We first discovered Matthew Clough at one of the booths at Unique LA. Amongst the sea of creatives and craftsmen, something about the Stone + Cloth backpacks caught our attention. Could it have been the simple, strong design? The bold, blocks of color standing out in the crafty chaos? The two strapping young gents manning the booth? Or maybe we just had an inkling that there was more to their story than just some rad looking bags. One thing we knew for sure: we wanted to know more.
A+A: Tell us the story of how Stone + Cloth came to be?
M: When I was in college, I was really into being outdoors. I had this dream of climbing the seven summits, the highest peak on every continent. I had the opportunity to check one off the list and go climb Mount Kilimanjaro. After 4 days of climbing, we reached the top. In our descent, I learned that my porter, Benson - the person who was cooking my meals, waking me up with tea every morning and carrying my 40lb backpack- he and all the other porters were earning less than a dollar a day. I also learned that what they all wanted more than anything was to be able to put their kids through school.
It wasn’t till I got home that it hit me: my whole life I’d had access to luxuries like clean water and food on the table. I was the kid who was complaining to my parents because I had to share a car with my older brother! That trip was a real turning point for me. I realized how lucky I was. I knew then that I wanted to help other people.
At the time, I was living in Arizona. I had gone to school for design and really wanted to hone those skills, so I started by finding an old sewing machine on Craigslist. I even drove out to this trailer park in the middle of nowhere to pick it up. After that I just started making bags. The original bags were called The Benson and The Lucas (named after the porters from Mount Kilimanjaro) and the original logo is the outline of the summit of Kilimanjaro.
So it was just me, out in Arizona, making bags with zero resources and a wild imagination! At the time, I was working a full time job selling advertisements for Yelp, but I was so much more passionate about helping people in Tanzania and designing cool products. So, I reached out to TOMS. They loved my story and had me come out to California to intern for them. After my internship, I wasn’t quite ready to leave so I convinced them to let me stay and I moved from the e-commerce department to the creative department. I gained so much valuable insight on how to build a sustainable business with giving at it’s core. They really helped me restructure my business model and continually help guide me.
Now, here we are, hustling to make as much progress as possible! We officially launched the project in January 2012 and, in the first year, we had a goal of selling 2,000 units. We weren’t sure if we were going to make it, and then literally in the middle of November TOMS called and said they wanted to buy our backpacks as gifts for their employees, which brought us over our first year goal. That is just an example of how supportive TOMS is to their own.
A+A: So what is the charity benefit of buying a Stone + Cloth bag?
M: We partner with the Knock Foundation, who are mainly focused on health and education. In terms of the way we give, I always want it to be led by the community. We want to give help where people want to receive help. When it comes to community development, I think you should always listen first and then ask questions and figure out what they need help with. If a community doesn’t want help, you should turn around and walk away. I learned that one of the biggest needs in Tanzania is education (they don’t really need backpacks) but the backpack is a symbol of education. Your purchase is the equivalent of putting a child through school for a month. What we are doing is chunking all of the donations together, identifying the potential future leaders in the community and helping them get scholarships year after year so they are able to graduate from high school.
A+A: You often hear that by the time charitable donations reach the intended party, a large portion of the funds have disappeared along the way. How do you ensure this doesn’t happen to you?
M: That is why I didn’t partner with a huge foundation. I was connected with the Knock Foundation through a coworker at TOMS. A girl from California, who I talk to on the phone daily, started the foundation. It’s a very small operation and because of that, we know exactly where our money is going.
A+A: Where do you do all of your production?
M: It’s all done in Southern California. Originally, we were producing out of Orange County, but we just found two new cut and sew shops that are about a mile from here. I can actually bike there! The other is in the City of Commerce.
A+A: How do you choose and source your materials?
M: Originally I wanted to make them all out of canvas, but when I started making prototypes out of denim, the response was so good that we just kept making them that way. It’s such a subtle, sophisticated difference, and we are sourcing from local vendors. Because we are so small, we can’t got to the mills quite yet so we’re using a middleman to source the materials from all over LA.
A+A: Can you describe Stone + Cloth in 3 words?
M: Carry An Education.
A+A: Are Stone + Cloth products only sold online or can you buy them around LA?
A+A: You started in Arizona, why did you decide to move to LA and build your business here?
M: If you are ambitious about doing something creative, I think Los Angeles gives you so many opportunities to succeed. Its a city full of the top talent, resources and creative professionals who have defied the odds. I love downtown (where we work out of) in terms of creating actual products. I also think Silicon Beach (Santa Monica) is great. There are some truly amazing companies, like Amplify, that are investing in these little tech startups, giving them mentors and seed money, hosting workshops and providing co-working spaces (HUB LA) which I think is really great. There endless resources here, as well as ample demand.
A+A: What is your favorite place to grab a drink?
M: If I need to get away from work I’ll go to Escondida (Spanish for “The Hideout”), which is around the corner. Their menu is illegible, but it’ s amazing. Pizzanista! is my favorite spot for pizza and next to it is this little bar called Tony’s Saloon. It’s this is really grungy dive bar, a great place to get drunk and play darts. Outside of downtown, The Roger Room in West Hollywood.
A+A: What is the number one quality you look for in a best friend?
A+A: If you could live in any era, when would it be and where?
M: I would live in the future. I am constantly forward thinking and I feel like if I knew just a little more about it, I would sleep better at night!
A+A: If you could have any super power what would it be?
M: To not have to sleep.
A+A: Do you have any words of advice for aspiring designers and charitable organizations?
M: I will say a few things. Embrace your community. I think a lot of people who are trying to start businesses are scared that someone will steal their idea, but everyone is too damn busy to steal your idea so embrace the people around you and network as much as you can. The other thing that I think is really important is defaulting to action. Start wherever you can with whatever resources you have and don’t lose sight of your vision.
A+A: What are your hopes for the future growth of the company?
M: I am hoping for steady growth year after year. My long-term vision is to keep the company small (in terms of employees) because I think the energy and ambition is really inspiring at that intimate level. We want to give value to the consumer by designing the best possible products and, in turn, help send kids to school in Tanzania.