As Baldwin KC opens on the Plaza, success washes over denim hero Matt Baldwin

Matt Baldwin puts four of his prized possessions on the table. They’re all jeans. He’s been talking — fast and with much enthusiasm — for a solid 20 minutes, about denim. The fabric’s history, the evolution and look and feel of jeans, the poetry in what washing and wearing do to simple indigo — he’s covering it all.

He pauses, clutching one of his best-sellers, the Baldwin Henley in raw selvage denim, as he prepares to explain how his infectious love affair with the material is about to reach the next level.

“We’re working with a Japanese mill to produce our own textile,” he says. He looks, as usual, sharp in what is essentially his uniform: his line’s utility pants (rolled), basic black Nikes, leather jacket. “That means you won’t be able to get this denim anywhere else in the world. The Japanese produce the most phenomenal denim. They are so meticulous. You can feel it.”

Baldwin’s passion for high-quality denim shines. And the industry is training its lights on his company. The nation’s top style critics have praised the 35-year-old local designer for the tough feat of nailing not only fashion but also workmanship. The accolades have risen to near-supernatural levels. “The high priest of low-key gear,” GQ calls Baldwin in naming him one of the year’s four Best New Menswear Designers. Or, as Jim Moore, the magazine’s longtime creative director, refers to him in a conversation with The Pitch: “fashion hero.”

“He’s a very serious guy, a gentle soul,” Moore says. “But when he talks about denim, he is laser-focused. And I really enjoy being around people who are very passionate about what they do.”

On an early September afternoon, inside Baldwin headquarters in Overland Park, a man stops in with flooring samples. It’s time to decide on the front-entrance tile at the company’s new retail store.

Across the room, Emily Baldwin — Matt’s wife and business partner — is on the phone. She’s discussing a detail for the launch of the Baldwin collection, which hits 200 Gap stores this week, the result of the GQ honor.

A copy of Maxim sits next to her. Inside, there’s a photo of Johnson County–bred Saturday Night Live star Jason Sudeikis in a Baldwin denim jacket — the latest celebrity to wear the brand. She smiles, then shrugs about all the attention. Before a New York press team was assembled this month, she explains, the brand’s publicity work consisted solely of her responding to inquiries.

David Hall, manager at the Leawood Baldwin store, remembers when photos surfaced last year of actress Olivia Wilde, Sudeikis’ fiancée, wearing the Baldwin line’s KC hat.

“All of a sudden, all these girls were buying the hats,” Hall says. “Girls hadn’t really thought they could wear them before.”

The Sudeikis connection dates back a few years. Matt and Emily rushed one of their children to Children’s Mercy Hospital; the infant had a high fever. Thankful for the care, Matt got involved with the hospital’s board. He then met Sudeikis through the Big Slick Celebrity Poker Tournament and Party, an annual benefit for the hospital, and the two men clicked.

Other celebrities wear Baldwin simply because they dig the brand. Jay-Z seemingly lived in the line’s camo trousers last fall, prompting demand that quickly dried up the fabric’s initial run.

The organic rise to the big time happened quickly. In 2003, the Baldwins opened Standard Style in Leawood, a men’s and women’s boutique carrying designer labels. Four years ago, they rolled out the Baldwin line with men’s jeans; after a year, the brand was for sale on the hottest store racks in New York City and Los Angeles. The luxury brand, Baldwin Denim and Collection, weaves modern design with function and has expanded into a full line: men’s shirts, jackets, trousers, KC hats (the ones you’re seeing everywhere), women’s apparel, children’s jeans. Five U.S. factories crank out the brand.

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The couple now has four area stores: a second Standard Style on the Plaza; Baldwin in Leawood; and the new Baldwin KC on the Plaza, which opened last weekend and is the first store heavy on Baldwin goods for both men and women.

While they have production in L.A. as well as a New York sales team, they’ve kept their base in Kansas City, a location that seems to have caught the fashion industry by surprise. And they have no plans to leave. The Baldwins are tried-and-true Midwesterners — Matt from Kansas, Emily from Missouri. This is home.

They’re both beautiful, in that all-American way, and have three gorgeous and, of course, perfectly styled young children. They live in old Leawood, just a few minutes from their stores and offices, in a house they’ve given a modern, minimalist face-lift. To their friends, the house is a go-to for socializing — a place where the swimming pool, the turntable and the karaoke machine get equal action before and after the kids go to bed.

“It is a huge blessing that we’re able to raise our kids here while also doing something unique,” Matt says.

He’s all about bringing Kansas City along for the ride. Local Gap stores didn’t get last year’s GQ-Gap collection, so this fall he has pulled every string he can to put his clothing in some of the area stores. He also has made sure to sprinkle his hometown in the collection. The KC hat in navy made the cut.

“People will be reppin’ KC all over the globe,” he says, through that enthusiastic smile.


Before denim, it was skateboarding and snowboarding gear. Growing up outside Wichita, in Andover, Kansas, Matt was part of the skateboarding movement of the 1980s and ’90s. Skateboarding with his friends and reading Thrasher magazine consumed him.

He went to college in New Hampshire and then headed to Colorado to snowboard. There, life started to align. While teaching snowboarding, he met Emily, a wakeboarding instructor. He was drawn to action-sports fashion and moved to California, where he worked for skate- and board-gear brand Volcom. He surfed. He studied apparel manufacturing at Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles. Emily joined him there, and they married in 2001.

After Matt’s graduation from FIDM, he and Emily returned to Colorado for a ski season and contemplated their next move. When a KC friend offered to invest in their designer-boutique idea if they came to the area, they packed their bags and opened Standard Style in Leawood’s Town Center Plaza in 2003.

They stocked the store with items by their favorite designers, like Marc Jacobs, whose high-end handbags cost a few hundred dollars, as well as more affordable pieces that went for less than $50. The model was more in line with L.A. than the Midwest. A risk, yes. But why compromise?

“I’ve always tried to do only the things I’m passionate about versus following the money or doing what theoretically makes sense,” Matt says.

Matt took the lead in the business and served as the house visionary. Emily was the creative director, the women’s buyer, the stylist.

But Matt struggled to find the jeans he desired: American-manufactured denim featuring modern design and ultra-premium Japanese and American selvage — a reference to “self-edge,” the crisp edges that don’t easily fray. All denim was once selvage, but today only vintage shuttle looms produce the rare, high-quality fabric.

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Too often, premium jeans that wear well, he thought, were too stylized, too tricked-out (think busy pockets). He wanted to keep it clean, but he found that simple-looking jeans often lacked craftsmanship.

He wasn’t alone. A denim-purist culture had begun to sprout, and Matt found himself in the thick of it. These were people who wanted the same things from a pair of jeans that Matt did. He talked to them when he went to big cities to buy for his store, and he connected with them online. It was an energetic, grassroots movement, one that took him back to a special place: the skating revolution of his childhood.

Meanwhile, Kansas City was embracing Standard Style. The success led to the 2006 opening of the Standard Style store on the Plaza.

In 2009, he went for it. With fit and fabric the top priorities, he started designing. The goal: versatile comfort that would attract repeat customers. He took the most durable Japanese and American denim he could find to a U.S. factory, where the fabric was cut and sewn to become Baldwin jeans.

His jeans, intended to fit snugly, have several unique details. The label features Missouri steer hide, oiled and treated to age with the pants. A back pocket carries his subtle trademark: a white rivet. And the front-button backing is stamped with a local shout-out: KC. The jeans, which debuted inside Standard Style, sell for around $200 a pair — a steep price point for today’s typical shopper yet half the cost of the Japanese brands he thinks of as his competitors. “Affordable designer,” he calls it.

Daniel Cummings began working for Baldwin a few years after Standard Style opened and now serves as the line’s brand manager. He remembers traveling to New York City with Baldwin in 2010 to show the jeans from their cramped hotel room.

“Matt wanted it to be organic,” he says. “We wanted to connect with people, let them get to know the product.”

Many in the denim community had become familiar with Baldwin jeans through a project featured on denimdebate.com, a site that followed several pairs of raw — or untreated — denim jeans for one year. Cummings blogged about his raw Baldwins, how they changed with minimal washing and maximum wear. Raw denim appeals to jeans junkies because the deep color fades naturally — an outline of the wearer’s wallet slowly appears on a pocket; fabric around the knees lightens.

“There were all these bloggers and guys who like to talk about denim in our hotel room, taking pictures of the jeans and taking notes,” says Cummings, a Kansas City native. He credits that customer investment with helping elevate the product. “People saw it as a brand that had a lot of heart.”

The number of retailers placing wholesale orders for the jeans steadily rose, and the store list began to include the big boys, places such as Barneys.

In 2011, the Baldwin men’s shop opened in Leawood’s Town Center Crossing, on the east side of Roe Avenue, across from Town Center Plaza. Standard Style crossed the street to neighbor Baldwin. (The Leawood Standard then shifted its focus to women; the Plaza Standard features men’s and women’s attire.)

National attention took off, and people like GQ‘s Moore had their first encounters with Baldwin denim — moments they would remember.

“I had this fashion editor who came into my office, held up the jeans and said, ‘I have found the perfect pair of jeans. We need to reboot and rethink a pair of jeans because these are going to be amazing,'” Moore tells The Pitch. “They looked dead simple but weren’t void of personality. I could tell, just from looking at them, that they were going to be a good fit.”

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Moore, who has been with the men’s magazine for 33 years, wanted to try them on. He wasn’t disappointed. “They aren’t flashy. Matt gives the jean up to the wearer — you can mold them to you, make them your own.”

About a year later, in 2012, Moore met Matt for the first time at a trade show. He was impressed with the man, too — and with the collection beyond denim. He kept his eye on Matt and his brand and, early this year, was able to call the local designer with good news: The magazine was naming him a Best New Menswear Designer.

In Moore’s eyes, Matt’s Midwest perch adds to the glory. It allows him to step out of the industry noise, stay true to himself and design from a different perspective.

“Every fashion hero has a story, and Matt’s homegrown-in-Kansas City element makes his story all the more compelling,” he says.


On a mid-September weekday, recent University of Kansas grad Todd Harmon stops in at the Leawood Baldwin store to buy a KC hat in gray before moving to San Francisco. “I want to take some Kansas City with me,” he says.

Business remains brisk here, though it’s tough to pin down just who is the typical customer. The same day, store manager Hall hears from an elderly man who calls each fall to order a new denim jacket.

“We get the young guys who are into denim and the story of breaking in a pair, and then we get the older men who are drawn to quality and classic fit,” says Hall, a Columbia, Missouri, native.

The Leawood Baldwin store serves as a laboratory of sorts, a place where Matt’s customer interaction shapes products sold globally. He takes pride in what he calls the store’s upper-level service, which includes on-the-spot tailoring. (Every employee sews.)

A jeans wall of fame hangs by the store’s front entrance. There, wearers retire their well-worn raw pairs, giving way to design inspiration for worn washes.

The store has a sleek, clean and functional aesthetic, a design influenced by Baldwin’s fondness of modern architecture and made possible by Hufft Projects.

Architect Matthew Hufft, founder of the firm (which has offices in Kansas City and New York), designed all of the Baldwins’ stores as well as their home remodel. In Springfield, Missouri, he and Emily were high school classmates.

He says he often hears people ask Matt, “So, how much longer are you going to be around here?” Hufft knows the answer.

“Through his success, Matt’s enthusiasm for Kansas City has increased,” he says. “You see other people taste success and flee from their home, but he’s doing the opposite, which I think is really admirable.”

Other local designers are watching Baldwin’s example. Christian Shuster, designer of the menswear line ChristianMICHEAL, says, “Matt Baldwin has proven that you don’t have to transplant to the coasts to make it.”


Friday afternoon, September 20, the new Plaza Baldwin store had been open for an hour. Matt was worn-out from the busiest month of his career so far, yet embracing the high time. He and Emily were at home for four days between New York trips, a schedule that had him missing his kids. The new issue of GQ had just come out — Jeff Bridges on the cover and, a couple of pages in, Baldwin posing in a glossy spread pushing the Gap collection.

He talked about what’s next: Open one Baldwin-brand store, much like this one, away from the Kansas City area each year for the next five years. First up: Los Angeles and New York.

For now, all eyes are on Kansas City, the new Plaza store serving as the model for national stores. As shoppers trickled in, he flashed that eager smile and said, “It’s so awesome to be doing this in our own backyard.”

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