What started as a dream many generations ago continues as a clothing brand founded in California that keeps the legacy alive. Topo Ranch is what we’re talking about, and we got to catch up with the founders of the brand to discuss the past, present, and future of the ranch and the clothing inspired by it.
TM: The brand’s history dates back to several decades ago. Can you elaborate on the beginnings of the great “Topo Ranch”?
Alex Kump: This is the long story short: Topo Ranch was settled by my Irish ancestors who survived the now amazing 5th grade history lesson called “The Donner Party.” In 1843, my great great, great grandfather joined up with the wagon train called the Donner Party in Independence, Missouri and headed for California. After taking a wrong turn, they got caught up in the Sierra Nevada for about 8 months in the snow. Eventually, they were rescued and made it to Sacramento. From there, they made their way down to San Juan Bautista. In 1860, my great, great grandfather, Edward, went out looking for gold and came back with the equivalent of $200,000 (in gold). With that money, they bought the Topo Ranch in King City, CA and began to raise cattle. Eventually, the economy turned south and the bank foreclosed on the ranch in the 1930′s. My great grandfather Edwin Breen stayed on as the head foreman through the 1940′s. Eventually, after my Nana passed away, we ended up inheriting all these amazing photos, journals etc. that inspired me to start my own company.
Some Ranch history HERE
TM: In what ways do you incorporate the ranch’s history in your clothing?
Alex Kump: We use a lot of subtle symbolism. On our t-shirt labels, I’ve included the “Big E” logo which is our old cattle brand. I also try to keep a foot in the past with our graphic design. In our hoodies and jackets, I actually include some patches of my Nana’s or Great Grandfather’s journal entries. I try not to get too attached to it though because a big part of my family’s rise was through the pioneering spirit, which, for me, means I need to come up with great new ideas and stay culturally relevant.
TM: What was it like opening up your first Topo Ranch retail store? Can you give us a briefing on the process for those who might want to do the same one day?
Alex Kump: Eric and I had just invested in a ton of inventory, and we’re trying to get rid of it. We had finished driving across the country, and we had only opened up 20 doors. We got real used to rejection. What we had left for a marketing budget we ended up investing into a store. We signed a 3-month lease, and Eric and I, along with a few good buddies, built the store out. We opened in November (highly recommend) which was great for hitting the holiday shopping season. Things started going well. We thought we were going to close up in February, but the local neighborhood just kept coming in for our t-shirts and hoodies, and we started to build a community. My business partner, Eric, helped start a merchant event on the street called “First Friday’s,” and we started having music those nights and our fans just kept showing up. It’s been a great experience so far.
TM: Was opening the next store easier since you now had some experience?
Alex Kump: Not necessarily. The distance was difficult and hiring a qualified staff was challenging. Managing from afar is always hard. We have a great crew in Boulder right now. Heather, the Boulder Store manager, has a great handle on building community around the store through live music. The great thing about the second store was having a little bit more money to realize the Topo Ranch brand at the store level. It’s also been cool to see how a different demographic reacts to our product.
TM: What are the major differences between running your retail store and running your online shop?
Alex Kump: The online shop is less management. Although customer service is important, it’s all done through email and phone which is easier. At the retail store, you’re really building a close-knit community, and you need to be able to instill that in the people you hire. It’s also a lot easier to post a web page telling people who you are rather than creating a brand experience run by people.
TM: In 2009 you were the official merchandiser for the Sundance Film Festival. How did you hook that up?
Alex Kump: My partner mostly made the connections on that. I believe we made that connection through a trade show. You never know whom you’re going to meet at those events. If you can successfully set up appointments before you do a show, they are usually worth doing. Don’t do it if you have no way of setting up appointments with retail buyers beforehand.
TM: What are your 3 favorite clothing brands, besides your own?
Alex Kump: Eric really likes Paul Smith. He makes great quality clothes with an amazing attention to detail. I grew up in Newport, so my favorite brands tend to go more surf. I was brought into the Quiksilver fold way back, and I have recently been into their Limited sub brand. I’m also a big fan of Jeff Yokoyama and his daughter’s brand Generic Youth – creative hand crafted clothes.
TM: What are your 3 favorite t-shirts you’ve ever released?
Alex Kump: The Topo T-Shirt, Saddle Up and Sun Rise Tour Bus
TM: What does Topo Ranch have planned for 2011?
Alex Kump: Grow wholesale. We’ve discovered that the easiest way to hit minimums with factories and mitigate the risks is to grow your volume through the wholesale channel. Both Eric and I want to open up more retail stores down the road, but it’s usually an expensive proposition. We are focusing on growing volume, brand exposure and building great product this year. The rest will fall into place.
TM: Tell us something not too many people know about Topo Ranch.
Alex Kump: Most people think we are bigger than we are. We’re a small company trying to do big things on a tight budget. We’ve also been around for 5 years now. It takes time to build your brand one t-shirt at a time.
For more on Topo Ranch, check out their website at TopoRanch.com.