Michael Williams of A Continuous Lean Tells It Like It Is

The founder of A Continuous Lean on the culture of consumerism, what to consider before making a purchase, and why time is his greatest extravagance.

By Zander Abranowicz

Since the dawn of the blogging age, Michael Williams has been an indispensable guide through the annals of American style. Launched in 2007, his beloved newsletter, A Continuous Lean, is an ongoing call to arms for consumers and producers alike to rally behind authenticity against the flattening forces of fast fashion and the cult of convenience.

Based in Los Angeles, Michael is a tireless advocate for domestic industry, and inevitably, his perspective has long attracted the attention of industry insiders and brands who share his conviction that quality products are worth the wait. In 2009, he co-founded The Pop Up Flea, a series of carefully curated temporary marketplaces, and more recently, he opened ACL & Company, a marketing consultancy oriented toward “small craft-focused companies that continue to make things in traditional ways”. And in 2021, Michael launched ACL Golf, a site “to celebrate the well-made, the overlooked, and the simple pleasures that draw us to golf”. The Good Sort spoke with Michael about taking the long view in a world of hype, buying less but better, and supporting brands built to last.

THE GOOD SORT: Japan has its denim, Scandinavia its outerwear, Korea its skincare, Italy its tailoring. What’s America’s unique contribution to the world of style?

MICHAEL WILLIAMS: I think America's two big contributions have been workwear (which is where Japan got that denim thing) and sportswear. We made the world more casual through mass production and relaxed clothing. Not much has changed in that regard.

THE GOOD SORT: You often emphasize quality, origin, and heritage. What are some commonly overlooked criteria shoppers should apply when considering a purchase?

MICHAEL WILLIAMS: Many of those things you listed. Also, I think people fail to consider who the people are who run and own a brand. Are they good people? Do they treat their employees and the environment well or is it all just marketing? There's a lot of bullshit in the world that people either ignore or are ambivalent about. These are the types of details I want to share on my newsletter. I do my best to highlight good people making nice things.

THE GOOD SORT: You’ve written extensively about the rise and fall of direct-to-consumerism. What do you identify as the fatal flaw in that model?

MICHAEL WILLIAMS: That much of it is bland and solves unnecessary problems. There are some highly specific DTC brands which are an improvement to what is out there, but much of it seems pointless. I wish I could like it more, but I unfortunately don't.

THE GOOD SORT: How do you cultivate a healthy relationship with shopping without sliding into materialism?

MICHAEL WILLIAMS: When I look at my personal relationship with materialism, I don't think I could have made it to a place where I try to be more constrained without first overindulging. When people say Americans don't have culture, that's untrue. We have a culture of consumerism as a direct response to our capitalist society and the policies of the U.S. government. So everything is pushing us in that direction — towards buying things and consumption. It takes a lot to fight that off because we've replaced so many things in society with consumption. I've come to realize that if I am bored or sad or stressed, buying stuff will not solve for those feelings, so I've been trying to replace consumption with something that might actually make me feel better for the long term. I'm not perfect and everything is not terrible, but I do think we all fall into these traps when it comes to materialistic consumption.

THE GOOD SORT: What’s one stance, reflection, or prediction you feel you got wrong about American consumer culture since launching A Continuous Lean in 2007?

MICHAEL WILLIAMS: That people care about where things are made. The vast majority of people only care about price and how quick you can get it to their home. It still makes me sad that this is the case.

THE GOOD SORT: In 2020 you launched ACL & Company as a marketing practice for “brands focused on craft and longevity.” When you’re advising your clients, what advice do you often find yourself giving?

MICHAEL WILLIAMS: Mostly I just help authentic brands stay true to what made them great in the first place.

THE GOOD SORT: Where or who do you turn to discover new brands, designers, and products today?

MICHAEL WILLIAMS: Everywhere you would imagine. Sometimes that even includes going out of my house to find things in stores! But a lot of it is friends, people I know in the industry, Instagram, newsletters, or just trade shows. Discovery is easier than ever because of the internet, but it's also a lot harder now because there is so much noise.

The Sort Six

  1. 1

    What do you collect?

    I'm trying to not collect things anymore just out of concerns for physical space and not wanting to be surrounded by "stuff", but I love to buy old linen postcards on eBay.

  2. 2

    What brand is totally underrated?

    Ghiaia — Davide is a genius.

  3. 3

    What’s one store you can’t visit without buying something?

    Either Tokyu Hands or the Filson Flagship in Seattle.

  4. 4

    What’s on your desk right now?

    Polaroids of my kids, a diary for journaling, and a diamond paper weight from the NBA’s 75th anniversary season. I'm not sure why they sent it to me, but I love it.

  5. 5

    What’s your greatest extravagance?

    Taking less client work and less money to have more free time and flexibility.

  6. 6

    We’re always interested in talking to cool people doing interesting things. Who should talk to next?

    Miles Fisher of Bixby Coffee Roasters

Subscribe to Michael’s newsletter, A Continuous Lean, and follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Zander Abranowicz is the Strategy Director of Abbr. Projects. He has published essays in Travel + Leisure, Elle Decor, Kennedy, Kathimerini, Elite Traveler, and Upstate Diary, illustrations in Esquire, and two books with photographer William Abranowicz: This Far and No Further and American Originals. Buzzcut, his monthly newsletter, covers travel, style, history, and nature.

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