A steep flight of metal stairs scales up the back of an unremarkable building next to Redux Contemporary Art Center on St. Phillip Street. It leads to a hipster's paradise. Inside the surreptitious studio loft are graffiti-covered walls lined with shelving piled high with Sucker Jeans, most of which are already sold and awaiting shipment. A vintage apple green velvet couch is flanked by coordinating chairs, American art history books are scattered across the coffee table, and in the far corner is an imposing makeshift dressing room constructed with PVC pipes and repurposed outdoor company display banners. Part parlor, part design studio, the space is an inviting mélange of old and new South.
And at his desk in a small office off the main room works Cary Weber, the co-founder of Sucker, a young and ambitious Charleston-based apparel brand best known for its innovative seersucker jeans.
Weber is boyishly tall and thin with a short, youthful haircut. He wears retro-style Ray-Ban reading glasses, a perfectly distressed cotton Sucker logo tee, and trendy straight-leg black Sucker jeans. He is soft spoken, and when he talks about Sucker, each word is carefully considered. His playful style and thoughtful manner pegs him as part skater boy and part academic.
Growing up a fourth generation Southern Californian in Orange County, Weber took a tacit pride in the area's indigenous style, which he describes as more innate than fashion. When childhood friends translated the regional lifestyle into apparel brands — including Allan Burdine, who helped launch Mossimo and later cofounded Modern Amusement, and Thom McElroy, who co-founded Volcom — it seemed like a natural move for Weber as well. Both men now sit on Sucker's advisory board and play an active role in the branding and development of the label.
After earning his Ph.D in clinical psychology, Weber "picked a place on the map" and moved across the country to work at the College of Charleston, where he was a staff psychologist and professor. Weber took to Charleston with the same enthusiasm he had for Southern California. He went on to teach the multicultural graduate program at the Citadel and maintain a private practice in his newly adopted hometown.
In the summer of 2007, Weber began to wonder why there weren't any contemporary seersucker styles on the market. "The South is 100 million people, yet there are no brands saying, 'We're inspired by the South.' That was the starting point for Sucker.
"It's Americana," he states. "There are two American fabrics: denim and seersucker, and the seersucker story is better to me in that it was really the first punk fabric." Originally invented as an inexpensive silk substitute, seersucker was associated with the lower class until the early 20th century, when Ivy League students began sporting seersucker garments in an act of reverse snobbery. The rebellious style became popular among the upper class, who eventually imbued the fabric with its country club connotations — referred to by Weber as seersucker's "conservative usurping."
"Why does the South keep looking to New York or L.A. for their fashion sensibility, when really the 'New South' has its own style?" Weber says. "[Our style] is not as pretentious as New York and not as relaxed as L.A. It's elegant yet casual, edgy without being ridiculous." Seeing the opportunity, Weber and his wife Tara co-founded Sucker.
The Sucker concept seemed simple: reinvent traditional seersucker with jean-weight fabrics, solid coloring, and modern silhouettes. Committed to keeping his jeans native to the South, Weber, untrained in fashion design, set out to find local fabric mills and seamstresses to realize his vision. They didn't exist.
He conferred with textile experts from North Carolina to California searching for a mill that could produce his fabric. At the Los Angeles International Textile Show, an international tradeshow of the world's best textile vendors, Weber went from booth to booth with a hand-dyed swatch, pleading with perplexed vendors. Traditional fabric makers couldn't comprehend his seersucker compositional makeover. "Seersucker is traditionally striped," they would tell him. "It's always lightweight." In the end, it would take 14 months of development to perfect Sucker's fabric.
For the fit, Weber drew inspiration from the universally flattering surf trunks ubiquitous on Southern California shores. He learned that the trunks had a wide, contoured waistband and a small yoke — the opposite ratio of standard jeans. Weber incorporated this discovery into his design and added, "a tilted rise, much higher in the back and lower in the front," which, along with the wider waistband, prevents the gapping that causes "plumber's crack," creating an incredibly attractive and supremely comfortable pair of jeans.
The flagship pair of Sucker jeans was released in September 2009, and in March of this year Sucker presented its first autonomous runway show at Charleston Fashion Week. Now, boasting a total of eight styles (four for women and four for men), Sucker is carried in more than 50 boutiques and is poised to double its retail presence by the end of the year.
Beyond Sucker's lifestyle brand ambitions, Weber aspires to bring the apparel business back to its roots with vertically-integrated Sucker production and a Charleston Garment District. "There is so much talent in here," he marvels, adding that in the future, "We see [fashion] buyers coming to Charleston as another stopping point: L.A., New York, Atlanta, and Charleston."