It began with Michael Natenshon simply trying to do the right thing: listen to his girlfriend.
"I had my favorite four or five T-shirts that I was wearing probably since college. They had gotten pretty grimy, and my girlfriend at the time – who is now my wife – was like, 'You need to get some new shirts,'" recalls Natenshon, who, at the time, had recently left investment banking to attend business school at the University of California Berkeley.
That may not sound difficult, but when he set to hunt down new tees, nothing compared to the softness and texture of his time-worn standbys. Instead of settling for the subpar, Natenshon decided to make his own. How hard could it be to produce a really soft T-shirt?
"I thought it would be easy; that's probably why I got into it," Natenshon says dryly. "But it ended up being pretty hard."
After venturing south from his home in San Francisco to "knock on doors" in Los Angeles, Natenshon eventually found a mill willing to work with an unproven newcomer to the business. The catch was that he needed to create an entirely new fabric to get the result he was after.
Now, four years after Natenshon put the initial run of 1,200 tees on his credit card, his Marine Layer label is making a name for itself up and down the Pacific Coast with its proprietary blend of pima cotton and micromodal, a textile derived from recycled beechwood. Expanding from its initial offering of men's logo T-shirts, the California-made brand now sells wovens, a women's line, and accessories out of five West Coast stores – including the Portland outpost, which opened earlier this month.
"It's very slow and steady growth for us," Natenshon says.
Perhaps the only part of the business that's slowed down of late is the 1969 Volkswagen bus Natenshon and his business partner, Adam Lynch, bought on Craigslist for $5,000 when they began hauling merchandise around San Francisco. Emblazoned with the company's signature guy-in-hammock-that-looks-like-the-Golden-Gate-Bridge logo, the bus that's been along for the ride since the early days recently broke down after a trip south to celebrate the opening of the Marine Layer shop in Venice Beach.
Its easygoing attitude lives on in the form of best sellers like the duofold Henley with a heathered exterior layer that gives way to an ultrasoft jersey lining. Ready for winter is a flannel-lined utility jacket that pairs a tough 12-ounce, water-repellent exterior with a soft flannel lining, antique brass tack buttons, and deep pockets perfect for toting your beside-the-campfire flask. It's no accident that these – and pretty much every item the company sells – sound as though they were made with the Bay Area in mind.
"We make clothes for ourselves, our friends. We all live in San Francisco, with this somewhat urban, somewhat active lifestyle, so we try to make clothes that are well suited for it." [T-shirts from $35, utility jacket $195; marinelayer.com]