Context Clothing: Madison, Wisconsin

Recently, I spent a day tracking down a shirt — an entire day spent searching for a single, simple article of clothing. Granted, it was the type of shirt I was looking for that proved challenging, I noticed something in the hunt. These days, the average salesperson is not prepared to be challenged. If it isn’t in stock, well, “I’m sorry, sir.” That’s it. No phone call to corporate. No suggestion of another outfitter that might better handle my issue. The image of a loose tooth lassoed to a sturdy doorknob comes to mind. There’s no desire to serve. Correct me if I’m wrong, but salespeople count themselves among those in the service industry. It’s in the title, folks. From the highest of the high end men’s clothier to the lowest copycat of the copycat of the copycat, I marveled at the lack of attention.

Ryan Huber, Ghetto Blaster. The Large Traveler from Kenton Sorenson.

Imagine a men’s shop where you can feel comfortable not having the answer, where the journey to discovering that favorite shirt is as interesting as the destination. Imagine having a knowledgeable sherpa along for the trek, a Norgay to your Hillary. Imagine going in with the words, “selvedge denim” written on a Post-It note in the flowery script of a girlfriend or a wife, and walking out with the best-fitting pair of jeans you’ve ever owned (I’m aware the image may be lost on regular readers as you count yourselves among the more well-educated garmentos, but I know the question, “What’s selvedge?” lingers among my nearest and dearest friends). Context is one such shop.

Lion c/o  of J Taylor’s Antiques.

Described as a liberal oasis, Madison, Wisconsin plays home to a store that acts as its own kind of oasis, that of the laudable customer service kind. In an age where the stodgy men’s specialty stores struggle to compete with the discounts offered by the big boxes, where e-commerce is the name of the game, the personal touch is the first thing to go. Not so in Badger Country. When it comes to caring for their customers, Context Clothing, established in 2005 by former bartenders Ryan Huber and Sam Parker, along with Sam’s brother Ben, counts itself among few I deem excellent. With a keen eye for quality, a panache for the pitch, and a passion for design, Ben, Ryan and Sam provide a unique, well-curated glance at the great shift that’s happening in menswear right now, and they do it with a down-the-middle, matter-of-fact attitude befitting three dudes from Wisconsin. Whether you pay them a visit in person or speak with them over the phone* be careful. With their broad badger accents, they can coddle you into submission, and you could walk away with four pair of their KMW 1980 Hand Dye. Then again, there are worse things that could happen.

1950s Everlasts. Belonged to Ryan’s Grandfather, Melzer Rhey, a Gold Glove Boxing Coach. Knits by Alexander Yamaguchi.

Counting the state capitol among the many historic and strikingly beautiful buildings in its vantage, Context sits smack dab where a men’s hangout should. 113 King St.** once known as Snappy’s Place, Madison’s source for horse racing forms, tobacco products, and stag mags, still caters to man’s vices, albeit in the form of bench made boots, hand sewn moccasins, rare denim, and fine vintage and vintage-inspired workwear.

KMW Belt w. Handforged Buckle. Heavier than a 1/4 Pounder w. Cheese.

Featuring young brands like Apolis Activism and Kicking Mule Workshop, and newfangled products from heritage brands like Alden and Gitman Bros., Context’s ability to draft the heavy-hitters and even heavier exclusive collaborations is impressive, especially considering they’re not based in large market Los Angeles or New York.

My friend MP recalls Ryan’s, “If you’re into hand loomed crewneck sweatshirts, this is the garment for you!” KMW Crewneck.

Drafting Table loaded with Denim. Jean Shop.

As a Midwesterner myself, I see the same hard working, salt-of-the-earth values that I hold near and dear as these guys’ long-baller in the proverbial clean-up position. And speaking of heavy-hitters, don’t make the same mistake I did. You get Ryan started on his beloved Brewers, and he won’t stop. While my Cardinals are far superior, he can go toe-to-toe like a prizefighter. Buck v. Uecker. Fielder v. Pujols. The owners of Context are regular guys. They just happen to get really amped about Japanese looms and organic cotton and indigo.

The WWII A-2 Flight Jacket of Frank Parker, Sam’s Father.

Sam Parker shows their collection of vintage bows and Band of Outsiders ties.

Sam’s mother will repair your jeans. They’re gnarly. Like a chainsaw scar.

A Vintage Work Apron cut from a single swath of selvedge denim.

Context Clothing
113 King St.
Madison, WI 53703
*(608) 250-0113

For more photos of my visit to Context Clothing complete with commentary by Ryan, see Flickr.

If you haven’t already, read The Dirty Dozen, 12 Questions for Context’s Ryan Huber by Mr. James Wilson of Secret Forts.

* I cannot stress this enough. Call them. The phone call is a lost art, but it ain’t lost on these guys. Let them charm you with their warm Wisconsin accents, thick as cheese soup.

**NB: Because they’re undergoing a reconstruction of their storefront, Ryan asked that I disclude photos of the store’s façade. Not only do I have solid documentation of what remains of the Snappy’s Sign, but I have some great shots of the antique marquee of their neighbor, concert venue The Majestic, home to everyone from Harry Nilsson to Harry Houdini.


    August 13, 2009

    Great write up here.

    I have been a fan of context clothing the site for years now , always stocking the best pieces to buy. Through the years the brands/products are carrying are just getting better, and better!

  2. Memphis88
    August 13, 2009

    As I get closer to graduation, my plan of going to law school looks less and less appealing and a desire to open a good men’s store (of which there isn’t one here) is getting stronger. These guys are inspiring for sure.

  3. Andrew
    August 13, 2009

    Ordered from them by email yesterday and my package is already in the mail. Another reason I should probably go visit that old friend in Madison…

  4. Mike
    August 13, 2009

    I have now ordered from Context a few times. The best customer service around. These guys really care about the quality and the story of the items they sell. They are always happy and willing to help you with details on fit, material, etc.

  5. Jeremy
    August 13, 2009

    Context is great! I’ve had my eyes on that engineered garments denim jacket for a while. Still wondering if I should bite the bullet

  6. nick
    August 13, 2009

    Nice. All around, nice.

  7. M. Wastler
    August 13, 2009

    JK, consider giving them a call. Set aside a good hour, though. I learn more in an hour of talking to Ryan and Sam than I did in a semester at school.

    Memphis, go to school. Use that knowledge, and those three years to develop your business. And hire me. I’ll man your shop.

    Andrew, read the Dirty Dozen for a million more reasons to get to Madison.

    Jer, sit on it a while longer. I’m sayin’ Christmastime.

    Nick, thanks so much!

  8. R. Huber
    August 14, 2009

    Hey All,

    Thank you for the comments. It was a pleasure having you in the shop, Max. Next time you’ll have to stay for dinner. Sam and I are more into ribeye than denim…. its true.

  9. Conor
    August 14, 2009

    Great post Max. I love the pictures, especially the Jean Shops on the drafting table.

    Just ordered a black bandanna from The Hill-Side from these guys. You should get a commission, it was your post that put me over the edge.


  10. Brad
    August 14, 2009

    I ordered an fjallraven kanken from them and it got to me in Southern Illinois in 2 days! The box was nifty and I like that they include a note making sure everything is satisfactory. As an Illinois sports fan I am going to have to go to an away game vs. Madison and stop by the shop


  11. brennan
    August 20, 2009

    wow – beautiful stuff!

  12. Evan
    August 25, 2009

    That red jacket Ryan is sporting…is it offered in the store?

    Terrific post.

  13. Doug Connor
    August 25, 2009

    Great article, photos and good insights into what makes Context uniquely Madison. Not only are Ryan and Sam good friends, good people and great store owners, but they espouse what we’re all about in this part of the woods. You can’t teach swagger.

  14. Chad
    August 30, 2009

    Great post. I’ve ordered from the website several times and I’ve always called first with fit/material questions. Context is definitely wins the “phone order” customer service award. Does anyone know what wash or style the 1980 KMW’s originally were before being severely broken in? Were they the hand dye?

  15. Ryan
    September 2, 2009

    Those are my raw indigo KMW 1980s. I grabbed these the first season KMW started producing in Japan. They have now have about 1.5 years of wear and no wash. KMW sent them to Japan to have their wash house develope a wash based on the fades and grime. The wash concept never happened- couldn’t get the resin coated thighs (there is quite a lot of obenauf’s boot beezwax on them) and crazy honeycombs right. I posted pics of them in our fading indigo section:

  16. Ryan
    September 2, 2009

    Evan, the WWM Maine Guide Jacket in red ripstop sold out. I’ll be wearing mine this Saturday for the first UW Badger football game. It’s September, FOOTBALL IS HERE!

  17. Ryan
    September 2, 2009

    Hey Chad,

    Those are the Japanese Production raw indigo 1980. The dude who owns them wore them everyday for about a year. He is a barista and bikes to and from work. They received quite a beating.

  18. otis
    September 3, 2009

    So, of course, I need to know: What shirt were you looking for, and did you find it?

  19. M. Wastler
    September 7, 2009


    I was traipsing around Chicago and the outer ‘burbs looking for a 14.5×32 tuxedo shirt with a full collar. Impossible, I quickly realized. Still, it would have been nice to receive the kind of service Context offers. Had Context been a purveyor of formal wear, it would have been my first stop. The gentleman searching for the elusive tux shirt went with a cheap white dress shirt with French cuffs which he had modified to fit studs. The neck was still too big — 15″ — but he looked great.

  20. Brad Howe
    September 20, 2009

    Context Guys and everyone else,

    I live in the twin cities and drive to Madison every other year to stock up on great denim. Started with Nudies, and now have a pair of black KMW’s and Imperials (love them both). The store and guys couldn’t be any better! My wife goes with me on these trips and has called the boys and had things shipped for birthdays and anniversaries. You can’t deal with better people or find better stuff than at Context.

    Now to gas up the car… I’m thinking of heading down for a visit.

  21. […] for sale at Context Clothing in Madison, Wisconsin, where I first learned of The Hill-Side. When I visited Context over the Memorial Day weekend, Ryan Huber had just learned of the company himself. In a textbook […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *