Early last month, my brother and I were strolling down State Street in Madison, Wisconsin in search of ice cream. One block from our proposed destination, he gestured at a new-looking retail space with concrete-to-ceiling windows and golden oak paneling. The subtle marbled signage, floating just above the vestibule, spelled out "August." It didn't quite look like a storefront that would exist in Madison, Wisconsin in that, among the block's grungy record stores and Fair Trade coffee houses, August may have blended in better someplace like Elizabeth Street in New York or Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles.
Obviously, we ditched our waffle cone-adjacent plans walked in immediately.
Inside, it was bright and airy, sparsely but thoughtfully designed and decorated with an expansive shoe wall, several clothing racks and plenty of plants. "Good for Instagram," we said to each other, almost in unison, of the latter. I scheduled a phone interview with the founder basically on the spot.
As we soon learned, August is a streetwear, sportswear and sneaker shop that opened earlier this year with one mission in mind: to outfit, and give back to, the community it serves. It was started by a man named Rob Bowhan who, after several years living in Europe and tenures working at Puma and Under Armour, moved home to Madison to strike out on his own. It's the kind of story we tell a lot on Fashionista, but very rarely does said story take place in the heartland of the Midwest. Bowhan is looking to change that.
Bowhan both grew up in Madison and received his undergraduate degree (in sociology) there, at University of Wisconsin-Madison. During this time, his interests in both clothing and shopping were there, but laid dormant; he recalls after-school shopping trips with his mom that turned painful because he was so picky about his clothes. "It was always something I enjoyed in terms of getting my outfits right and looking to stand out," he says. "But it was never was something I took on as a hobby."
That came later, while in graduate school for business management in Geneva, Switzerland, when he was introduced to a string of shirting factories in Egypt through a classmate and friend. Bowhan later became that company's American agent, initially spending three months in Egypt learning the ins and outs of manufacturing before moving to New York. From there, he landed in Detroit as a men's buyer for a mid-sized urban streetwear and sneaker chain called Mr. Alan's. In early 2015, he joined Puma as its Midwestern field representative, and in 2016, began working with Under Armour's now-shuttered Tim Coppens-fronted lifestyle initiative UAS.
As Bowhan's time in the Midwest continued, so too did the voice in the back of his head telling him to take the leap. "I had this idea for a boutique in Madison for several years, but I'd been living between New York and Detroit and it just wasn't something that was realistic for me," he says. "But I got closer to the Midwest and still, no one had opened up a shop here. I'm like, 'I've got to do this. Somebody is going to. It's wide open.'"
August, which is named after the month his son was born, came to fruition most directly as a result of Bowhan's experience in sales. He describes the extensive road trips he would take for his previous employers to visit accounts from New York all the way down to Miami and hitting every state in between. He'd stop in major cities like Chicago, Atlanta, Miami and Philadelphia, but also in smaller, secondary ones like Columbus, Lexington, Milwaukee and, of course, Madison. Those may not be established retail capitals, per se, but they have something almost better: potential, and plenty of disposable income. Take Columbus, which has both the 66,000-student Ohio State University as well as the headquarters for retail groups like Abercrombie & Fitch, DSW and The Limited.
"You have other industries serving those communities where you can have young adults who are able to spend money — $150 bucks on sneakers, $200 bucks on a hoodie — and not flinch, as opposed to your college kid who is a little bit more price-sensitive," he says. "The point I'm driving is that the big cities are spoken for, so where else do you go?"
In terms of Wisconsin, Madison is secondary to Milwaukee: As of 2016, Madison's population clocked in at 252,000, versus Milwaukee's 595,000. But still, Madison, sandwiched between Lake Monona and Lake Mendota, is very much its own city. With the University of Wisconsin using the city as its campus, it's getting pull from both New York and California, as well as international students from across Europe and Asia. Epic Systems, a privately held healthcare software company in neighboring Verona, employs more than 9,000 people.
"You can now be a kid out of college making 70, 80 racks working for them and living in Madison," says Bowhan, of Epic. "With all those things in place, you've got luxury buildings popping up. You've got cool restaurants, DJ nights with more cool, influential urban music, but no retail."
Bowhan created August to cater to that demographic, but what the business and physical space stands for is representative of something bigger. Anyone familiar with the University of Wisconsin System (or the 11 state-named public universities in Wisconsin) is familiar with the "Wisconsin Idea," a philosophy that holds that university research should be applied to solve problems and improve health, quality of life, the environment and agriculture for all citizens of the state. It's a very community-driven, I-am-my-brother's-keeper-type of mentality, and in Madison — as well as at August — it really shows.
Beyond selling clothes and shoes, August often opens its doors for artists to use as a space for anything from spoken-word poetry to hip-hop and R&B. "I wouldn't want to just open up a shop where I'm never there and I don't connect with my community, or do things that make people feel special when they come in to shop with me," says Bowhan. "It's not enough to just open your doors at 11 and close at 7 and try to sell some sneakers and shirts." Just last week, August celebrated the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium by hosting local DJ BruceblQ to spin jazz vinyl tunes for a couple of hours in-house.
The physical space is conducive to that, as well. Bowhan says finding the actual real estate was the most difficult part of getting August off the ground in its earliest days. Its interior was designed with both Scandinavian and Japanese influences in mind and now comes complete with a sitting area and several coffee table books (including "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver"'s "A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo") to peruse. Bowhan calls out the mid-century cabinet at the back of the store, as well as the vintage Turkish rug he sourced from Turkey. Each and every fixture in the shop was custom-done.
This personalization really speaks to August's attention to detail, which is, naturally, how Bowhan has approached stocking the store. You'll find those tried-and-true big brands like Stussy for those searching for a little bit of name recognition, but the shop's offerings also include underground, lesser-known labels, too, including Onyx Collective out of New York and both Union and Online Ceramics out of Los Angeles.
"A lot of the brands I carry are very limited," says Bowhan. "You can't get it at lot of retail destinations here in the States, let alone Wisconsin. So it's walking that fine line between big brands like a Stussy and then your little niche brands that you're going to have to educate and talk to your customers about. But that's what we're here for."
August has its own merch line, too, which has become an enormous marketing vehicle for the store. Bowhan admits that he didn't "reinvent the wheel" here, intentionally keeping product supply down to drive up exclusivity. After placing an order he thought would be much too big to sell through, he saw the quantity sell out almost entirely in just two weeks. "People are hip to it now," he says. "They know when they see it on our Instagram that they have to come in."
When it comes to expansion, Bowhan notes that they're very much focused on getting the Madison location off the ground for the time being. Later, though? "I would love to be able to open up one-to-two more August boutiques," he answers. And not necessarily just in Wisconsin: There are other cities in the Midwest he's got his eye on. Because — as I love to bring up myself — the Midwest should be taken seriously.
"Ultimately, the world is flat now due to the internet, so there are these Midwest kids that have a flavor — they've got something to say," says Bowhan. "Sure, New York and LA and Paris and Berlin and Tokyo are always going to be in front of things, but there's a different sense of individuality that comes from some of these cities in the Midwest which haven't had access to bigger cities and bigger fashion." These kids will often resort to what they have available at their vintage stores or what they have access to online, rather than regurgitate what's happening on their streets or, lately, on Instagram.
This deference to individuality is a tenet of the Wisconsin Idea, too. Bowhan knows everyone — from the high-schooler six miles away to his retail neighbors on State Street — will have different interpretations of August, and that's okay. Really, that's the whole point.
"'August,' for me, specifically, invokes a certain type of feeling. It means change. It's still nice out. Maybe you're going back to school," he says. "I think it invokes a certain sense of warmth and childhood, and I felt like a lot of people would gravitate toward it in the same way I did or, maybe, in their own way."
Homepage photo: Courtesy of August