store now, I looked at the wall of denim and it’s all dark, maybe one or two washes in the store. Mainly raw denim, and that’s what we’ve been doing for a while now. With many of the Scandinavian lines, we’re seeing a lot of washes, some really light stuff. I’m guessing that people are ready for something different.

GP: You made the transition from denim to all of menswear, but are you thinking of making the leap to other sectors, like consumer electronics, etc?

GR: I don’t think consumer electronics. I like the idea of products, things, because if you wear clothes, you do other things. You may want a really cool tea set. I mean, it could be anything else, but the point is, I think what we do is curate. There are a lot of clothing lines out there, and we put together a group of them that we like and think they represent something. There are other parts and pieces of a person’s life that fit into that formula. Some stores go into Home and have a whole line for Home: we’re not doing that yet. We’ve picked up some magazines and pens, so maybe one day… I mean, right now, we’re staying busy with clothing, but that does not stay the same, it changes from season to season.

GP: Where will you be moving in the future, if not consumer electronics? A second retail store? Developing the web presence? Where do you see Need Supply going?

GR: We are not looking at new retail spaces right now. It’s kind of nice to just do this here in Richmond. We will continue to do what we’re doing and to do it well. We may go into a broader range of products that are not clothing. For us, it’s very small right now, and I can see it expanding a little bit, but no massive change in that area right now. Unless it’s needed – I think that I’m kind of a feel person. I’ll wake up one day and think we need this. Or you go somewhere like Europe and you’re just inspired. I’ll see a store, and love how they’ve presented a whole other side if things. Maybe we could try something new like that, but it’s probably going to feel right at the time, and come from feeling of necessity for it, rather than just pushing to grow and to grow. Need doesn’t need to get big. It’s kind of nice that it’s small.

The online store lets us connect with people who don’t get to come here, but they still get to see what we’re going. We hope that we present it in a way that’s creative, they see that we’re unique and they get what we’re about. But no massive change, as of today. I’ll know more when I wake up tomorrow, though. And the next day. I just go with how I feel, and what’s right.

I think people want to buy things that they will be able to keep for a while, that they’re going to have around. People have more awareness of where products come from. You can get excited about it.

GP: Any particularly fun or interesting experiences from being in the menswear business?

GR: We come back from all of the shows. Typically we have to travel a few times a year to go to shows, and they’re pretty intense trips. It’s a long day, we work pretty hard, I think. I have friends who had stores at one point, and they’re all telling me how they’ll go to shows but they’re at the pool or drinking by noon. It’s funny – none of them still have stores. When we go on the road, it’s usually a lot of work, but we try to have fun with it. Usually there is a story or two that will come out of that, but nothing crazy. A lot of my friends still don’t understand why anyone would buy jeans online…

GP: Can you tell me a bit about the collaborations you are currently working on? I’ve heard talk of Raleigh Denim and Rogue Territory.

GR: [The Raleigh Jeans] are a raw canvas. They did a great job with them – they did a raw canvas selvedge. We got 47 of those, and sold them all pretty quickly, just in the store. They were so nice, and everyone was pretty excited about them, so we started talking to Raleigh about doing something special for the 15 year anniversary of Need. We decided to re-cut them, and they said they would do them just for us. They’re really really nice. Those guys make a really nice product, tough, and it’s a really great group of people who believe in what they’re doing. They’re all about the detail and doing it right. There are some really nice videos online, which we actually just posted on our blog. They have a retail space and they actually make the jeans there also. I really like what they’re doing.

We also did another trouser with Carl, from Rogue Territory. That was a nice project too. We got to work with him, tweak a few things, put some co-branding stuff on there. It actually took a really long time – we went through a lot of fabric samples, just trying to get a couple of colors that we really liked a lot. We found two fabrics for the pockets of the trousers – we did one that’s a chambray for the left pocket, which was kind of a throwback to the denim where Need started, and then in the right pocket we did a floral-type of print, something more current, where we see things right now. To us it symbolized the 1996 to 2011 that transition, why the two pockets were different. That was a pretty great project, they went pretty quickly and we had a great response from that too.

What’s nice with all of this is the people you meet. Like I already said, Need is pretty small but you meet these people who are doing something really unique, and a lot of them are smaller lines, like Raleigh Denim. They’re not massive and cranking out jeans all day. Actually, I think it is only 150 a week. There is heart and love in each one. Carl, out in California, is just doing small numbers, it’s a small line that he’s producing. I’ve really enjoyed meeting the people behind these companies, getting to work with them, Making friends along the way.

GP: It seems like a really great network and a tight community that you guys have built.

GR: Absolutely. There is a lot of excitement. I’m going to talk more about the men’s side – there is a lot of interest right now. You see guys who are excited about things that they get, like a really nice jacket or something. Right now there is a push towards Americana. We don’t just buy things and throw them away all the time now, because the world is full of stuff. Over at Raleigh, they want to make fewer things but make them better. So you don’t need two pairs of jeans, maybe you only have one pair of jeans and wear it longer.

GP: Does that translate to all of the products that you do, from jeans to shoes?

GR: I’d like to think yes, but it’s hard to do everything that way. Hopefully that’s our intent and that’s the motivation. But at the same time, we want to span the gamut of price point, and have things that are affordable to a lot of people. It’s hard to have every piece made in America by hand, because that’s obviously more expensive. And that’s where people say, Why does that cost so much? It’s all about what went into it – maybe the company only made 100 of them, so they have to sell them for more. The sticker shock, sometimes, is hard for people. Because we get to see it, its in our conscious, and we know what we’re looking for.

GP: Do you see that as a modern trend in menswear?

GR: I think people want to buy things that they will be able to keep for a while, that they’re going to have around. People have more awareness of where products come from. You can get excited about it. For example, some of the shoes, the Alden shoes that we carry, they’re amazing. They’re so well made that there is a good chance you can give your kid that shoe. You spend a little more up front, but to me, anyways, it’s totally worth it because you have it for so long. That goes along with the idea of throwing fewer things away and creating less junk. So you have to make it better the first time!

GP: That speaks to the idea of timeless style. If you’re going to be keeping something, it had better be something you like in the future too.

GR: That’s hard, right? I love when we find a line. I definitely don’t know a lot about fashion and all the brands and their history. But it’s great when you find a line that’s been around for 100 years and they’re still doing it. We have these Quoddy’s that are up north, they’ve been around for quite a while. Alden is also a great shoe company – its shoes are still made in the same way as what they were originally. We have different materials and whatnot today, but if they’re still made by hand. ..

GP: To be able to curate that is a great opportunity.

GR: The important part is the people who support it. There are people out there who know about it, and they do appreciate it support it. If people don’t like it, we can’t buy it, stock it or sell it. In the end we’re just a conduit. Fortunately people do care about that stuff. I hope that it’s not a trend, by any means, but a movement and it stays around. Hopefully we do dress better and we care a little more about what we’re wearing, and it means something to have a product that was made really well, instead of lots and lots of stuff. Classics are good.

When it comes to fashion, I’m just a normal guy. My heart is in design –branding and color and lines and patterns. It’s easy for me to apply that to a brand, but it’s also been fun to try to apply that to clothing. My wardrobe has certainly stepped up since I’ve been doing this. I really look at it from a design point of view – everything has to look good and make sense. To me it’s still all about design. Earlier we talked about quality – when that’s there, and the design is there, and the experience is there, you’ve got something nice.

GP: That’s the job of a curator.

GR:You guys do a great job of it with Gear Patrol – the whole side of how it looks, and the photographs. You see it and you say, wow, I want to know more about what that thing is.

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Our thanks to Effen Vodka for helping make this interview possible. To check out more stories on influential players in the world of design and style, read the full Defining Style series on Facebook.