A Love Story Sparked by a Summer Camp Accident

Matt and Emily Baldwin live in Kansas City, Missouri, where they’re busy raising three kids and managing their contemporary boutique, Standard Style, while also building and designing for their eponymous apparel label, BALDWIN. In 2015, Matt was nominated for the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund for his work with BALDWIN, and this year, Emily, Matt and their team are in the process of opening storefronts in New York, Dallas and LA for the brand. I sat down with them in their new Soho shop, just a stone’s throw from MR HQ, to hear the story of how they met and what it’s like to be partners in both business and life.

Haley: Let’s start from the beginning. Where’d you guys meet?

Matt: You tell, Emily. You’re good at the beginning.

Emily: We met at a sports camp in Missouri. We’d both grown up going there but had never met, and when we returned as counselors, we became best friends. We would get up at 6 a.m. and wakeboard together — he’s a pro and I thought I also needed to be. It was a fun summer.

Haley: When was this?

Matt: Emily had just graduated from the University of Kansas, so we were fresh out of college. She was figuring out what she wanted to do, and I had always kind of been on my own path. When we met, I was three years into living in Breckenridge, Colorado, convinced I’d never leave. The plan was just to be at camp for summer — three months — to run the boats, teach kids to wakeboard, then go back to Colorado. I just happened to take the job at the camp right when she did, too.

Emily: I’d been planning to move to LA after camp was over and start a life there, but over the summer, I had this conviction that I should move to Breckenridge instead. Then Matt got in a wakeboarding accident at the end of the summer, and ripped his bicep completely down to his wrist. Since my parents lived nearby, in Springfield, Missouri, he came to stay at my house, to recuperate.

Haley: So were you guys dating at this point?

Emily: No, just buddies, but suddenly we had all this time one-on-one, and it was kind of the trigger that pushed us to start dating. So I ended up moving to Breckenridge.

Matt: And I’ll tell you, if I didn’t get into the wakeboarding accident, I would not be dating her. I’m serious; it wouldn’t have happened. We would have gone our separate ways. She would have gone to LA and I would have gone back to Colorado, and I’d probably still be there.

Haley: Was it intense moving to Breckenridge, Emily, since you guys had only just started seeing each other?

Matt: Well, I told her, “I’m not leaving Breck, so if we’re going to date, you gotta come.”

Haley: Did that put pressure on your relationship?

Emily: Eventually! [They both laugh.]

Matt: But we had a spark.

Haley: What had you been planning to do in LA?

Emily: So I did a FULL left turn. I went from a sorority house at college in Kansas to like, Breck, with all dudes snowboarding and one main street, by myself.

Matt: I was teaching boarding lessons in Breckenridge, so I taught her. That was interesting. It’s one thing to teach a group of people, but it’s another whole different thing to teach your girlfriend.

Emily: Yeah, and we got in many, many fights on the mountain because he just wanted to go fast and be with the dudes, and I was just like, “I can’t do that yet!” And so I’d just be by myself on the mountain, crying. I was like, Okay, this is my life now. So finally, after a lot of him being like, “I’ll be home from the mountain at this time,” and then not showing up, I was like, “This sucks. I’m moving to LA.” So we took some time apart.

Haley: You broke up?

Matt: Yeah. When the snowboarding season ends and the chair lifts stop running in April, there’s always this big junction: You’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do. You’re either going to stay in Colorado or go. So she was like, “I’m out.”

Emily: I was like, “I’m heading back out to LA.” I wanted to work in entertainment. But I decided to work at the camp in Missouri again first, that summer, just because it was like, an in-between transition time, and he ended up working there again too, so we ended up getting back together.

He asked me to marry him three weeks later — I was so shocked. We were driving, and I’d told him my plan to go to FIDM in LA in the fall, and then he was like, “I want to go to FIDM then, too.” So we ended up getting engaged and going out and interviewing at FIDM.

Matt: Volcom was my favorite brand at the time, so my thought was: If I go to the fashion school, I’m getting into Volcom. I want to be in design, apparel, retail. She kind of sparked it.

Haley: So you guys got engaged the summer after you met? And then when did you get married?

Emily: About nine months later, the next June.

Haley: So you’d known each other for two years. Such a whirlwind! Did you ever get cold feet? Were you ever like, What am I doing?

Emily: No, I think it was just really natural. Although not easy. When we moved to LA, we could not get jobs. It was the worst market.

Haley: What were you trying to get a job in?

Emily: Entertainment. Production. Anything. We were so young, we were like, “We’ll do anything!” We started waiting tables together. (We’ve always worked together. We worked at the same resort in Breckenridge, then both waited tables. We’ve literally never not worked together, ever since we met.) So we ended up going back to Vail for the winter. It was tough!

Matt: It was a rough cycle.

Emily: But we went to Vail, and we actually opened the Ritz Carlton there. That was an amazing experience.

Haley: You opened a Ritz Carlton?!

Matt: Yeah, we got trained by the best hospitality service company in the world, and that’s why we always say that our Baldwin stores, they’re like our home. Looking back now and knowing what I know in business, it was one of the biggest gifts that we’ve been given. Not only to wait table and learn be good with people, but to learn about the highest level of hospitality.

Emily: So we were headed back to LA at the end of the season (because we know the Ritz job wasn’t permanent), when Matt got a call from a friend. I had never met the guy, and Matt hadn’t seen him since he was a kid. He called out of the clear blue and asked, “Would you ever consider opening a store in Kansas City?” He was interested in the growth of the city, from an investment standpoint, and we were like, “Retail? In Kansas City?”

Matt: But the day before, I’d literally said, “Okay, we’re going back to LA unless we hear otherwise.” And then we got that call.

Then the next morning…

Emily: I woke up at like 5 a.m. in the morning and randomly took a pregnancy test. We weren’t trying because we were moving back to Hollywood. I took the test, then screamed. I was like, “There’s no freaking way this is possible. There’s no way I’m pregnant.”

Matt: We’d always said we’d never raise kids in LA.

Emily: So we were like, “I guess we’re going to try this Kansas City thing? Is this fate?” So we went for it. We moved back and, long story short, I ended up having a miscarriage. But the baby was due to arrive the day the store opened. So the store was our baby instead. In hindsight, I couldn’t have had a baby. I worked seven days a week and opened a shop! It was busy.

Matt: To give you context, I put the business plan together in six weeks, we applied for three SBA loans, the first two turned us down, the third said yes. This thing was on a fast track from April to October. We formed the company in May, bought a house in Kansas City not knowing Kansas City, not knowing anybody. Now we’re in our 14th year, and we’re expanding — the first store in New York, the second, in Dallas, just opened, and LA opens up in October.

Emily: So we got back to LA! It’s crazy this is how it ended up working. Now we have three kids: seven, 10 and 12.

Haley: What’s been the most challenging thing about working together over all these years?

Emily: It never ends. Our conversations are constant…and the kids are in the conversations now. That’s definitely the biggest thing. But in the same sense, it’s good because when we have access to that synergy, all the time, I think it’s a benefit. We have that time to incubate ideas and encourage each other.

Haley: Yeah, I get that.

Emily: Everyone we talk to is like, “I could never do that!” But actually, I really think it’s an advantage. We have the same values, the same drive, we have the same work ethic. It’s like, iron sharpens iron, you know? So it actually makes us better people. And I think because we’re both creative, it pushed the boundaries on what we can accomplish.

Matt: This is our sixteenth year being married, and we’ve jokingly said this is the year we got our driver’s license to drive the marriage. I mean, we were kids! We got married at 23–

Emily: We did have a Volcom men’s cake at the wedding.

Matt: I did have a Volcom wedding cake (both laugh), thanks for throwing that one in. But I think, over the years, I’ve gotten to know her gifts, and she’s gotten to know my gifts, and when you celebrate each other’s gifts, you fuel each other. Running a family is like running a business. You have vision, finance and operations. It’s no different than an enterprise. Family’s always changing, growing and morphing. I couldn’t do the business and the family without her. I need her, and it’s beautiful because she needs me.

So we use our gifts together to accomplish what’s honestly otherwise impossible. We always say this to each other: Our impossibilities are fuel for possibilities. So it’s things like that that get us through. Encouraging each other when it’s a tough freaking moment…what are you going to do, are you going to quit?

Emily: There’s been a lot of them! We say we’re on a pirate ship. We’ve been white-knuckling the steering wheel for 14 years, because everything we’ve done has been pioneering, and challenging!

Matt: Ultimately there’s no other person on the planet that has my back more than Emily, and vice versa. And that’s marriage in its full covenant. It’s like, “Yo, we’re going to the end. There’s no divorce in the Baldwin family, we don’t play like that.” If we weren’t together, it would be chaos! Complete chaos.

Haley: You said there were a lot of times where you were white-knuckling. Can you tell me about a particularly challenging moment for you guys?

Emily: There are so many.

Matt: One of the hardest things to do is to grow. Growing as a person means you have to be willing to change. You have to be vulnerable, and people don’t like to change and be vulnerable. Growing a business, when it gets to a point where it’s bigger than you are, requires vulnerability, too. For me, putting our name on something and putting product out there in the face of criticism or people’s subjective opinions have been the white-knuckle moments. Those are the moments — where we think it’s never going to work — that we have to remind ourselves, “I believe, I believe, I believe.”

Haley: What’s one thing you guys are actively working on in your relationship now?

Matt: Can I take it?

Emily: [Laughs] Sure!

Matt: It’s not like we have tons of money raising three kids. All our resources are based around the business. I say this because celebration for us has been something I’ve put to the side. This is actually very real right now. I’ve always said to people, “Don’t buy me a birthday present, or Christmas present. Don’t give me anything.” But to celebrate each other in life, I’ve recently realized, is really important. And I’m learning that. We haven’t always done a great job at celebrating us. We’ve done a great job at celebrating others, and the business things, but not our family. And so Emily, in the next week, turns 40. And I am throwing her the coolest birthday party on the planet. I literally am! And I’m just saying, “This is the wife I love so much, and she means so much to me.” I want to honor her. I want to have every person that means something to her there, and I want it to be a night no one ever forgets.

Emily: Even our kids will sometimes be like, “We didn’t even have a birthday party,” and we’ll be like, “Oh…yeah.” So we try to make sure we somehow get the birthday parties in. We try to be present, with each other, with the kids, with our families, because we’ve been so busy. My mom’s just like, “I want my daughter back,” and I’m just like, “I don’t even know what she looks like.” But you know, we’re trying to take those moments and be intentional rather than just work seven days a week, which is what we’ve always done. We’ve put all of our energy there, and what we have left is for our kids. You have no energy or capacity for other things.

Haley: Yeah, ugh, that’s a very common problem.

Matt: It’s common within our culture, right. You just don’t have time for people.

Emily: We’re also trying to tell ourselves it’s okay to say yes to being uncomfortable. And we’re telling our kids that, we’re telling our teams that. Even our teams, who’re trying to open three new shops, a lot of them haven’t done that before. And it was overwhelming for them, and so we’re just having to show them to say yes to being uncomfortable. That’s when growth happens, that’s when innovation happens. So, that’s another thing we’re working on.

Matt: Well said.

Haley: Here’s a question I want each of you to answer: What’s one thing about the other that pushes your buttons, and one thing that you really appreciate about them?

Emily: So Matt’s a philosopher. He’s like an old sage. He’ll sit and study things for hours on end. And then he’ll process these things, and I’m the one who gets to work all that out with him firsthand. And I’m good with it. But then we’ll go out, and I’ll listen to him processing it again with these other people and so I laugh because it’s such a gift, but sometimes I’m like, “Too long!” or, “Too heavy!” He’s so passionate that sometimes he’s too much for some people. And by the time I’ve heard it three times I’m like, “I think you can make this a bit more concise!”

Matt: She gives me gestures. You saw it a second ago, actually! She just did it. She just has this code. We’ve never talked about the code, but the code exists.

Emily: What I LOVE is that he’s so disciplined and determined to continually become a better human being, and to work out things he wants to be better at. I think that’s remarkable to have in a partner, because we’re just not willing to settle. It’s always like, “What’s next? How do we be better friends? Better parents? Have better shops?” We constantly want to level up. I love that.

Matt: That’s our mantra in a lot of ways: level up. There’s two ways you can look at things, either the negative or the positive. Is there hope? I believe there’s always hope. You’ve got to look for it, you’ve got to be intentional about finding it.

Emily: We met at a lake camp in Missouri, and we’re sitting here on Mott Street. Like, that’s impossible. But we always say, “Have hope.” We’ve never said no.

Matt: I don’t care what anybody thinks about me, I really don’t, and I’ve been like that since I was a kid. So whenever I get in that passionate headspace and I go on a runner, and she’s analyzing, she thinks too much about what I’m saying. If I throw something out there that takes somebody a little bit further than they want to go, or makes them a bit uncomfortable, I’m totally chill with it, and she’s not [laughs]. I’ll accept it, I’ll learn from it, it’s good for me. But I don’t like it!

Haley: So you’re balancing each other out.

Matt: Yeah, and what I love about her is that she’s the most determined and persistent — and consistent within that persistence — person I’ve ever known. She doesn’t quit. We have a statement, too, and this is really real: “If you don’t quit, you win.” I’ve gotten to be around some of the most prolific businessmen and women over my career, and there are two words most of them touch at some point. The first is belief, and Emily has belief around the impossibilities. To be around someone who shares a belief in things that are impossibilities is really paramount. The other word is persistence. Not giving up, or quitting. She’s been so persistent with her pursuit of life. I mean, I’m a crazy visionary, I’m very unique and one-of-one, and it takes a very special person to walk life out with someone like me. I’m hyper-future-thinking, but hyper-ancient thinking as well. It would take only one other person on the planet that could walk this life out with me, and I’ll tell you, it’s her.

Haley: What advice do you have for people either looking for someone or starting a relationship with someone, or trying to make one work?

Matt: Oh, this is a good one.

Emily: We say this all the time: “You have to marry your best friend.” You’re going to be with them every day. Money doesn’t matter, looks don’t matter. It’s about the spirit connection. Because to raise three kids together, to travel together…I always say: “You might get a yacht, but if you don’t like who you’re with in the yacht, you’re sad, you’re lonely. I’d rather be in a canoe having a blast with the person I can have a blast with.” This whole generation is so worried about age and timelines, but it’s not about age. To scratch something off your list for the sake of it is the worst mistake you could make. Just be patient. It all comes together.

Matt: And if you’re going to make it to the end of the journey – this is what it comes down to: This is a covenant. I promise her I’m not going anywhere, now matter how hard it gets. I don’t care what happens; she can count on me. When we got married very young, at 23, I think one of my brothers was like, “What are you doing, bro? You’re getting married? What happened to shred time?” And I said, “This is my best friend. This is beyond a bro.”

Follow the brand Baldwin on Instagram @baldwin. Photos by Ryan Strong. Want more love stories? Read how Elaine Welteroth met her husband or how the designers at Parker Thatch fell in love.

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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