Ryan Perkins of RPMFG
Ryan Perkins is the founder of RPMFG, a one-man operation responsible for producing carefully crafted denim, bags, and leather accessories. An engineering graduate of the University of Michigan, Perkins recently relocated to California to work in the design department at Apple. Our limited edition record tote was not only his biggest project to date, but it also proved to be the last he would complete before closing his workshop in Kalamazoo and making the big leap from sole proprietor to working for one of the most admired brands in the world.
It took a couple days to get him away from his new toys in Cupertino to answer our questions, but as he was throughout the project, Ryan remained a dream collaborator and gave us some thoughtful answers about production, business, and seizing unexpected opportunities.
[Ghostly International] Hey Ryan, what are you listening to these days?
[Ryan Perkins] I’ve been on this sort of 80s dream-pop dream-cruise ever since I came to California and was cresting a hill on Highway 1 and Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” came on the radio just as I saw the Pacific ocean for the first time in eight years. It’s funny how a coincidence can instantly realign your sense of beauty. Or maybe it was because I hadn’t seen the sun for five months. Winter in Kalamazoo is a dark thing. Anyway, I’ve been digging “The Voice of Love” by Julee Cruise, who is best known as the lovely lady who wrote the theme to Twin Peaks.
[GI] How did your relationship with Ghostly come about?
[RP] Through an Ann Arbor friend, Jakub Alexander, most likely known to Ghostly’s fans as Heathered Pearls. He became a fan of my brand and passed around the idea of doing a collaboration, which with the help of Brian Fichtner of the Ghostly Store became this record tote. It’s been such an honor to work with Ghostly - the quality of the art combined with the quality of the brand itself has been an inspiration to me and RPMFG for a long time. Growing up in Ann Arbor, I never dreamed I would get to work directly with one of its cultural paragons.
[GI] In your short time as principal of RPMFG, you had to learn a considerable amount, not only about the actual making process, but about the sourcing of materials and tools. What’s the heritage industry like? We imagine it to be a very gated community with many practitioners heavily guarding their secrets.
[RP] Hmm.. the heritage industry is changing rapidly - I think I could count 30 or more domestic heritage-style denim brands launched in the last 18 months. But I’m hesitant to lump myself in with heritage clothing, because the word ‘heritage’ implies some sort of personal heritage - as in “my father and his father before him…” - which is not the case for my brand, and is rarely the case for others. I avoided branding RPMFG as heritage, because I think it’s a little dishonest to leverage the distant storied past of American manufacturing for the purpose of advertising a startup clothing brand run by 20- or 30-somethings. And I find it perpetuates this xenophobic myth that all the best things are made in America, that only Americans are capable of producing quality goods.
Rather, I focused on finding the best quality materials and machines available to me regardless of brand history or country of origin. I sew on vintage Singer machines because they’re available for much cheaper than similar duty machines produced today, and I have the time to fix them. I use denim from Thailand, Japan, and Italy, and leather from Horween in Chicago. I use American & Efird thread not because it’s made in America, but because they can prove that it’s among the strongest thread available.
Sourcing from large distribution companies that are used to working with large manufacturing companies is a challenge for small brands like mine. When I was getting started, my girlfriend and I walked around the warehouse district of downtown Los Angeles knocking on doors to find a distributor that would sell me denim in small quantities. Thankfully it’s become a little easier these days as fabric mills begin to get name-recognition among consumers.
[GI] What was it like working in Kalamazoo? Did people think you were an eccentric, making selvedge denim jeans in an old factory downtown?
[RP] Oh man, Kalamazoo is such an amazing place to make things happen. The community is so supportive of projects like mine, and so many people there are creating their own opportunities. I really need to thank my friend Dan Kastner who provided me with free space in his beautiful factory building. I saw so much of that kind of generosity in Kalamazoo, and I already dearly miss it and the people there.
[GI] How was making the Ghostly Record Tote different from previous projects?
[RP] This was my first collaboration, and the first project where I didn’t have direct contact with every customer. It was also the largest scale project I’ve worked on. Previously everything was made in one- or two-offs, so making fifteen of something seemed daunting. But the most interesting difference was the process of refining the design with Brian. In order to collaborate, every design detail had to be articulated and discussed between us. Just writing down the reasons for the type of design choices I would usually make in my head changed the design, and I think it made the product better than if I had been given free reign over the design.
[GI] You recently closed up your shop just as it was getting steam to take a job with Apple. Was that a difficult decision for you?
[RP] Absolutely. I wasn’t actively searching for a job when Apple got in touch with me, but I try to make a practice of exploring every opportunity that presents itself, and as I learned about the job it started sounding more and more like a dream job. I was most weary of having to sacrifice the principles I loved about my brand - taking full responsibility for a product, interacting with each customer, making something tangible every day - but I appreciated the fact that Apple has its own principles about its product and company, and that it rigorously maintains them, something that is uncommon in the tech world.
[GI] We’re sure you’ve signed all sorts of NDA agreements, so we won’t ask any specifics, but what are you most excited about working on at Apple?
[RP] For me, designing and manufacturing a product are inextricable processes. So far I’ve always considered these two parts of a design problem simultaneously: the challenge has been to make what I want using the tools available: two sewing machines and a steam iron; a manual milling machine and a lathe. I found these limits productive. Apple, however, has nearly unlimited resources available for prototyping and production. This nearly decouples design from manufacturing - if we can design it, and it’s the best solution, Apple will mass produce it regardless of the cost. This seems really challenging to me, so I’m most excited to develop my design skills further to accommodate it.
[GI] What’s the future of RPMFG?
[RP] The future looks a little like the past. I started the brand on the side while I was in college, making jeans at night or on the weekends in my bedroom or kitchen. I know I’m only satisfied when I can regularly make something physical, which is not part of my job at Apple, so I’ll be continuing to sew, albeit at a much reduced rate. I haven’t set up my machines or unpacked my materials yet, but I’ll be starting a waitlist for people who really want one of my products and are willing to wait.
[GI] Any advice for makers out there looking to start their own business?
[RP] Set very specific goals for what you want your business to do. If your dream is to start a furniture company, think very carefully about what inspires the dream. Is it owning your own company? Designing furniture? Providing opportunities to workers? Operating a table saw? Interacting with customers? Drawing logos? Photographing your products? Sourcing quality materials? Answering interview questions? Try to decouple the factors and set a specific goal for each one, but try to set as few goals as possible.
I learned this from a friend who owns an excellent coffee shop in Ann Arbor. His goal was to make coffee that tastes the way it smells in the bag from the widest selection of excellent medium roast beans from around the world, brewed with the most consistent methods. There’s nothing in there about serving locally roasted coffee, providing the fastest or friendliest service, showcasing local art, creating a casual work atmosphere, hosting events… all the things that coffee shops have learned will increase traffic, but all the same things that distract from the actual product.
He wanted only to make the best coffee, but was careful to define exactly what he thought “best” meant, because it is actually a very vague word, meaning very different things to different people. And despite limiting himself, his shop became extremely successful. My goal was to make clothes from natural fibers that remain as beautiful as possible for as long as possible.