There are few things you immediately notice about Jon Contino. His Long Island accent is about as New York as it gets. If the voice isn’t enough to pick up on his East Coast roots, then hearing how passionately he speaks about Brooklyn and Manhattan surely does the trick. Secondly, he’s humble. Artists are often blessed with multitude of talents but a lack of ego is rarely one of them, so it’s refreshing for someone so immensely talented to also be so grounded. And lastly, probably one of the truest indicators of Contino’s success, you notice his ambition. It’s seemingly inescapable—you can even hear it in his voice. As we discuss past projects and businesses, weaving in and out of the successes and shortcomings, he speaks with a sense of inherent urgency. He doesn’t mind the nostalgia, but Contino’s default state isn’t reflecting upon the past—he’s more likely to be looking to the future.
Contino’s body of work matches his personality: it’s earnest, full of gritty New York spirit, and spares nothing when it comes to attention to detail. Clients like Nike, Coca-Cola, MTV, Jack Daniels, and FX Networks (specifically graphics for their award-winning show Louie) have all tapped the designer for his old-meets-new style. And from 2009-2014, he served as the Co-founder and Creative Director of menswear brand CXXVI Clothing Company. His rise to becoming one of the most in-demand illustrators may have seemed lightning-fast from the outside, but it was actually a long time coming.
”It was just one of those things that became what I did,” Contino says of his affinity for art and design. He came from a long line of artists; his parents and grandparents all made a living with their hands as artists, carpenters, or sculptors. He grew up drawing thanks to encouragement from his mom, and made his first foray into working as a freelance designer in high school thanks to his involvement in the local hardcore scene. “I was designing flyers, demo cover, T-shirts—you name it,” he explains. “Especially coming up in a D.I.Y. scene like that, it was very hands on—if you can’t do it yourself, then why do it at all? That mentality became my roots and developed who I was, and still am, as a designer.
In college, he befriended a classmate named Matt Gorton, and the two quickly bonded over a mutual love of all things music and art. Around 2006, Contino opened his first design studio, and Gorton would soon join on as partner mere months later. “We started off as an ‘everything design studio’ but somehow ended up doing mostly early streetwear stuff,” explains Contino. “Eventually people would come to us to brand their entire clothing company: the logo, the T-shirt graphics, everything.” They both had a knack for the genre and quickly found themselves in the midst of steady stream of work with clientele that included some big names of the era like The Brooklyn Circus and Rich Yung.
“Coming up in a D.I.Y. scene like [hardcore], it was very hands on—if you can’t do it yourself, then why do it at all?”
Unfortunately, after a couple years of consistent work, Contino and Gorton noticed that their design business was starting to slow down. Their clients, feeling the effects of the declining retail economy, began to scale back, which meant less work for the studio. In an effort to kick up some additional cash to supplement the loss of work, the duo decided to try their own hand at selling some T-shirts. Their first foray was selling a small line of vintage-inspired designs that referenced the the TV show Lost. And both guys were surprised to see the idea worked. “We sold them around the holidays—it made a killing,” he recalls with a laugh. “It was the moment where we realized we could actually sell some T-shirts and make some money.” Disney (owners of the Lost franchise) weren’t too pleased with the endeavor and promptly sent a cease-and-desist, but Contino and Gorton didn’t care. They both knew this was only a one-time thing and the next step was to launch their own clothing brand—one that wasn’t going to have anything to do with a popular TV series. CXXVI was born.
Within six months, they had designed, printed, and photographed their first collection under their official new moniker. And if you were wondering, CXXVI simply stands for the numbers it represents (126), which is based on Jon’s birthday. They reached out to a friend at Uncrate who posted the photos with a link to the simple online shop they threw together. The traffic broke their website almost instantly. But as soon as they got it back online, they saw the online orders start to come flying in. “We realized we might be onto something, so we decided we were going to go all in and try and make the brand a full-time job,” explains Contino. That year, 2009, the two friends decided to shut down the design studio and focus on running CXXVI as a their main business and source of income.
It’s clear that their time spent working for clothing brands gave them an advantage over other newly-formed brands. As a studio, they always had to have their finger on the pulse when it came to what consumers wanted to wear. Additionally, they had experience in all areas of running a brand because they had previously designed, screen printed, and shipped for some of their old clients. Doing all of the aforementioned in-house gave the young brand lower operating costs, better margins on production/fulfillment, and most importantly, a marketing advantage that came at the perfect time.
“Everything we did, we figured out the D.I.Y. way to do. We decided to lean into that with the whole ‘handcrafted’ angle,” explains Contino. “No one else was really saying that at the time so it became our claim to fame: 'We’re just two guys that started a brand. We’re from New York. We make everything in New York with American-made products.’ We quickly became known as the brand that does it all by hand and that helped propel us within the whole menswear world.”
So, with a handful of new designs, in-house production capabilities, and a rock-solid brand identity, it was finally time to release their second collection. And this time, the website didn’t crash. As the orders were coming in, this time they noticed it wasn’t just fans wanting to purchase their products—a handful of boutique retailers also wanted in on the action. The Americana and #Menswear movement was strong, and CXXVI just happened to be in the right place at the right time. “We fit right into that wave and were able to jump to the top pretty quickly in terms of T-shirt brands,” remembers Contino. “It was pretty weird. We spent the whole year prior to that struggling pretty hard. It was nice to finally see some money.”
“We realized we might be onto something, so we decided we were going to go all in.”
For the next couple years, CXXVI did what booming clothing brands do: get bigger and bigger with each new collection. Their product offering bulked up to include cut n sew and a wide variety of accessories. The company became a buyer favorite on the apparel trade show circuit and Contino’s designs appealed to both graphic designers and menswear enthusiasts alike—essentially allowing the brand to tap into two totally different markets. Eventually their retail list grew to include huge national accounts like Urban Outfitters and Nordstrom. It was everything a brand owner could ever hope for—until a string of unbelievable bad luck slowly started to unravel the brand’s success after seasons of profit and growth.
In 2011, CXXVI fulfilled a giant order (Contino didn’t want to give specifics but notes it was a well-known retailer with production costs in the six-figure range) for a new account, something that wasn’t too uncommon for the brand at the time. “This was going to be such a nice windfall of cash into the business that would help us get to the next level. It was exactly what we needed to build it into a big brand,” he recalls. Shortly after they delivered the order, the retailer declared bankruptcy. It soon became clear CXXVI was not going to receive payment for the order so the brand reset expectations and figured they’d at least be able to get their product back. Contino and Gorton carried on as best they could while teams of lawyers, collection agencies, and a manufacturing company stepped in. Eventually it became clear the bankrupt retailer had liquidated all of their remaining product (including the unpaid CXXVI order) so the brand was officially out that money and material. The manufacturing company who fronted the capital for the order then turned to Contino and Gorton for payment, a six-figure bill they had to split between the two of them.
The duo was down but not out. But in 2012, the Atlantic coast was hit by Hurricane Sandy, which flooded their Long Island studio and destroyed the majority of their remaining stock.“Four feet of water, T-shirts floating everywhere. It took a good thing and put it in an early grave real fast,” Contino says with a sigh. The brand tried to persevere but their string of bad luck turned out to be insurmountable. “We tried to resurrect the brand in 2014 but it felt so tainted that it wasn’t fun to do anymore. We finally decided to close it down and move on with our lives and do something else.”
When a buzzy clothing brand shudders, the number of reasons are seemingly endless: lackluster business skills, no creative consistency, bad customer service—just to name a few. A natural disaster and the bankruptcy of a key retail account aren’t ones typically on that list. It’s just another reminder of how cruel and unpredictable the apparel industry can be. Even if you’ve managed to make it to the upper echelon of your market, and got there without taking any shortcuts, your brand may still fall victim to an early exit.
The fact that Contino and Gorton established CXXVI as a well-known brand of that era without taking any shortcuts is something the duo takes great pride in. “That’s one thing I can be proud of when I’m on my deathbed: I always paid my dues,” states Contino. “We didn’t come from anything. Just regular kids who got involved in hardcore and learned to do it yourself. We didn’t go to fancy design schools, get cool internships or know anyone in the industry that could help us out. We literally did everything on our own. It was rewarding to know we got it to a point with the brand that made all that stuff worthwhile.”
Listening to Contino swell with pride mere minutes after telling multiple stories of misfortune is fittingly emblematic of his unbreakable spirit. He’s had hardships, but bounces back like the resilient born and bred New Yorker he is. It’s been over three years since CXXVI officially shuttered and Contino now lives about an hour outside New York City with his wife and daughter. These days he’s mainly focused on building up his design studio and spending time with his family but his ambition won’t let him quit his extracurriculars. And surprisingly, just last year, he launched his latest venture in apparel, Jon Contino New York.
“I had to be talked into doing a clothing brand again this time,” he says with a laugh. “I had sworn it off and my business manager had to convince me, but it’s nice to have an outlet that’s not just client work.” He goes on to explain that he’s not one for hobbies. He can’t just sit and draw if it’s for nothing—it has to be for something. “I just like to have a tactile legacy, I like to leave a trail of paper and product behind me that details all the shit that I’ve gone through,” he explains. “If you’re here and have the ability to make things and find the intrigue in life, why not take advantage of it?”