Northern Grade brings menswear, beer to L.A.

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Author: Ben Tuthill

You know when all of your friends go out together and have an amazing time and take lots of pictures and develop a whole series of inside jokes and get matching tattoos and become really, really close, but they forget to invite you because they’re all thoughtless assholes? That’s kind of how I feel about Northern Grade.

Northern Grade is a 100% U.S.-made menswear pop-up market that started in Minneapolis. It happened for the first time in September 2009, two weeks after I left Minnesota for college. It’s happened there every September since, and over the years it’s managed to feature pretty much every one of my favorite brands: J. W. Hulme, Red Wing, Oak Street Bootmakers, Pierrepont Hicks and on and on and on. Every fall I would sit in my Los Angeles dorm room reading blogs and looking at pictures of all the cool kids hanging out in my home city without me. Assholes.

Luckily for me, Northern Grade decided to hit the road this year, and number three on the national tour was a two-day stop in L.A. There was no way that I was going to miss that, so last Saturday I forced a couple of friends to come with me and we went down to the Arts District to check it out.

Pop-ups are sort of a menswear proving ground: they’re the go-to place for well-dressed young people to network, take arty pictures and break the news of all the coolest stuff before the big-name bloggers get to it. They’re notorious for being overcrowded, overwhelming and full of hipsters.

Northern Grade L.A. was a little overcrowded and definitely overwhelming. There were 20 or 30 booths, a majority of them run by bearded men in camo pants. There were oysters cooking by the entrance, and a guy giving hair cuts in the middle of the floor. There were dogs and canvas tote bags and stacks on stacks of raw denim jeans. I’m pretty sure we were the only people there who didn’t have a SLR film camera with a tanned leather shoulder strap. We felt small and out of place.

After 10 or so minutes of wandering up and down the aisles in a state of emotional exhaustion and repressed panic, we decided to settle on a mission. We had a combined total of $23, so instead of buying anything we decided to focus on figuring how to get free alcohol.

Finding free alcohol was proven to be easier than we thought. After a minute of loudly working the word “beer” into our conversation, a guy from the Taylor Stitch booth pointed us toward a vintage California state flag. Behind it was a room filled with case after case of Dogfish Head IPAs.

The discovery changed the day for all of us. U.S.-made selvedge handkerchiefs and free beer? This wasn’t a douchey tradeshow: it was the Best Event Ever.

We decided to honor our new outlook on life by engaging in the age-old party activity of harassing people we didn’t know. Our first target was the Chippewa Boots table. What makes Chippewa Boots better than Red Wing Boots? we asked the Chippewa guy. Instead of dodging our hard-hitting inquiries he talked to us for a good 10 minutes about the history of American bootmaking. He kept talking long after he realized that we had no interest in buying anything from him and seemed genuinely interested in giving us his time.

We started to realize that, unlike most people, everyone at Northern Grade loved being harassed. Everyone was willing to answer our most arbitrary questions. To 3Sixteen: Are the leather patches on your jeans vegetable or mineral tanned? All-natural vegetable tanned! To Baldwin Denim: why do my jeans smell like cat urine? Because Cone Mills uses chemically-treated indigo! To our friend at Taylor Stitch: Are you Taylor? Answer: No.

We were on our second round of beers (moving on to a fine Hickory Stout) when we ran into Kevin Burrows of “[Oh] Yeah Menswear” fame. To our surprise, he was actually a super nice dude. This is the guy who once wrote a poem called “You go to a public university? The [heck] is that?” and here he was giving us advice about house-shopping in Los Feliz. In the end I called him out for printing the “[O]YMW” book in China. “I know,” he said. “We didn’t have a say in that. It sucks.” What a guy!

Who else did we meet? Northern Grade founder “Mac” McMillan, fellow Minnesotan and maker of fine ties. A mysterious bearded man in a fishing hat and a dirty all-white suit. A purveyor who sold “rare” Hawaiian shirts. A guy named Chad who owned a surfboard company.

The main question on our minds was: who is this event for? The target demographic seemed to be recent college graduates; i.e. people with expensive taste and no money. How do they afford this stuff? We flagged down a well-dressed guy holding a shopping bag and asked him about his wages. He was a finance bro named Buddy, and he told us that he wasn’t normally into fashion but that he liked the stuff here because “all of it is something that I can pass on, you know? I’m going to wear this jacket everyday, and it’s still going to outlast me.” Well put, Buddy.

All in all, it was a hilarious time. The people were great, the clothes were great, the beer was great and free. Most of all, Northern Grade made me realize that there are good people everywhere, even in as noxious a world as the Southern California fashion scene. Sure, it took a Minnesota-based pop-up fair to eke them out, but they’re out there. If L.A. could just get injected with good Midwestern values a little more often then maybe I could see myself staying here.

When I got home I learned that all of my friends had gone out to dinner without me. But still.

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