There is a segment in the just-released documentary The World According to Amazon in which Jeff Bezos’ e-commerce juggernaut is compared to the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand’s hippie utopian mail-order relic. The difference between the two, according to the film, is that while both wanted to sell you everything, the latter wanted to have a conversation with you first—to explain why you really needed a product rather than simply facilitating its purchase.
Caleb Flowers, the entrepreneur behind the Salt Lake City-based concept retailer Hathenbruck, is more of a Brand than a Bezos.
I first encountered Hathenbruck—where else?—on Instagram, where it stood out both for its consistency and inscrutability. It wasn’t exactly clear to me what Hathenbruck was. It sold its own hoodies and sweats, always in black and emblazoned with the same design. But it also released skate videos and mixtapes. It flagrantly bootlegged Nikes, hand-detailing VaporMaxes in a messy style reminiscent of Tom Sachs’ ceramics and calling them “Dripmaxes," all at a time most of its peers were instead clamoring for the brand’s marketing dollars. But while Hathenbruck’s website listed an address, Flowers rarely shared imagery of the shop. I had to dig to confirm that it was a real, brick-and-mortar operation that stocked brands ranging from All-Timers to Rick Owens while making none of these available for purchase online—a seemingly insane proposition in an era where e-commerce was the very development that made it possible to run a high-end boutique outside a cultural capital.
Speaking with the 31-year-old Flowers, it becomes clear that this sort of playful, zig-when-they-zag iconoclasm is the fuel powering his whole operation. He pings from idea to idea in a charismatic whirl, talking about “iteration loops” while reminiscing about the time he gripped a kid’s skate deck immediately after selling someone a $2,500 Dries coat. Basically: imagine the ghost of Buckminster Fuller tried to reopen Colette. And the weirdness is why it works—by Flowers’ metrics, at least, which are predictably unorthodox. He is interested mainly in commerce’s connective potential, using product to bring like-minded people together and spark dialogue, and he’s restless in his pursuit of new ideas. These impulses have led to Hathenbruck’s strangest turn to date: closing its storefront altogether. On February 15, Flowers will debut the next phase of Hathenbruck, which will orbit a traveling vending machine.
This experiment in portable retailing makes sense as an expression of the types of work Flowers has been focused on lately, such as his BIGDATA project. The premise is that Flowers and his friends package several gigabytes of imagery, video, music, and other digital ephemera into a zip file, and sell it via Hathenbruck’s site. The third and most recent edition costs $12. Released last autumn, it includes a massive trove of JPEGs of tech-y outerwear, music made by Flowers and friends, videos of Flowers explaining some of his zanier business ideas, like a (different) vending machine for public parks that sells thin, flat pucks you can use as skipping stones that turn into duck food upon settling in a pond. The package has practical applications, too, including source files you can use to 3D-print objects. It is a concept founded on belief in the value of digital curation—the contents of the zip file have no material value, but the labor that goes into assembling them is real. BIGDATA reminds me of the pre-social media internet of my youth, which felt wilder and woolier, while also pointing towards a model (think: Patreon-supported podcasters) where curators are compensated directly for their labor without needing the patronage of big brands.
While the ideas Flowers is developing might not be to your tastes, it's hard to deny that he’s doing something genuinely unique. And in a retail landscape dulled by the limitations of e-commerce, that’s worth examining. I called Flowers to talk about Hathenbruck’s next phase—and why, exactly, he's pivoting to vending machines.
GQ: Tell me why you closed the shop.
Caleb Flowers: I had stopped doing the multi-brand thing, but I was actually selling more stuff. So, what’s next? More stuff, more designs, just be this brand with a little flagship. But where’s the ceiling? If you’re doing 10 million dollars a year, do you do some collab and put a flagship in New York next to all the other brands? That just wasn't interesting to me, so I thought it would be the perfect time to get out of my lease and push the next thing. Instead of trying to protect this idea, let's set it free, and see what’s the next idea.
So, what’s the next idea?
I've been obsessed with this idea of vending machines for the last four or five years. Most of my client base online is in Mississippi, Alabama, Idaho, Arizona. They don't have the necessary downtown to support a shop, so, how do I do something to meet these people and expand into these areas? We're going to try the first one right where my shop was. The store's not there, but it is—it’s just a smaller version.
You'll pilot the program in Salt Lake City, and then scale it to other cities?
Yeah—or just random places. I'm going to show up at the first one and do a little activation, so I can still have those conversations and be down there talking to kids. If the purveyor of the vending machine's there talking about the products and why they designed them, it becomes this keynote for what they just released. It's super accessible, especially if you're somebody who's passionate about one specific product versus a whole store full of different things. We’ve definitely seen a trend in the last couple years of people our age downsizing, so it only makes sense that it trickles into retail. And it's open 24 hours—I’ll have it rigged up to solar, with this little camera that turns it into this social media campaign of people coming up and buying stuff.
I’d love to know more about how you got to this point. I’m still foggy on the details of how you built this weirdo shop in Utah.
We started in 2012. Getting into retail's daunting, especially if you're not in New York or LA. Bringing in brands that articulate your message is the most challenging part—[and] I wasn't really sure what that message was in the first couple years. You're not sure whether to play to yourself or play to your audience. I was definitely playing to my audience at first, because I needed that capital to put back into the store. But as I got more profitable, I went a little bit wilder and played with things that I was more interested in.
Could you give me an example of what that looked like in the early going?
Early on I would try to match some of these brands I had, like Red Wing or Visvim, with things that worked well in Utah. So, we brought in this stainless steel snow shovel that retailed for $500. I sold maybe one or two. Some of those risks have been a little bit irresponsible, but ultimately paid off. The right people end up supporting it and push the conversation forward. That’s super exciting, versus the run-of-the-mill stuff.
So, that’s the first couple years of the business. What happened next?
In 2016 I moved into more of an art-driven space that was really small. That was the first time I had enough capital to build out a space, do the drywall and do the outlets, really design it. By that time, I was lucky enough to be having conversations with high-end designers that I was really, really into. I talked them into working with this small store in Utah that did window vinyl that made us look more like a prepaid phone store or a pawn shop—of course, now everything looks like that. I started getting weirder, taking more risks, buying fewer SKUs but going deeper in the cool pieces.
Who were some of the partners that really got it?
Rick Owens got it. Stone Island grasped it pretty strongly.
When you say the space was art-driven, do you mean in the sense that it had a gallery feeling, design-wise?
It felt more like rotating concepts. I didn't buy traditionally. I felt like my opportunity as a small retailer was to really curate versus buying a whole representation of a designer’s season. I'd curate maybe five SKUs from a designer. They’d say, "Well, you have to hit a minimum." So, I’d only have three coats, but I would have 125 of the same coat. I didn't feel like more choices actually made things more exciting. There's so much available out there, so if I was giving any value, it would be by having something that I felt very passionate about and having a lot of it. My only advantage was to go super, super deep in that one thing and put all my chips on one number. So, that's why it felt like an art show each season.
Did it pay off the way you were hoping it would?
I think so. Financially, it turned out good. And it organically made me pivot towards doing my own stuff. What ended up happening is sometimes I'd have so much of one item, the only way I could sell it is I would end up printing my brand name on it. I was printing on Dries and Acne.
It makes sense—you’ve already purchased the Dries suit, so it’s a sunk cost. You might as well do your own thing with it.
“Extended production” is what I was calling it. What I realized is that a lot of brands were using the same production resources. My idea was, why stop there? Maybe that's just the beginning stage of this product, and the next stage is when it gets to the retailer. I don't know if it translated, but I still love that idea. That's what led me to the Nike stuff.
What was the genesis of the BIGDATA project?
I'm extremely lucky that I got to hang out in the shop and talk to people 24/7, from kids that weren't even in high school yet to millionaires that had sold their companies. I started to realize that my inspirations were a lot different than what these people were looking at. I wished I could go into their Bookmarks tab and see what they were into, because my Instagram algorithm was just giving me more stuff I already knew I was into.
How do you know what you're missing, if you don't know you’re missing it?
Exactly. The internet seemed like it was getting smaller. I used to go into wormholes on forums and find new, weird stuff, but now it's a lot of the same. So I figured I’d make that thing, compile all these ideas. I would just bookmark stuff and stow it away. I started almost coveting it—like, this is so good that I‘m saving it for something. But what was I saving it for? I figured I should be giving it up, but not somewhere it was going to disappear later.
The second BIGDATA we did, we actually spent all this time building a website so people could go through and save what they wanted versus having to download the whole thing. It felt very similar to what I was trying to get away from with Instagram—the eternal scrolling. So, I scrapped the website and we did another download.
I like the idea that it’s this thing you have to commit to. You have to be responsible for downloading it and deleting the stuff you don't want. Because of that, I think people are interacting with it more. The kids that would get in their car and drive two hours to the shop ended up buying more stuff. We'd have more conversations. I think if you look harder to find value, it actually means more.
Hathenbruck is proof of that concept. I became fascinated by it because I couldn't figure out what it was at first.
I do that on purpose. It’s like a movie not having an ending. Not finding resolution to an idea makes it more interesting. The goal with BIGDATA is to continue that conversation about the ideas in there. It doesn't even matter if the idea's good or bad.
Originally Appeared on GQ