Fashion is an expensive interest — and increasingly so as the cost of production skyrockets. As such, it's rare to find an affordable brand that checks other boxes, meaning it's also stylish or run by an actual designer, or team of designers, not an AI that recognizes trends and then replicates them.
One of these rarities is Manresa Clothing, a workwear-meets-outdoors-meets-streetwear brand by Connecticut-born designer Mike McLachlan. He's a New Englander at heart with a backstory that matches his brand's aesthetic. That alone makes Manresa a refreshing change of pace in the era of Internet hype, bootlegs and total ripoffs. Plus, he's an open book — when it comes to asking about his influences, if he'll offer you a discount (when you really do need it) or where or how a piece was made.
For him, fashion's about storytelling and experimentation. With Manresa, he's dabbled in graphic design, screen printing, cut and sew and collaboration (with 18 East's Antonio Ciongoli, for example). More than anything, though, the brand's offered him a fresh start, and since starting the brand in 2018, he's flourished — both personally and professionally. It's his designs that draw people in, but his authenticity keeps them coming back for more.
We caught up with McLachlan to discuss his upbringing in New England, creating a brand in today's climate, Tartan, manufacturing in China, where the name Manresa comes from and more.
What does Manresa mean? When was the brand founded? How?
I have been trying to create my own brand since I was 13 years old back in 2003 when my older brother introduced me to a couple streetwear brands. We skated and snowboarded a ton back then, and he was pretty fashion forward. I couldn’t afford the cool stuff he had so I took to trying to make it myself in my dad's basement work shop. I found varying degrees of failure in a number of brands I started through high school and college. They were pretty uninspired and immature. Just after college, I developed some substance abuse and addiction issues which killed all that creativity.
I luckily got sober a few years later, but took a hiatus from creating to get my life back on track. Back in 2018, after I got my feet back underneath me, I started Manresa as an experiment. Initially, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could create a quality product. It started as very small batches of printed graphic T-shirts that I would make in my parents basement with my old screen printing equipment. Being sober and focusing on quality and substance instead of trying to make the next big brand put Manresa head and shoulders above any other brand I had ever started.
Manresa is named after an Island in my town, Norwalk, Connecticut, which is home to a super old and ugly power plant. Most people hate it but I love it. Gives the area some character, I think.
Friends and strangers who found the Instagram I made reached out to buy stuff and I dove back into the brand building process. Last year, I wanted to push myself to develop some cut and sew garments I had sketched out. Those actually did really well with some help from my friend Antonio Ciongoli, the creative director of 18 East. Initially, we became acquainted as he saw I printed and embroidered my own clothes, and he asked if I could do his as well. Since then we’ve traded each other our services. Luckily for me he’s one of the best designers alive right now so the cut and sew I would eventually develop did really well. And now here we are.
What does the brand's tagline — "several themes thoughtfully woven" — mean?
I’ve always felt that the creative process for everyone is the same. You internalize the things in your life that you like and throw away the stuff that you don't. You reference these things in varying degrees, in a way that nobody else could possibly [do], making the products you create unique in the end. I always imagine that process as a kind of tapestry. Where I weave the constant themes back and forth in different ways to create new ideas and products that are unique and authentic to me.
Is it a reference to the various influences: workwear, streetwear, the outdoors? Are there others I am missing? The look books have all been super personal, but also splashed with storytelling. Is the plan to keep the brand true to you and your experiences?
That is 100 percent the plan. Manresa as a brand is really just a mixture of those themes I mentioned, which come from the life I've lived growing up in New England. I'm from a working class family. My father taught my brother and I carpentry and how to fix and work on our own cars, homes, etc. That’s where the love for workwear comes in. My brother and I also loved being outdoors, and traveling around New England. We spent a lot of time snowboarding and hiking around Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire as kids and into our adulthood. That's where the love for outerwear comes from. Skating and snowboarding added the streetwear into the mix.
What is your design process like? Designing things you wish were already made or designing for function — i.e.: Manresa makes a T-shirt, now I need to design pants; Manresa makes a bunch of clothing, now I need to make accessories?
Initially, as a graphic designer and a screen printer, I just made cool graphics and put them on T-shirts. I guess as my tastes have matured past graphic tees in recent years I wanted to push myself to create some cut and sew. So far, most of the garments I’ve created have been mashups of garments that I already liked but wanted to improve upon. For example, the Wallace pant is a mixture of Gramicci climbing pants, Patagonia Stand Up pants and Carhartt double knees.
That’s kind of the “several themes thoughtfully woven” philosophy at work, as I don’t think they obviously resemble any of those pieces too directly. They feel new but also familiar. Now as I dive into cut and sew, there are just so many things to learn and improve upon. That's what’s currently driving me. I make good stuff now, but I want to make great stuff on par with the best brands in the world.
I think what's impressed me most about Manresa so far is the perceived quality to price ratio, both in terms of material and design. How have you managed that? Where are things made? How long do they take to design and tweak and then launch?
I took 8 months off from creating anything last year to buckle down and get the first big cut and sew line right. Looking back, there’s still lots to improve on but focusing on the quality of the product has definitely been what’s helped me stand out in a world filled with fast fashion and thoughtless design. I currently use a factory in China, and while I would like to bring production back to the USA someday, the minimum orders here priced me out of that option.
As a small independent brand, there aren’t many domestic factories that will even respond to an email unfortunately. On the other hand, after doing some trial by error, I have found a factory in China that really values my business and will work with me on producing smaller runs. They’ve been super supportive throughout the whole process and they produce quality product. Some people shy away from advertising their products are made in China, but I’m super proud of the work that they do. They’ve shown me support I haven’t found anywhere else. (Also, they have third party certifications to ensure their employees are treated with respect and provided a safe working environment, which was important to me.)
As far as the pricing goes, I have been advised to raise prices by a couple friends who know the industry well. Honestly, I just feel bad doing that. When I was young I remember repairing and patching my Levi's over and over with my mom's help just because going and grabbing a new pair for $60 seemed out of the question. I know in the market I’ve positioned myself in it may seem like $115 for a super solid pair of pants that will last forever is a good deal but being shaped by that working class mentality I still feel bad even charging that much.
I don’t want anybody to be priced out of buying my products. I regularly instruct my customers, especially through the rough times of covid, to hit me up if they’re having any trouble affording my products. I’ll give them however much they need off. If somebody loves my stuff enough to spend their hard earned money on it I’ll never turn somebody down based on what they can afford.
The design and production process moves pretty quickly since it's not design by committee. I have an idea and work up a tech pack, send it to the factory for sampling, tweak the sample when I get it if it’s pretty close to what I saw in my head and send it into production. Or, if it’s way off, I shelve it until I can refine the idea. When things work smoothly I can design, sample and produce a run of garments in 8-10 weeks.
Tartan's been a common pattern for the brand. Is it a staple?
My Grandfather was 100 percent Scottish. His father came over on a boat through Ellis Island. There were needle point Scottish poems hanging above their dinner table. I wore a McLachlan plaid bowtie to prom. I’ve always been super proud of that part of my heritage. So, yes, that will be a staple for the brand forever.
What's been the best, most difficult and most surprising part of running your own brand? What drove you to take this leap? Did you work for others?
I fell in love with streetwear young and it shaped my life. Shawn Stüssy has been my idol since then. I went to college for fashion design at Marist College but eventually failed out of that program because I was an awful student. I stuck with graphic design instead. I’ve never worked in the fashion industry. Until now, I worked as a graphic designer and screen printer but thankfully since the success of the last two lines I’ve been able to leave my job and do Manresa full-time. Until now, that was the hardest part of running a brand alone.
Waking up early to do Manresa, working an 8 hour day pushing a squeegee, coming home to eat with my wife and walk the dog then heading back out to work on Manresa into the night. Since that is no longer an issue, I think the hardest part about running the brand is educating myself on the history of menswear and trying to refine my taste so that I can compete with that great designers in the space — like Antonio who is a human encyclopedia with unimpeachable taste and skill. I get in my own head sometimes but I’m learning and reading everything I can get my hands on. Making mistakes but learning from those as well.