When most Americans go to Vietnam on business, chances are they don't spend much time outside of fluorescent-lit conference rooms. Not so for Raan Parton, the 29-year-old creative director of menswear brand Apolis, who turned a recent factory visit into a road trip of Kerouacian proportions. After a few days monitoring the progress of Apolis' latest collection of travel accessories, Raan spent the next week buzzing down dirt roads on a '50s Russian Minsk motorcycle (which broke down 11 times), swimming in the Mekong Delta, and even getting down and dirty with a sickle in some rice paddies.
"We're really fearful as Americans to put ourselves in unorthodox situations and be in uncomfortable places, like sleeping on the floor of a Vietnamese field farmer's house," he says. "Letting yourself be open to how the rest of the world operates is kind of a scary thought to most people, but it's intrinsic to the DNA of our company."
For a globetrotter like Raan, Vietnam is only one of the many exotic places where Apolis goods are brought to life. Since launching the company in 2004, Raan and his brother Shea, 26, have forged connections with non-governmental organizations from Nepal to Bangladesh and beyond, where they employ local craftsmen to create an eclectic assortment of classically cool clothes and accessories (think cashmere beanies and jute market bags) using indigenous techniques. As Shea, the company's CEO, puts it, Apolis is about "giving people opportunity by really making their products relevant to today's world."
Each season, another region joins the Apolis roster-most recently, the SoCal natives have teamed up with a rural co-op in Laos on a collection of hand-woven, mud-dyed scarves (their first Laotian adventure is still being mapped out). Shea chalks their wanderlust up to a childhood full of far-flung vacations. "Our parents knew that we would never be able to appreciate how good we had it just staying home in Santa Barbara," says Shea.
But that's not to say that Apolis is ignoring manufacturers closer to home. "We don't discriminate where we work. The ethos behind how we produce stuff in America is the same as in other places," says Raan, who's wearing an Apolis parka designed in conjunction with fellow SoCal-based brand Patagonia. "It might be a more compelling story to do hand-knit cashmere in the Himalayas, but the person here that has a craft story is just as important." Their collaboration with neighboring textile house Matteo, now in its second season, has resulted in retro pocket squares, neckties, and caps spun from Italian linen, while 30-year-old Heritage Leather Co. has also recently joined the family, repurposing what Raan calls "basically a tool bag" for Apolis' spring '11 collection.
Whether it's a pair of swim trunks made in Huntington Beach or a leather smartphone case from Vietnam's Dong Nai Province, its story is likely to be documented on Apolis' e-commerce site. To fête the launch of their Transit Issue Sweater last year (a collaboration with cycling gear maker Rapha), the brothers commissioned a five-minute film featuring footage of Shea's research trip to Nepal and a zen soundtrack. Scenes include a visit to the Citta International cashmere co-op and a test ride through the Himalayas with mustachioed cyclist Cole Maness (the piece was inspired by a '60s biking jersey). The trips also serve as a way for the brand to roadtest their wares before they go into production.
"People want to know where their purchases come from. They want to know the story of how things are made," explains Raan. "On labels from other brands, you see the words MADE IN VIETNAM, MADE IN PAKISTAN - it's like, why hide that? Why not embrace the fact that people in those countries have so many stories to tell, just like we do?"
Nylon Guys - May 2011, page 38.