Today we are talking with Jon Contino, entrepreneur, designer, and founder of CXXVI and soon to be, Contino Brand.
Can you give 50 BUILT readers some background on yourself and the events that have influenced your passion for ‘American made.’?
I grew up with a carpenter for a father, that kind of sealed the deal right there. I watched him make something from nothing my entire life, so I always had that bug to want to make something from scratch and get it out in the world as a total package. As I got older and played in bands, the DIY concept really stuck with me too. People making things because they love them and distributing them to like-minded individuals feels so rewarding to me. It just happens I’m American, so what else would it be?
You have the unique perspective in that you work and design for a variety of companies who seek you out for that ‘Americana’ vibe, and you also run two, going on three, lifestyle apparel companies who produce their goods in the USA (Barnaby Black, CXXVI and your new Contino Brand label)
How has your goal to support goods made in the USA effected your career path as an entrepreneur and the clients that approach you for design work?
Well it certainly isn’t easy manufacturing goods in the United States. With so much politics bearing down on every aspect of business in general, you really need to fight to get things made here at home. I’ve learned to be even more resourceful than I’ve ever been in my entire life. I mean, after a while you get the hang of the secret language and how to get things made, but it really takes a while to get there.
Has the Americana theme in your design work influenced the pursuit of ‘American Made’ or the other way around?
In general I’m just kind of obsessed with classic American culture. We live in a time where our country finally has some sort of unique identifier. Since the dawn of the USA, it was never really anything but a place for outcasts to go and start over. After 200 plus years, we’ve finally had enough generations walk this soil as “Americans” to be able to say we’ve actually made something. Rock and roll, work unions, baseball…there are things that are just inherently American now and I love what they are and how they came to be. It’s not so much that I go out of my way to make things “American made,” I just love my country and the history that comes along with it.
Can you go into details about the process you’ve experienced of having a garment manufactured in the US with CXXVI, Barnaby Black and your new Contino line? Any sourcing issues?
It really is a brutal process for anyone to get things manufactured here. It still is quite the process. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of really amazing craftspeople out there doing spectacular work, but for every one of them, there’s a hundred garbage factories where they slowly pump out mistake after mistake and then overcharge you for it. We did it to ourselves, but I think it’s starting to come back around. America got greedy and it killed a lot of our manufacturing industries, but recent economical and cultural developments have definitely helped bring work back home. Still, you really need to work to find good manufacturing partners. It takes a while to develop relationships with people and then maybe if you’re lucky, they’ll pass on a trade secret to you. After enough time in the business and people know you’re sticking around, you begin to make those connections and gain access to great manufacturers around the country. There are still a lot of hurdles, but the right people can help you find ways around them. If you can handle production stress, then you’re good to go.
Authenticity is crucial, especially now when companies are trying to cash in on the American Made movement. We need stability and long term commitments to reshore our manufacturing jobs. You as a person, a New Yorker, your design “style”, and the clothing lines you’ve launched are soaked in authenticity and the desire to support all thing America.
How do you set yourself apart to help tell your story and truly get across the importance of what you’re trying to do?
The bottom line is that I design what I feel is meaningful to me. If I feel like I’m working on something that feels forced or doesn’t match my personality, then I’m not doing it. It’s really simple. No bullshit.
Are there any pressures you’ve found to go elsewhere to have to compete?
The thought has crossed my mind a few times, but there are way too many negatives for me to even consider getting something produced in any kind of overseas death trap. That’s not to say that I don’t work with certain partners outside of this country, because I definitely do, but those partners have the same safety and ethics standards that we have here and none of them are exploitive in any way. I don’t necessarily think everything needs to be American made, but it does need to be made in a way that’s fair and safe for all parties involved. You don’t want to become xenophobic in this process, it’s good to be able to collaborate across the globe with like-minded people when the time is right, but it’s also great to keep the work in your backyard and help out your neighbors.
Why is the American made theme so important to you and the companies that represent you?
If there’s one thing I refuse to be a part of, it’s unsafe and unethical working conditions. Especially now that I’m a father, my perception of the world around me and the means at which some companies prosper can be extremely sickening. I won’t do business with people like that. At least here we have laws prohibiting that kind of stuff. You couldn’t do it if you tried. We’re all people on this earth, there’s no reason anyone should have to suffer more than anyone else, especially not for making clothes.
How important is it for you to market that you’re Made in the USA and to wear it on your sleeve?
Having the “Made in USA” label on things is just an easy way to say, “I support fair wages, safe working environments, and a love for my country” without being too wordy. This country catches a really bad rap in the rest of the world, but I like to think that my USA is different than the one portrayed to people overseas. I can be proud of where I’m from without having to agree with all the nonsense political and corporate agendas. I’m a traditional American, ya know? Live free or die.
If you could tell our readers one factor that is the greatest threat or advantage to keeping things made in America, and allowing our companies to succeed, what would it be?
It all comes down to support. We all have to support each other. This can’t just be a trend, this has to be a way of life. If we’re all in this together, then we’ll all succeed, but if this is just some passing fad, then maybe a few people get rich in a short amount of time, but the rest of us will be stuck with nothing before it even ends. At one time, the United States created the best of everything. Those days can exist again, but not without a dedication to cooperation.
Awesome, thank you so much for your time and perspective, Jon!