The Funnest Shirt at the Party
By Kevin Assam
The party’s best should be designed by the funnest guy in the room. With a gregarious glint, Schuyler Brown relates the mostly true stories behind his quirky designs. Before Seaplane’s online-only 2011 launch, Schuyler sold BMWs and had ground the NYC ad scene. After two successful retail ventures in Palm Springs (2017) and Provincetown (2018), in January 2019 Seaplane opened at 910 Duval Street in Key West, FL. Schuyler opens up about the stories behind these prints, the business of fashion, and travails along the way.
Kevin Assam: How does Seaplane secure these prints?
Schuyler Brown: With two decades of experience I’ve realized that in wholesale, more yardage is always milled than the manufacturer actually uses. After these units are cut, fabulous remnants can languish for years. I acquire these remnants. If I find 200 yards, for example, we can make 50 numbered, collectible shirts in the USA and sell them direct.
Because Seaplane is the manufacturer we offer high-value prices at retail. Unlike wholesale manufacturers, my shirts are available, always at the same price, and only through Seaplane’s physical stores and website. There is no way to disintermediate us. If a customer likes a shirt, given there are only a few pieces in their size, there’s justification to buy now.
KA: Why Key West?
SB: Seaplane customers love far-flung places where they can freely express themselves. Like Palm Springs and Provincetown, Key West has long been a refuge for artists and creative minds. In the two months before closing the deal for 910 Duval, we visited five times, sitting at different locations, counting potential customers, asking who they were and how they got here. Thanks to Key West’s zany culture we’ve gathered a base whose support is essential. That’s what’s most rewarding about our work: like-minded people identify each other through our prints.
KA: Each print has a unique design and narrative. What’s your most outrageous shirt story?
SB: Growing up in 70s Greenwich, my best friend Courtney kept Cornish Hens as pets. Everyday we went to her house where her drunk mom gave us cookies. One day we left the garage door open and the chickens got inside. Her mom withheld any cookies till we chased the chickens out. I accidentally slammed the door on Matilda, the family’s favorite hen. Matilda started backflipping. Courtney screamed. Her mom ventured out to investigate before mercy-snapping Matilda’s neck. We held a funeral. They made me say [a Jewish] prayer. I’m a non-practicing Jew. I don’t know any prayers. That night a fox unfortunately dug up Matilda. This inspired the design Cornish Hen – a shirt great for temple, too.
KA: Why buy your shirt as opposed to a nice meal for two?
SB: Seaplane shirts are an invitation to chat. Our colors create connections between people who would not otherwise speak to one another, which is increasingly important in these divisive times. Nearly every day customers write in to say, “I’ve never in my life received so many compliments as when I wear Seaplane shirts.” But what they’re really saying is that when folks see our bright, happy designs, they think, “I can chat with that person because they look friendly.” People intuitively understand Seaplane’s inclusive message.
KA: Does the business of fashion defy logic?
SB: In 2002, when I quit a six-figure advertising gig to create my first apparel company, I felt an irresistible urge to actually create a brand. I could not tolerate one more unproductive, vacuous meeting. I chose apparel because I could affordably develop the product. Clothes offer a strong palette in which to paint a brand story. I’ll always remember my sensible friend Betsy warning to me, “You’re going to have to sell a lot of shirts to net your current salary.”
With thousands of tiny brands fighting for orders, very few survive. Common sense would dictate we quit before we ever got started. Every day requires self-delusion. What makes me think Seaplane could survive where so many others fail? Just this fall, after eight years of mammoth effort building the company, we almost collapsed after missteps in Boca Raton, FL (moved lock, stock, and barrel to Key West, FL) and downtown Palm Springs, CA. With that, Key West appears to be working is of incalculable relief.
KA: Your designs range from romantic florals to zany fish prints. Personally, are you more of a romantic or a kook?
SB: Definitely kooky. If I can make life more zany everyday my artistic calling will be satisfied. I’m iconoclastic in my thinking, unafraid to speak my mind, and don’t remember a time when I was satisfied by American pop culture that I view largely as a delivery mechanism for Doritos. As a teenager I identified with the contrarian, visually daring aesthetic of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s films like Diva and Betty Blue, or Delicatessen by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. What a strange proto-queer I was then.