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Speak Softly and Carry a Sick Overshirt: Inside the Very Chill World of Paa, Menswear's Quietest Brand

GQ logo GQ 5/18/2022 Max Lakin

It’s less than a week before Peter Jurado and Al Verik, who make up the menswear brand paa, are scheduled to open their first store, a cool, poured concrete floor storefront tucked into Los Angeles’ Chinatown. An opening party has been on the books for weeks, but construction is still unfinished. This won’t be a debut, exactly, but it’s as close to that as a nearly decade-old brand can get. That it took this long makes sense; as a brand they’ve never been much for grand statements, rushed or otherwise. If Jurado and Verik are anxious or stressed, I can’t tell. When they appear on my computer screen in the middle of November, Verik beaming in from his home in Pasadena, Jurado from their warehouse a short drive from L.A.’s Chinatown, they’re a vision of even-keeled placidity. “We’re just taking it day by day, you know?” Verik told me, severely understating the complexity of running an apparel brand in 2021. He’s wearing round wire-rim eyeglasses and a healthy southern Californian complexion. “I think we'll be good for Saturday.” As guarantees go, it’s a bit noncommittal, but in the zen way. It’s as if they feel they’ll be fine no matter what happens, an approach that has seemed to work for them so far.

Jurado and Verik are perhaps the calmest designers working in menswear. This might not sound like much, but in recent years “menswear” has come to refer less to a straightforward market segment than an expansive set of diffuse perspectives and antic approaches to making them heard. It’s not that Jurado and Verik don't try, or that they don’t have to, but there’s a steady level of restraint that permeates their output: they don’t advertise, they don’t dress celebrities, they’re barely online. Their approach seems to contradict everything we’re taught about what it takes to make it.

Inside paa's Los Angeles store. © Courtesy of Brian W. Ferry for paa Inside paa's Los Angeles store.

Jurado and Verik grew up on opposite sides of the country but share backgrounds that dovetail: both sons of immigrant parents, both impressed upon to choose pragmatic careers, both choosing otherwise. After college they each moved to New York City and became immersed in the resurgent interest in menswear, then circulating around a loose network of blogs, forums, and likeminded retailers. “It was a funny time,” Verik said. “I consumed as much info and visited as many shops as I could.” In 2009 he met Jurado, who had been working for a string of small menswear labels, and their easy camaraderie cemented his obsession. “I think with both of us, when there's something we're really into we just kind of go full on and try to learn as much as possible.”

By 2013, they felt they had been hanging out along the edges of the industry long enough to try to contribute to it. They started paa while maintaining their day jobs: Jurado as an in-house designer at the Ace Hotel group, and Verik on the digital side at music labels. Their first collection was self-funded and consisted, in its entirety, of three classic six-panel ball caps rendered in melton wool and flannel. They were luxurious without being obvious. The tastemaking downtown store C’H’C’M’ agreed to sell them. “A lot of people have side hustles,” Verik said. “It was probably an extension for Peter, but for me it was a complete 180 from my day to day, which I liked. In the early days I viewed it as a passion project. I think Peter saw where it could go a little bit more than I did.”

In 2016, around the same time global interest in menswear was reaching a frenzied pitch, they were invited by the well-regarded retailer Need Supply to develop an installation for their Tokyo store. The experience was galvanizing. Shortly after they returned to New York, Jurado and Verik left their jobs to give paa their full-time attention. “It had been 4 years of juggling,” Verik said. “It was hard to take a meeting like, ‘Yeah how does 9pm work for you?’” He still talks about that period with wonder. “Sometimes we're not sure if it's going to be cohesive, but somehow every season it was.”

“paa” is technically an acronym of “Peter and Al,” but in its lowercase stylization and near total search engine uselessness, it lends itself to any number of interpretations. There’s something vaguely mystic about the way the word appears, as if it were a Gregorian chant. It can also suggest the distinct New Yorker’s diction, like “cawfee,” or “watah.” Crucially, for a brand defined by its unhurriedness, it takes the sound of a relaxed sigh. Jurado and Verik specialize in remarkably sober reinterpretations of sportswear staples: t-shirts in a pleasingly boxy cut; sweatshirts heavy enough to feel like a sensory compression blanket; a Harrington jacket in Japanese nylon taffeta, with a dull sheen and the pleasant “whoosh” sound you can practically see before you hear it. Their project can be understood as a quiet study in relaxed shapes. There are no graphics, no logos, no screaming.

This sounds like what’s commonly marketed as “elevated basics,” a category that seems to be able to absorb countless new brands promoting essentialism with overwritten product copy doing the heavy lifting. Instead, the duo is interested in pushing fabrics to unexpected ends: cutting an overshirt in a plush mustard velveteen, say, or blocking a bomber with waxed grosgrain. It’s clothing that rewards closer looking. There’s a kind of reverse Monet effect, wherein the garments look simplistic from a distance, only revealing their beauty upon close inspection. “Especially if you haven't seen it in person, you can be underwhelmed,” Jurado said. “Like: this is just simple tees and shit.”

In February 2020, paa staged their first runway show during New York Fashion Week, just a few weeks before the onset of the pandemic. The show seemed to anticipate what everyone else would soon figure out: that in a world boiling over, there was a clear benefit to slowing down. The venue was a second-floor space overlooking Canal Street not far removed from its former life as a Duane Reade, and the models were largely non-professionals and friends. There were no involved set pieces and no overcomplicated thesis. In many ways it felt the way fashion shows in New York used to feel, when they took place in temporary tents and everyone was simply happy to look at clothes. And the clothes reciprocated that kindness: a capacious car coat in charcoal wool with mailbag welt pockets, wooly popovers blocked in earth tones. A slick trench coat was cut from Cordura — a popular menswear fabric, but something more in paa’s hands. (Fittingly, “cordura” is Spanish for “sanity.”) The show took place on the brand’s seventh anniversary, an auspicious marker they didn’t draw much attention to. “What we do is very simple, so it takes a little more time to get people behind it,” Jurado told me then.

When they speak about their work and its place among their peers, Verik is slightly more forthcoming, which Jurado tries to soften a bit after. For example, when I asked about their clothes’ seeming lack of conceptual scaffolding, Verik said, “It’s kind of, what you see is what you get. There's no deep underlying themes. What we do is just an exercise in product development and putting nice stuff out into the world. I think we live in a narrative-heavy world. You know, you might have, like, a couple tees, but there's this crazy storyline developed around it.” After a beat Jurado added: “I think there's nothing wrong with having themed collections. People get juiced up about that stuff. I think we've tried to stay away from telling people exactly what we do because we want them to have their own opinion. We don't talk a lot.”

Jurado and Verik have learned that this strategy doesn’t always work. As any good PR will tell you, in the absence of narrative, a narrative emerges. For a long time, and to a certain degree still, the “normcore” tag dogged them, even as their clothes were clearly not interested in that movement. Verik traces a “music-influenced” label that followed them around to a single interview in Japan for which a translator took poetic license. “People make up things about where we grew up,” he said. “It's pretty funny what people come up with.”

Perhaps the most persistent example of this is the idea that paa’s clothing is “90s-influenced,” an idea that appears in nearly every interview conducted with Jurado and Verik since they began, and which both men insist has never really been that important. They could push back on hang-ups like these, but never have, preferring to keep the focus on their garments. “We're not very dramatic dudes,” Jurado added. “Some other brands, you know, it's just so dramatic. It's just too much for us. We'd rather just make an interesting product and put it out there. Can it just be that?”

In 2018, Verik relocated, with his wife and newborn, to Los Angeles. “We do a lot of FaceTime,” Jurado said about how their working relationship changed. “I feel like we know each other pretty well so we don't always have to look at something together. We do the postal service situation, mailing swatches back and forth. He'll make a proto[type] and send it to me to try on.” This primed them well for the pandemic, during which time they began searching for a home for the store. By the spring of 2021 they had committed to the Chinatown space, working with the designer Loren Daye, whom Jurado had met while they were both working for Ace, to create a Brutalist, rectilinear room with clear sightlines and paper-thin aluminum display tables and shelving that contribute no interference. The elements sound severe but the total effect is, paradoxically, softness.

“There is an easy-going-ness that comes off as gentleness,” Daye said of Verik and Jurado’s work, “but also deep conviction and visual sensitivity. There's austerity and restraint but also loose, spontaneous joy.” (She called their evolution as designers “a slow jam.”) Behind a glass block wall toward the back, they’ve set up a small studio, where Verik now works most days. It reminds me of something he told me: what you see is what you get.

The store is on the ground level of a plaza in Chinatown, faced away from the street. It is definitely not Rodeo Drive, or Silver Lake, or even Melrose, where a raft of New York brands and galleries have alighted recently. Its relatively unfashionable location, away from much of the city, is fitting. Jurado and Verik say that a storefront was always part of their plan, but that they weren’t sure when or where they would realize it. They found it worked in Los Angeles. It helped, too, that much of their manufacturing is here, not to mention much of their families. “There's a good energy there,” Jurado said. “I think Al and I both go off the energy of places a lot — you know, does it feel good? “It's very tranquil,” Verik added. “It just suits us, I think, as people. It's inside, so you have to kind of come find us. You have to know where we are.” There was a beat before Jurado added: “I mean, it's not that hard.”

A few weeks after the opening, Jurado is back in New York. Verik has joined him for a few days, and they suggest we meet at La Bonbonniere, the West Village greasy spoon that’s weathered nearly a hundred years of fashionable bistros and innovations in brunching. Peter and I order omelets; Al’s chili comes out looking a bit sad, but he’s too polite to say so or send it back. For the last decade or so fashion has been obsessed with collaboration, an exercise in co-branding which demands novelty but not coherence. Paa has up to this point refrained from participating. This isn’t a moral stance; both Jurado and Verik are open to collaboration, but are wary of having to compromise. Which is not to say they haven’t thought about what it might look like, if they did: at that 2020 runway show, they dressed the models in Reebok Classic Nylon and Leather models blocked, respectively, in tonal cream and dove gray, with the Reebok logo covered with polar fleece. These were not, strictly speaking, a collaboration, and were never intended for production. “I spray painted those shoes myself,” Jurado said.

© Courtesy of Brian W. Ferry for paa

A hint of frustration enters the conversation, the first in my weeks of speaking with them. “A lot of brands we talk to, they say, ‘You're not enough for a corporate person to be able to explain it to someone else,” Jurado said. Verik went on: “‘What's your social following, what's your narrative, and how many believers at the company do you have?’ If you don't have those three buckets, you can't move the needle. It's hard when you're not loud on the internet.”

Jurado and Verik have never employed a publicist, much less sent a press release. Verik isn’t sure what one would even look like. "Pete Davidson sets out in some paa," he suggests half-heartedly. Aside from a recent hire, who works part-time at the shop, they have no other employees. “We have a hard time asking for help,” Jurado said. “We want to control everything. But as we grow, I think we have to let that go.” He stabbed at his omelet. “We'll get there.”

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