When it comes to clothes, feel matters. All the multiple angles and 360-degree panoramas that we see of clothes online can never replace the act of holding a garment in your hand. That single piece of tactile feedback tells you more about the item’s quality than any elaborate description or close-up photos ever can. In that moment you know if this is a garment you want to spend your money on and have touching your skin for extended periods of time. Even if something doesn’t suit your particular style, you can touch it and understand what it’s all about.
That feel comes down to fabric, which is at the root of every piece of clothing. And a fascination with fabric and the craft that goes into creating it is what prompted Emil Corsillo to launch The Hill-Side together with his brother Sandy in 2009. Based in Brooklyn, The Hill-Side started off making ties, pocket squares and bandanas out of hard-to-find or vintage fabrics, most of which were sourced from Japan. These were accessories that had been around for centuries, but because of the quality of the materials used, The Hill-Side was able to elevate them into something more. And people took notice. The brothers expanded from accessories into a fuller menswear collection including shirts, jeans, and sneakers. They were named one of GQ’s Best New Menswear Designers in America in 2015 and recently opened a new flagship store in Williamsburg
It wasn’t necessarily what either of the Corsillo brothers saw for themselves when they were kids growing up in Connecticut, but a chance meeting with a friend from Japan, who would become a business, and an ability to follow their curiosity led them to becoming one of the most interesting brands in menswear. We caught up with Emil recently to find out how The Hill-Side got its start, why fabric matters so much, and what’s next for the brand.
How did you and your brother start The Hill-Side?
It was a little bit ad hoc. We weren’t planning to start a menswear brand or an accessories brand. My brother had been developing what would become our multi-brand online store Hickoree’s for about a year and a half as a weekend project, coding it all himself. When it got closer to being done I joined up with him to work on it. As we were planning what we would sell in this store, we had the idea that we should make some stuff of our own. What came of that ended up being The Hill-Side. It came out of me being interested in selvedge fabrics, either vintage selvedge fabrics or the selvedge fabrics that were woven in Japan and used by Japanese brands. The first collection became possible because a good friend of mine who is Japanese and is now a partner in our company went on the hunt and connected us with a textile mill in Japan. That was our competitive advantage early on. In 2009, no small brands outside of Japan had access to these fabrics. Our tie was a square-end tie with the selvedge at either end of the tie. That was our invention. It was supposed to be a very small thing to include in this online store with other brands. It ended up becoming more successful more quickly than Hickoree’s and was quickly was taking the majority of our time.
What were you doing beforehand?
When we launched The Hill-Side, we both still had full-time jobs. My brother was working in finance and I was a freelance art director and graphic designer mainly working for Puma and Tretorn.
Where did the name The Hill-Side come from and why is it hyphenated?
The street the two of us grew up on as kids [in Connecticut] is Hillside Avenue. There is no hyphen in the original name. I would collect vintage American clothing, and I was almost as interested in the branding and labels as the products themselves. One thing that I always found interesting, was that pre-1950s American brands, would use deliberately incorrect spellings of words or interesting conjunctions of words to create a proper name. There’s a workwear brand called Tuf Nut and other brands would hyphenate things in weird ways. So we took Hillside Avenue as a nostalgic jumping off point and used it to create what felt like an older brand name.
As you guy were launching, what made you want to do pocket squares and ties and bandanas?
It was sort of accidental. We didn’t wear a ton of ties. The idea wasn’t lets start a tie brand and then figuring out what fabrics to use or what to call it. It definitely happened the opposite direction. I had been collecting all kinds of old clothing and old fabric. I had a few of these Rooster ties from the 60s, which my dad had given me. The shape was narrow and square at the end. I had this roll of fabric that I found in a basement of a fabric store and had been teaching myself to sew, but I didn’t really know what to do with it. Then one day I had this realization that the width of the fabric was almost the same as one of these Rooster ties. I realized that I could make a tie that treats the selvedge as a small decorative touch at the tip of the tie. I just started experimenting, and then I would wear that tie out to a bar and people liked it. It felt like a cool, simple idea that touched on several different interests of mine. Then the tie was a blank canvas to explore fabrics, which is what I was interested in more than anything. For the first few years after we launched, there was a resurgence in guys wearing ties in a new, more casual way. And The Hill-Side ties were one of the brands at the center of that. Ever since then we’ve been known for the quality and specialness of the fabrics that we use, whether it’s as a tie or now as pants or shirts or sneakers.
When did you start developing this appreciation for fabric and the craft that goes into it?
It all goes back to meeting [our Japanese partner] Hisashi. We met in college and were both studying fine art and then we ended up going to the same graduate program for painting. We became close friends quickly. At the time I didn’t really have any direct interest in fashion at all. But all the clothing he was wearing was different and unique for me. I was fascinated by it and I would constantly ask him, “What are these jeans you’re wearing? What’s that shirt?” He started showing me Japanese fashion magazines. There were these Japanese brands that people in the U.S. hadn’t been exposed to that were making amazing reproductions and reinterpretations of old American standards like workwear and military clothing and prep and trad clothing. I just found it fascinating. That was like my entry into caring about clothing. And then fabric was the raw material of all these things. The idea that there was this fabric that was woven on a machine that was defunct and, as far as I knew, didn’t exist anywhere outside of Japan, gave me this feeling of holding a really treasured thing in my hand. Then that process of hunting for those fabrics, just got me more hooked on the subject. I had access to the clothing but getting access to the raw materials and then feeling like we could do what [these Japanese brands] do felt like the Holy Grail.
How many times have you been to Japan and what’s that experience like for you?
I’ve probably been 7 to 10 times. The first time I was blown away and I sometimes wish I could get that experience back, all the excitement and strangeness and that tension of whether I’m going to get lost. No place is as foreign as Japan the first time you go. It’s thrilling. Now we do business there and have been for awhile. In some ways it’s cooler because we have a lot of friends there and there’s an insider-y feeling. It’s really just a tradeoff.
Menswear has gone through a lot of different swings just since you started the brand. How do you adjust and adapt to those trends?
We try not to think about what we do in those terms. If you’re the one making the stuff and you get caught up in that level of analysis, it makes it really hard to feel like what you’re doing is fun. It’s hard to stay creative and engaged. We’re constantly influenced by what we’re seeing around us. If you’re a creative person and trying to keep the content of what you do interesting and fun for yourself, your aesthetics are going to change over time. If you look at our very first lookbook, the styling of the models is all vintage workwear clothing, dirty selvedge denim aprons and stuff like that. We’re not there at all now. But the three big pillars of classic American clothing—workwear, military, and prep— are still in our DNA. The really interesting thing for me is that I learned about all that stuff indirectly through Japanese brands. There’s something fascinating to me about seeing your own culture through someone else’s lens and learning to appreciate it in a way that you wouldn’t normally because you’re seeing someone to whom it’s foreign, give their take. I love that idea.
What is your approach to collaborations? There’s two different types of collaborations. There’s that type where it’s two parties that are friends with each other doing something cool together, where doing something that has mutual attention-getting benefit but maybe doesn’t make anybody any money is still worth the effort.. Then there’s something like [The Hill-Side’s collaboration with] CB2. There’s a big difference in scale between them and us. The criteria of saying yes to something like the CB2 project is that it seems like it’s going to be an authentic representation of our brand. It’s also looking for things that will challenge us and give us a chance to create something new.
What’s it like working with your brother in the business?
We love it. There are a lot of really stressful times doing this and it really helps to have somebody who you trust completely to balance you out. There’s a lot of times where one of us is really frustrated and the other one plays role of sounding board. There’s no potential for major misunderstandings. We get in arguments and it’s over quickly. One thing we also take for granted is that neither of us is scheming behind the other one’s back.
Is your personal style the same as The Hill-Side style?
Pretty much. We think of the pieces we design and the way we style them as the ideal version of what we’d want our style to be. Maybe it’s not the everyday version, but if there was a cooler version of me, that’s who The Hill-Side guy is [laughs].
What other projects are you guys working on going forward?
We have a collaboration coming out in the fall with Toms. It’s three styles of Toms shoes in The Hill-Side Japanese fabrics and there’ll be kids versions as well. Then there’s eyewear and ties and handkerchiefs. Like all Toms products, there’s a philanthropic side to it, which attracted us to the idea of working with them. We also have a collection of bags coming out this year as a collaboration with Woolrich.