Hoyapreneur Profile: Drew Clark shares his 'Social-Centric' Design Philosophy

For the latest profile in our Hoyapreneur series, we had a blast speaking with Fashion Cowboy Drew Clark, founder of California Cowboy, a line of men's clothing made for fulfilling the human experience. To roundoff a distinguished career in the world of fashion, Drew recently launched his own brand around 'social-centric' design. We’ll discuss Drew's inspirations, how clothes can have more meaning than just style and how Drew's 4 years on the Hilltop shaped his career. Giddyup!  

1. What inspired you to launch California Cowboy?

I’ve always been an extreme extrovert - I like being around people, meeting new people, and dressing in ways that might spark conversation.  I realized that what I wore impacted the story arc of my day. When I was in high school, I was diagnosed with Leukemia, which forced time alone. I realized how much I needed those interpersonal connections.  This experience was the genesis of California Cowboy.  I wanted to build a brand that helped people socialize and that would ultimately bring people together. Even at Georgetown, sometimes what I wore was pretty out there - I guess I considered myself both a social and sartorial Cowboy.  Casual lifestyle apparel brands often focus solely on aesthetics - to be sure, style is a key ingredient in apparel.  I’m from California and I think I was born in wrong decade. All of our products are designed through a vintage California lens—we’re designing apparel for use when socializing after iconic California sports like surfing and skiing. We live and breathe California culture and my vision is to expand into even more conversation worthy style.

Athletic brands build technical apparel for specific sports or functions - and they’re really good at it.  There’s no way I can build a better wetsuit than Patagonia, or a better ski jacket than The North Face.  I love surfing and skiing, but I was never that good at either.  That said, I put myself in the top 1% in the world when it comes to socializing, so I’m uniquely qualified to design product for having a beer when you get out of the water or come off the mountain.

2. What is “human centered” design? How can clothes be used to enhance end-use social experience?

Human centered design is a term that I picked up when hanging out with a buddy who works at Ideo. He said “The way you designed the High Water is exactly the way we advise our clients to approach product development.”  We’ve warped this a bit and now we’ve coined the term “Social-centric Design.”

I’m an apparel industry veteran, and I can tell you from experience that most brand’s design development process and conversations sound something like this: “We need to design an assortment of jeans and shirts for the season.  What should it look like?  What aesthetic or style inspires us?”  

In my view, this is backwards. We don’t start with the end product and work backwards.  We start by asking questions about the Human, the wearer, and design from there.  For example, when we designed the High Water shirt, we didn’t say “Let’s make a cool Aloha shirt and line it with terry cloth.”  We asked “When a guy chooses a floral-print shirt from his closet in the morning, what is he saying to the world?  What does he want his day to look like?  What do people like us - surfers, skiers, and social cowboys, want from their clothes?”  Only when we have answered these Human-Centered questions, or in our case, social-centric questions, do we start to design our product.

These questions guide feature development, fit, and style.  Now we give our customers a number of secret weapons that can change the trajectory of their day. Everyone loves opening a beer for a friend. It’s a small gesture, but it can be a real moment. We include a bottle opener in our shirts.  There’s a cycling inspired bottle pocket on the back - a cool feature in and of itself, but also one that’s likely to spark a conversation.  The guy in the printed shirt at the party?  Usually approachable and fun to talk to.  We drive the point home with our “Conversation Stopper” cards - premium card stock with provocative one liners on them.  Every style and order comes with a stack of these social-aces, and has pockets designed specifically to hold them.  A subtle reminder that putting your phone away and talking to someone in analog can be pretty entertaining.  As we like to say, “Go fun yourself.”  

3. Your line is made in California. Is American-Made an important statement for your brand and does it matter to your customers?

It is.  We make our products in California for a variety of reasons.  We work with a number of family-run businesses in our supply chain, and I like supporting communities in California.  It’s true that making product  in California is a great marketing story.  But the main reason we decided to make here may surprise you.  Our brand is all about creating connections and building relationships.  At the end of the day, even if it costs us more in the short term, I wanted to be able to get in the car and drive down to my factory to shake hands with the guy who is sewing our product.  If that’s what our brand mission is, it better be backed up by how we bring our product to market.  

There are also a number of strategic reasons we produce in the U.S. - yes, it’s more expensive, but having manufactured product overseas for my whole career, I can tell you that the risks of overseas manufacturing can outweigh the benefits.  

4. How did being an English major at Georgetown prepare you for a life in fashion and design and later as an entrepreneur?

To be fair, I’m not actually a technically-trained designer. I would call myself a developer and I work with an amazingly talented group of individuals who have collectively brought California Cowboy to life.  Georgetown prepped me in a number of ways.  I want to grow our business so I can give back some of what Georgetown gave me.  We already hired one Hoya intern and will be looking for more!  

I’ve always thought that writing helps you understand people - to be effective it’s critical to put yourself in the mind of whoever is reading your work.  I think this is a type of empathy that enables a stronger understanding of your customer, and thus makes you a more effective designer.

5. What was your favorite class and/or professor during your time on the Hilltop?

I’d have to say Modern Satire with Keith Fort.  I have an active imagination and a dark, somewhat off color sense of humor.  Some of the authors we read were literary cowboys.  Our brand muse is the late Hunter S. Thompson, founder of Gonzo journalism.  I read some of his work in this class.  

6. Has the Georgetown alumni network benefited you in launching California Cowboy?

I’ve had a lot of emotional, professional, and financial support from a number of Hoyas. My family especially. And the network has even introduced me to some potential investors.  I also designed two Blue and Gray High Water prints specifically for Georgetown and Hoyas are buying them like crazy!  

7. What's next for California Cowboy?

We’ve been growing like crazy, and then one night we almost lost it all.  There was a fire in our building and we have been displaced as a result for a couple months.  My team is amazing.  They responded incredibly well, and we’re coming back like we were shot out of a cannon.  So our business has been both metaphorically and literally on fire.  We have some pretty awesome products that we would like to bring to market next year and you should expect to see a lot more of us in the digital space.  

As Hunter Thompson wrote: “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”