Michael Williams always knew he wanted to work for himself, and after following his own advice of continual, relentless persistence, he’s now recognized across the Internet as the trusted voice behind A Continuous Lean and the co-founder of Paul + Williams, a menswear-focused PR and marketing firm. After featuring him as part of our Complex TV series "The Visionaries" in May, we got up with Michael again to dicuss all aspects of both his careers, and he was more than willing to dole out advice and anecdotes at every turn. Read on to find out his opinion on everything from what womenswear can learn from menswear (hint: lighten up, already) to why he’ll never understand streetwear.
What have you learned most from being an entrepreneur, especially in a creative field?
I learned that you have to be persistent, even in the face of very difficult surroundings, difficult times, difficult business settings. You have to be very persistent and you have to really believe in what you’re doing. I think that a lot of people can pick that up from you and a lot of what you project, you will become. So, it’s really important to believe in yourself and believe that you’re great at what you’re doing, and your concept and your path and all that stuff.
You have to be persistent, and a lot of entrepreneurs will tell you the same thing, that people have told them that they couldn’t do it. A lot of people are skeptical, and you have to always carry the belief that you can accomplish what you want to.
Can you give any specific examples of times that you’ve had to be persistent?
In the beginning, we had to go out and basically pitch ourselves and sell everyone on us and what we’re doing, and that we were capable and we were smart, and there was a lot of that. I remember when we first started the company, we would just go on meetings and meetings and tell our story and tell them what we were doing and prove to people that we were capable. You have to just build up a resistance to hearing people say no, keep going after it, and eventually you can make it happen. That was a big lesson for us, to get comfortable with people saying no.
And the other thing is, just one of my big philosophies in business in general is that if you don’t ask, you don’t get, so you have to go out and ask people for things. It’s like something you see politicians do; they ask people to vote for them. They are saying: “Will you vote for me?” In business, you’re saying that a lot. You have to ask people what you want, you can’t expect people to understand what you’re doing or recognize instantly what your company is all about and wait for them to come to you. You have to go out and get these things, and make things happen.
What has been your biggest struggle as an entrepreneur?
We do marketing and PR, so when we started the company, we thought ‘oh, we’re just going to do marketing and PR.’ What we didn’t realize was we’re also going to do the human resources and run a business and do accounting and deal with taxes and make sure everything is in line with the government. There’s so much more to it than what it appears. That’s probably our biggest struggle, running the business and then running the business. It’s doing PR and doing the marketing and doing the business stuff together. And a lot of that stuff never stops. Even if I’m on vacation, I have to always sort of be thinking, especially in the beginning: ‘Payroll’s going to run, do we have the money to cover it? Are the invoices going out?’ All that stuff. And as we grow and continue to get older, the more we have a better grasp on these things. But it’s challenging, in the beginning, to run the business and do the work.
I hear people say that a lot, that you don’t expect all the other stuff that comes along with doing what you want to do.
Yeah, and that’s the tough part about it, and the instability is difficult. I’ve always been someone that’s never wanted to work for people, so it wasn’t really an issue so much for me. But, this is sort of the trade-off. There is a lot of stress and pressure that is involved with that, but then at the end of the day, I can go to Sweden when I want and I don’t have to ask permission. I’m not like, worried about my vacation days or whatever, so I can leave and there’s that freedom. There’s a lot of freedom and a lot of confinement, I will say. On both ends of the spectrum.
Now switching over to your blog, A Continuous Lean, why is the Made In The USA issue so close to you?
It’s important to me because of where I grew up. I grew up in this industrial manufacturing center in Ohio so I’ve always just been interested in it, but I’ve also been interested in clothes. I sort of got into this initially just by being a consumer and looking at labels and seeing where things are made and understanding how the apparel business works and margins and manufacturing and all this stuff. I was really interested in this and then what I wanted to do with ACL and one of the reasons that Made in the USA is such a pillar for ACL is I was always just very interested in what’s real and who’s doing things the hard way, what are the items that last a long time, and what goes into making the things that you use.
I’m more interested in owning less things but owning better things. So, owning things that will last a long time, not owning ten pairs of khakis but owning two pairs of khakis, you know? I’m willing to pay a little more upfront to have things last a longer time and I thought that there were more people in the world who have this opinion, and it turns out that there are a lot of people that share that belief with me, that it’s worth buying something that will last a long time over buying something that is throwaway.
You started the blog in late 2007. At what point did you notice it really starting to catch on and grow?
I’d say probably that the height of everything was probably in 2010. It took a long time but 2008 and 2009 were interesting and when I look back on the site, to me it looks like I was trying to figure out what I was doing. I think that there was a lot of interest in menswear at that time, and in blogs. There was more interest in it then than there is now, almost. I don’t know how everyone’s sort of interacting with these things anymore. This is something that I was talking with Jeff Carvalho from Selectism about. I think that the way people interact with these things even now has changed.
I think it’s either more mobile or different platforms, or they’re getting it via social. I don’t know that people are just straight going to websites anymore like they used to. Maybe the lack of Google Reader has changed that too. I think that in 2010 there was a lot of interest in the site, but that also was a really challenging time for me because 2009 was so difficult in terms of the economy and starting our business. Having that economic environment made it really difficult on me. That was probably the best and worst time in my life, to be honest.
What has been your favorite brand discovery through ACL?
It’s hard to say specifically. There’s a lot of little brands out there. Now I think it’s hard to discover a lot of that stuff because everyone’s sort of searched, but it’s fun to walk into some places, like even wandering around in Rome, there was this great leather maker that I sort of stumbled upon and I bought this passport wallet from him. He was really cool and let me take pictures and was just this really amazing artisan guy that was making lots of leather goods in his shop, you know, with his head down every day. It’s stuff like that—those are always the most fulfilling things for me.
I’ve tried to remain outside of the PR cycle of things, to be honest. I wanted to make it more about my personal interactions but not personally about me, if that makes sense. I try to sort of keep [Paul + Williams and ACL] separate, and sometimes there’s a PR thing that I’m interested in, but generally I try to work at my own speed and write about and talk about things sort of as I figure them out, even if it’s after the fact. I try not to get too bogged down with timing on a lot of the stuff, to be honest.
Have you run into problems with trying to keep ACL separate when brands want to be represented by Paul + Williams?
No, generally the brands that we work with understand that the two things are pretty autonomous. And everyone has really been supportive of me so we haven’t really had any issues with that, knock on wood.
Speaking about this season specifically, which brands should we be watching out for? Which brands consistently get it right every season?
Wow, that’s a good question. I can say that there’s a couple of Italian brands that I really love, that I think do an amazing job. One is Slowear, and they make some of my favorite pants in the world called Incotex. I love Incotex, and I love Slowear, and I think they are doing an amazing job.
I mean, I am very much a creature of habit, so I buy and wear a lot of the same things. I buy button down shirts from the New England Shirt Company, I wear boots from Red Wing. I am a habitual user of a lot of these things. I am the type of person that will buy two of something at the same time. While I like a lot of brands, I have a very defined uniform and I don’t go too crazy with switching it up.
Club Monaco is another brand that I think has done an amazing job. You look at Aaron Levine and the brand two years ago and then look at it now, it’s developed and changed so much. I think it’s having a really great moment and I’m really excited about that stuff.
What do you think it means for menswear that about half of this year’s CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalists were menswear designers, for the first time?
I think that it’s great. People are, you know, starting to be comfortable with acknowledging a lot of this stuff. There are different types of designers too. It’s not like the super fashion with a capital F designers, and I think that that’s really exciting, and it’s sort of about time. And all the people who were nominated, I really like what they do. I like the Ovadia guys. I think it’s exciting for all of these brands. I think that Public School, those guys are amazing, and that’s something that a lot of people don’t think about, like, they make everything in New York. Public School’s whole collection is made here, and that’s not what everyone thinks about when they think about Made In The USA, like that type of clothing. I think that they’re doing a lot to change perceptions and enlighten people, and I think that that’s good.
Kind of playing off of that, what can womenswear learn from menswear then?
The real difference between menswear and womenswear is that everyone in menswear is pretty nice. In womenswear, that’s not always the case. The women’s side of the business sometimes takes things a little too seriously when, at the end of the day, we’re just talking about clothes. And I think that all the people on the men’s side get that. I think that, if anything, it wouldn’t hurt [womenswear] to lighten up a little bit.
Is there anything that you’re a little bit sick of in menswear?
One, I don’t understand streetwear. I mean, I understand what streetwear is all about, but, like I really don’t understand streetwear and I think it’s pretty obvious. That’s one thing that I just don’t understand—the cycle of streetwear. I wouldn’t say I’m sick of it, but either there’s something in my brain or I just don’t get it.
The other thing is that when you look at a lot of stuff that is Made In The USA, it always ends up being the same categories of things. Like, the world doesn’t need another small leather goods company, you know? Some people need to push the envelope and do things a little differently. People need to sort of push things along because a lot of times it’s just like the same stuff over and over. That would be a couple things that I’m sick of.
Wait a second, let’s go back to not understanding streetwear for a minute. What do you mean?
I was just in Copenhagen and Sweden and there’s a lot of great European streetwear brands. Like, if you look at a brand like Soulland, I went to this big dinner with them and I really like those guys and I think that what they do is amazing. I just don’t understand the pieces of how—not like how the collection is assembled—but what makes streetwear tick. I don’t really get it. It’s sort of like a bunch of unrelated things that come together that influence everything.
If you read a lot of these sites, everyone sort of understands what’s appropriate to streetwear. If you scroll down Hypebeast or High Snobiety or Complex, you’ll see a lot of similar influences, right? I just don’t understand how everyone knows what’s appropriate and what is not, because I couldn’t predict like, what is going to influence streetwear and what isn’t. It could be a video or a musician, or what brands are key, and I just don’t get it. I don’t think it’s bad, I just look at it and I seriously feel like I just don’t understand, and it’s pretty funny.
In your opinion, what does a young menswear designer need to be successful?
I think that they need a point of view and a good story and they need to make good product. Gone are the days where you could just get by making crappy stuff. It has to be well made, it has to fit well, it has to be marketed well. Everything is too competitive now for people to half-ass their way through this.
What can we expect from ACL in the future? Do you ever think that it would go to print?
That’s funny, all digital wants to be print and all print wants to be digital, and at times that stuff doesn’t really work out. I would like to do something print-wise but as a strict vanity project. I would never really want to do it in earnest.
As far as what does the future for ACL look like, I’d say I’m never going away. I’m never, ever going away and I’m never going to stop doing this. Even if it’s just my mom reading it I’m going to keep doing it, because I only do it because I like to do it, not for any other reason. All the people that want me to go away, I’m never going away. That should be your headline: “Michael Williams Is Never Going Away.” I refuse to leave. I’m like the guy at the party who won’t go home. I have nowhere else to go, I’m staying forever.
Are there people that want you to go away?
Sure, there are lots of people that want me to go away. I think that once it gets to the critical mass of more people wanting me to go away then wanting me to stay, that’s going to be sort of the ultimate win for me. And I’m working on that. Every day, I convert some people who want me to just go away.
Okay, no, I really think a lot of people just don’t care, or are ambivalent. Gone are the days when I was truly polarizing, now I’m just boring. But at the apocalypse, it’s just going to me and the cockroaches. And American heritage. The heritage man, it’s long lasting, you know?