Philadelphia has been called the “Forgotten City.” Once America’s largest metropolis—and its capital while DC was being built—Philly served as a vibrant hub of industry and inspired politics until the Fifties. Now it’s rising again thanks to hard-working guys like Craig Arthur von Schroeder, founder and proprietor of Commonwealth Proper, a bastion of made-to-measure American garments. So to kick off our Budweiser Black Crown “Backstage Pass” series, we talked shop with von Schroeder about haberdashery, tattoos and what a man can do in the City of Brotherly Love.
It takes an army to produce a custom suit. Everyone has a distinct job, whether that’s shaping the shoulder or basting the chest piece.
MADE MAN: When did you start to care about clothes?
CRAIG ARTHUR VON SCHROEDER: My older brother was a model for a couple of years, and he’d give me his clothes. They never really fit me—he’s bigger than me—but I always had a penchant for fine clothing. Eventually, I started my own label to sort of keep me sane. In Princeton, where I grew up, polo shirts were all the rage, so I started there.
MM: And how did Commonwealth Proper come along?
CS: When I went to law school and started as a lawyer, I was dressing more maturely in suits and button-down shirts. So I decided to start a local, American-made shirt company. I learned from some master tailors, starting off with Martin Greenfield up in Brooklyn understanding measuring, fit, proportion, drape—all the hallmarks of the tailoring industry. Eventually we started developing the whole wardrobe: overcoats, suits and accessories.
MM: With cheaper labor abroad, the decision to manufacture in the U.S. isn’t always an easy one. What tipped the scale?
CS: Practical purposes. In 2007, I was still practicing law and didn’t have a lot of time, and I wanted to keep working on this business without making midnight calls to China and dealing with customs. When I was making polos, we sourced from all over the world, and I ended up working with factories in China to launch the sportswear line. That whole experience made me realize how difficult it is to source and do business out of the country. Quality suffers, communication is difficult, and I’m a pretty hands-on guy. Now the mindset of producing locally has taken menswear and manufacturing by storm. And Commonwealth is a champion of it, for more reasons than what we set out to do originally.
MM: Paint us a picture of the hands that make these suits.
CS: There aren’t a lot of young tailors or seamstresses coming up through the ranks. A lot of the people involved in manufacturing on our shores are American immigrants, and I like that. It’s about good working conditions, quality control, and fair wages. To me, that’s what “American-made” is all about. Visualize Puerto Ricans, South Americans, Eastern Europeans. It takes an army to produce a custom suit. Everyone has a distinct job, whether that’s shaping the shoulder or basting the chest piece.
MM: You’re known on the Internet as @DieProper. What’s the story behind that tag?
CS: I’m not the one who actually coined it. Mike, my tattoo artist, did some art for our showroom. In Philadelphia, we don’t have a lot other than history and grittiness. So we want to be authentic in our branding, and when he put that slogan on a placard with our logo and a skull on it, I thought: “Fuck yeah. Die Proper.” There’s something about it that cuts across both sides of the brand. On one hand it’s a refined company that sells $3,000 suits, and on the other it comes from a city that’s very blue collar. Those things don’t always co-exist, but we’re trying to balance that. And it’s not always literal. The guy in the corner office making $500,000 a year isn’t riding his bike and getting a tattoo, necessarily. But it’s for the guys who appreciate clothing and who want to return Philadelphia to the sartorial province it was in the 1800s, when everything was made here. It’s also about living right, you know? Not only in the way you dress, but in the way you act. Being a gentleman at all costs.
MM: You’ve worn a lot of different hats, from lawyer to polo-shirt vendor to tailor. But we also hear you were a pro soccer goalie for a while. Any war stories from on or off the field?
CS: I played for three years after college and got to travel all around the world. I played in a town called Croydon, south of London, which is a pretty gritty place. I remember working in a bar in Fulham that used to have this Elvis impersonator come every Thursday night. Then, I’d take the train down to the stadium, from posh Parsons Green to Croydon, where everything was sort of blown-out and ghetto. There’s definitely a different passion for the game over there.
MM: We’ve got 24 hours in Philadelphia. Where are we going?
CS: I’d send you to Village Whiskey, a small spot owned by Jose Garces at 20th and Sansom. They serve the best burger I’ve ever tasted—it’s fucking phenomenal. There’s another watering hole called Ranstead Room in a back alley. It’s hard to get into. There aren’t a lot of places in Philadelphia that have that sort of New York, hip, cool vibe to them that haven’t been overrun by douchebags. This is a place that stays off their radar. I also think the art museum is the raddest vista. That and City Hall. These edifices are awe-inspiring. They hark back to the bygone era when Philadelphia was prominent.