Can you tell me about yourself?
My name is Evan Lessler. I own and operate a clothing company called Adapt. We are based in San Francisco and have been in business for about 16 years. I got my start at UC Davis, studied Fashion Design but switched my emphasis to Graphic Design when I realized that is what I was more inclined towards. I’ve always known since high school that I wanted to one day start a clothing company. Growing up, I was particularly inspired by urban/skate/streetwear brands and I knew that was the path that I wanted to take.
How did you start Adapt at UC Davis?
I started by printing shirts with local printers and sold it primarily to friends and family. The first shirt I ever sold was of Adapt’s first logo, to my roommate for $7. The idea here is to emphasize a stylized play button that symbolizes moving forward and progression.
How did you get the name and idea for Adapt?
The name came from that original logo. It was the only word I could spell using a triangle and line to represent each letter. Since then it actually has become super significant, it really represents what the brand is all about. Our brand is about changing with the culture, changing with the environment, and constantly advancing. It’s always striving and improving the environment and those around you in the community. It’s taken on an important meaning. It was a simple strong statement that worked, its universal and ended up being the perfect name.
Can you tell me a story of hardship and how you overcame it?
In January 2016 I was diagnosed with leukemia which is a type of blood cancer. It set me back essentially a whole year. I relied on my amazing employees covering for me while I was out. It was actually a really good opportunity for them to step up and for me to take a step back because I was forced to. I’m very hands on with things and I always want to be involved. During my time away it gave me a lot of new perspective, it forced me to chill out and take a breather. I was going 150 mph prior which is too much anyways. I’m currently in remission now, and all treatments should be finalized within 15 months or so.
I’m happy you’re doing a lot better. Do you have advice for people going through something similar?
A great benefit of going through something like this is that when you look back on it, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. As cliche as that statement is, it is very true. When you have other issues that come up in your life, they’re not going to be a really big deal in the grand scheme of things. This period of my life gave me a lot of perspective on what’s really important and what you should worry about and for me personally it basically made things that bothered me before seem very trivial.
Do you have advice for people wanting to start a clothing brand?
One thing I always say is, don’t let other people gas you up or don’t let your friends/family skew or override logic. The reality of the situation is that a lot of times people say you have a great product, they love it, you are going to sell a ton of stuff, but once all your friends and family support it, what is left? At that point you have to rely on the general public who has no incentive to purchase your product over the other 1000+ brands floating around on Instagram. Be conservative when starting out, if you have a product people like, people will purchase it. Instead of getting over confident in the beginning and getting stuck with a ton of product, build an audience and sales channels that can sustain you.
Do you design your own merchandise?
Yes, almost 100%. If there is something I can’t do, I find talented individuals to help me get it done.
What’s your process for designing?
One of our main taglines is ‘Design, Concept, Execution.’ So the idea behind that is you have to have a good design, strong concept and have it executed well. So that’s my process. Initially I think of a concept or idea and I then create it using using computer programs. I apply the design to the good, image or pattern or whatever the case may be and I produce the items.
What’s the most popular merch you created?
Some of our more popular designs would be Gold Blooded, 93 ‘til, an old 2Pac graphic, Vegas (EDC), SF State of Mind, and others. We actually have had quite a few designs over the years that people remember us for.
I know you worked at companies before Adapt, what made you quit your job?
When I graduated college, I got a job at CNET (was a graphic designer for mp3.com and gamespot.com) and I worked there for a year. Then I got a job at Apple doing design for the iTunes store for about 6 years. My experience working at Apple was great, Steve Jobs was my idol and Jony Ive (chief Apple Designer) is a close second for inspiration. It was a great company to work for. My co-workers were very understanding of me having my own clothing brand (work on the brand was done outside business hours, of course.) One big takeaway lesson from Apple is to accept and appreciate the help from others. All my product photos, web work, and design assistance was done by friends I had met through Apple. The work was all done pro bono, they knew I was trying to grow this brand and I will be forever be appreciative of them. Without their help Adapt wouldn’t be where it is right now.
Who are your role models and people you look up to in this field or other fields?
Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. They are modern-day visionaries and they knew what people wanted and made the things people wanted. Alyasha Owerka-Moore is another role model of mine. He used to run the clothing brand called Alphanumeric, which was a major inspiration for me to start my own brand.
What’s your favorite book?
Lord of the flies, because it’s a great and accurate insight into human nature. I haven’t read it in many years, I hope it still holds up.
What are things you should and shouldn't do in this industry?
You should be genuine in business, and true to your word. Meet and make as many friends as you can because you never know who you may end up working or interacting with down the road. Meeting people at tradeshows, events, etc. and having a positive rapport with people is always good.
You shouldn’t be fake about what your brand represents. You should always be true to your brand and the concepts you have. There is nothing wrong with following trends (as most all clothing companies do) but stay true to the core message of your brand.
How do you gain a loyal following?
To be perfectly honest, I don't know. We started online and we are still an online centric company. Back then, during the pre-social media days, it was about getting physical retailers to carry your merch, it was fairly new to sell directly from your own website. We always focused on our own web presence because it creates a stronger and more loyal following. We became known as a bay area centric brand with our sports graphics and local references. Additionally, you need consistency in quality with your product, and continue to keep things fresh. It’s not easy.
What are the biggest changes pre-social media and the current social media landscape.
Social media is a double edged sword because it makes everyone and everything more accessible. But at the same time, it’s easier for competitors to do the same thing. Sure it’s easy to put a brand out there and anyone can start a brand in a week’s time in 2018, but you are competing against 800 other people doing the same thing. Is that good or bad, who knows, its all about being unique and standing out and utilizing social media properly. A good tool if you know how to use it.
What are your thoughts on having an online only store or having a physical retail store?
Online is the future. We have 2 physical retail locations in the bay area, but we primarily do this because we are a bay area themed brand and we have so many local customers. Unless you are fairly large company and/or have money to burn, there is really no reason to have retail stores as an independent brand.
What are some fun facts no one knows about Adapt?
We collaborated multiple times with Colin Kaepernick when he first joined the 49ers. We did probably 8 different graphic tees with him (Colin’s a very nice guy.) We’ve also put up multiple billboards throughout Oakland and SF. A lot of brands don’t really do this but it’s a unique way to get our message across. We also once had a 49er player get fined for wearing Gold Blooded socks on the field, which I thought it was a pretty cool nod to the brand.
What are your thoughts on being an Asian American in this business?
Going back to the Alphanumeric brand -- they were very inspirational for me. One of the tenets of that brand was that it was both run by and sponsored a lot of minorities within action sports such as snowboarding, skatiing, and djing. They kind of exposed me to minorities in these fields and it helped pave the way for me. In general I think within streetwear there is a healthy amount of minorities which is a good thing.
What does the role of technology play in your business?
Tech is absolutely crucial to the business. As I mentioned we are mainly an online based company. We grew our base selling through the internet. Without the vehicle of the internet, we wouldn’t exist. Social media throughout the years only amplified that reach. Also from a design standpoint, Photoshop and Illustrator are all computer programs and I rarely hand draw anything anymore. I also got my start in the tech world, through CNET and Apple, so I am very conscious of the way technology plays into our lives.
Thanks so much for letting me interview you Evan! How can people learn more about you?
They can follow my IG / Twitter pages:
or visit www.adaptclothing.com