FEATURES : STYLE / FASHION

M.Nii John Moore

Style / Fashion

The photo is one of the few relics that remain of M.Nii’s history. An image that recalls the golden age of American surf culture. Three friends in front of a wooden shack, one of whom is caught clearing his nasal passage while a friend next to him arches his back as if he were riding a wave off the beach of O’ahu. The photo was taken in 1959, just outside M.Nii Tailor where an obscure but revered label began.

M.Nii was short for its original proprietor Minoru Nii. The shop was located in Makaha on the island of O’ahu and a destination for many surfers. Originally a tailor that opened in 1948, it produced summer suits, aloha shirts, and uniforms for a regional marching band. It also catered to local and diehard surfers coming through to ride the big waves off the coast. M.Nii began by repairing broken down surf trunks – an unusual idea in today’s hyper consumer market but a relevant business during postwar. This eventually lead the shop to make its own trunks dubbed the “Makaha Drowner.”

Surf legends like Greg Noll were one of its early customers as well as the renown “Windansea Surf Club” from San Diego. M.Nii became a badge of honor for locals and many passing through to surf the legendary waves.

Through the majority of the ‘50s and ‘60s M.Nii operated as a tailor and a manufacturer until it shuttered in 1968. For over forty years the brand laid dormant falling into obscurity, destined to be forgotten until a man with a creative vision and a love for the surf resurrected M.Nii from the ocean’s dead waters. Along with partner Randy Hild, John Moore picked up M.Nii’s blurry history and brought it back to life for a new generation to appreciate. Much like Minoru Nii helped bring back an old beaten up pair of board shorts, Moore restored a great brand with a rich history.

Even though M.Nii was more than a surf brand, it was rooted in the culture, and John Moore sought to expand it beyond the salt waters by growing the line season by season. Now in its second year we talk with Moore about where M.Nii has been and where it’s heading and many of his creative endeavors outside the brand.

The Scout: When did you first come across M.Nii and what attracted you to it? What made you want to bring the label back to life?

John Moore: There’s two parts to the story… and the first part includes an accidental heist from the Surfing Heritage Museum in Laguna, and the other spark was an original pair of M.Nii “Makaha Drowners” our partner found at a flea market. But what first caught my eye was the artwork on the interior label. It spoke to me! When I fell in love with the label, we didn’t have any idea what the real story was about. Everything was discovered once we started digging in.

The Scout: From the outset, your vision for M.Nii was more than a surf brand, you wanted to broaden its reach. Can you talk more about this?

John Moore: Well, M.Nii was more than a tailor shop; it was a culturally significant gathering place on the west side of Oahu. The legendary trunks of the surf pioneers were built there, but the luminaries that visited the island during this time would also pass through. We have M.Nii invoices for JFK, John Wayne, Gary Cooper & Frank Sinatra to name a few. This intersection of genuine beach boys and the Presidents and Hollywood Heroes that would call them friends is where we find our inspiration.

I’m not sure what surf brands are anymore? I grew up with them, but I don’t relate to them anymore. And M.Nii existed long before any of the surf brands were built. In fact, before M.Nii tailored some of the first trunks ever made, the watermen of the time were surfing in cut-off military chinos. So the original M.Nii “Makaha Drowners” were built out of necessity, but the timeless style that was born on these same beaches captures that intangible cool in surfing culture. We’re doing our best to recapture this spirit.

The Scout: Is the entire line made in Los Angeles? How important was it to work with local manufacturers?

John Moore: This is a huge pillar of the brand. From my perspective, the US flag sewn into each garment is synonymous with the branding. On rare occasions we import textiles or yarns, but absolutely 100% of the manufacturing is done in the USA. Even our trims are built here, and we are starting to develop accessories that will all be sourced and manufactured here. M.Nii was a homegrown family operation in Waianae, so we are applying the same practice here in Los Angeles. It’s not easy to manufacture in America today. There are not a lot of systems in place, so we’ve invested in an amazing infrastructure that hand-carries every bolt of fabric and supervises every stitch. This attention to detail comes at a premium, but we would like to think you could see and feel the quality when you pick up an M.Nii item.

The Scout: I’d like to talk about that. There’s a lot of attention paid to the fit and fabric. These important details may be lost on a customer whether in the shop or browsing online. How do you address this?

John Moore: That’s so true. There is so much that goes into everything we make, but ultimately the consumer has many choices. We’re blessed to work with some of the best retailers in the business that still put a focus on building a great brick and mortar experience. And we work with them to build “Aloha Walls” which incorporate M.Nii ephemera and collected objects that capture the spirit of the brand so our true story really shines.

Online we spend a lot of time working with our network of historians, writers and collectors capturing the stories that ignited the brand and channeling these stories through our Tumblr and Instagram feed. And in terms of the fit and fabric, we are launching a series of short films beginning with “The Making of the Senator Trunk” that will be released shortly. We’ve also just launched a series of “M.Nii Shared Stories” which document a day in the life of our friends wearing M.Nii in their own way. Chris Gentile and Chris Mosier just created installment 1 for this series and I’m really excited how this captures the way we live our lives today, and how our fit, fabrics and aesthetic work anywhere.

The Scout: The line has grown from previous season, what was your goal for fall / winter 2013?

John Moore: We’ve only been doing this for a short time, so this fall and winter’s collection is the first time we have brought some warmer layers into the mix like our “Moana Sweaters” incorporating a beautiful merino / alpaca wool blend and a rich offering of corduroy jackets and pants including our signature “Drowner Pant.” I’m really excited about next Fall / Winter 2014 as we’re building a proper outerwear offering, expanding our sweater and flannel mix, introducing some wool winter tees and offering some wool trousers. The surfing lifestyle is a year round pursuit and we’ll be offering a robust collection to accommodate the winter months.

The Scout: M.Nii had a successful first year with great outlets on both sides of the coast as well as Japan and Europe. As you head into the second year, how has the growth been and what direction do you see it going in?

John Moore: Slow and steady wins the race, so we’re just going to keep building smart with the amazing retailers that have support the brand. Japan has been very good to us and we’ll be investing our time over there to grow with some of the best retailers in the world like Beams, Ron Herman and Journal Standard. In America, Pilgrim Surf + Supply, Tradesmen, Mohawk, Barneys, Ron Herman & Steven Alan are our anchors, but we will be growing into some of the other major department stores slowly. In the US, there is such a shift to online retail, so we want to do everything possible to partner up with our brick & mortar stores to ensure the sales associates are educated and our story is told right to ensure great sell-through and success. Ultimately, we see a lot of opportunity to grow in Europe and Australia. Currently in Europe we sell to Anthem, Garbstore, Oi Polloi, Harvest, Firmament, Golden Goose and Norse Store, but there are so many other great retailers to build into. And Australia is wide open; we’re not there yet!

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The Scout: Aside from M.Nii, you also run Pencil on Paper studio, working with other brands. There are times when a brand and a design studio overlap in the work, but for the most part they are two different businesses. Can you tell us more about Pencil on Paper and how it operates separately from M.Nii?

John Moore: With The POP Studio, I have an amazing staff that drives the success of the projects we work on. We hire incredible talent and get out of their way. The studio was created to bring together great minds and allow us to launch, collaborate and fix problems with creative solutions. So M.Nii came three years after we launched the POP Studio, and it all blends into one. I come into work with many ideas and pass them off to the respective team members and trust them to execute. With M.Nii, Faye Fredricks runs the brand and Michael Abbey is the designer, and they are both amazing! I might spend a half-hour on M.Nii working with them, and then switch gears to something totally different and then come back to M.Nii in the afternoon. We never stop…

The Scout: We should mention that M.Nii isn’t the only line that is part of POP studio, Coast-Wide is the other. On top of that you’re a partner at General Store and a father of two. For most people, one of these would be more than enough but you manage to do it all. What drives you to work across different disciplines and how are you able to manage it all?

John Moore: Some days are easier than others, but it all blends into one. Hannah (my longtime girlfriend) runs General Store in Venice, and she is a huge source of inspiration on so many levels!!! And I was a huge fan of what Serena (Mitnik-Miller) and Mason (St. Peter) did in SF, and I’m in love with the Venice location which we demoed and built with our own hands, so you could say I am their biggest fan! And my children just keep me young. I’m constantly looking at the world through their eyes, and every day leads us to new adventures, challenges and achievements.

The Scout: Is there an area that you haven’t tackled that you want to pursue?

John Moore: Oh man, there are so many things I constantly think about. First and foremost, I want to open up a restaurant / piano bar at some point soon. Other ideas include bringing our POPgallery efforts to a larger audience, producing an album of covers with Little Wings (but he never responds to my pleas), obsessing about the lack of concept shops in American retail, and I have more than one idea about compelling programming for new media.