Rag & Bone’s Marcus Wainwright and David Neville met as teenagers in England. They have no formal design training but have built Rag & Bone from a denim line to a robust men’s, women’s and accessories business with a global retail network that’s expanding.
Part of their success is based on instinct, experimentation and a solid infrastructure in denim and workwear-influenced English tailoring; part of it is due to their partnership with Andrew Rosen, their friend, mentor and a minority stakeholder in the business.
In a conversation with WWD sittings director Alex Badia at the WWD CEO Summit, Wainwright and Neville discussed their career-defining moments, from being unemployed in New York, to meeting with Ralph Lauren, to making retail work. They also revealed plans for a new experimental retail concept to open soon on New York’s Upper East Side. The Rag & Bone General Store, opening at 1273 Third Avenue, will be the company’s seventh store in New York City, and a new concept in terms of aesthetic — minimalistic white with black accents — and stock. It will focus on men’s and women’s jeans, accessories and shoes.
WWD: You guys are from the U.K., you went to school together, you didn’t go to fashion school, yet you decided to launch a fashion company. Why is that?
Marcus Wainwright: That’s an excellent question. I was living in New York and, quite honestly, I didn’t have a job or anything to do. I had never really been to New York and one day I thought it would be quite fun to try to make some clothes…At the beginning that was very difficult in many ways, we made a lot of mistakes. We eventually found a little factory in Kentucky and through research on the Internet we began making jeans.
WWD: In 2005 you launched sportswear. How do you manage the business?
David Neville: [The year 2006] was a big year for Rag & Bone and — I got married in one week in 2006, [Wainwright] got married and Andrew Rosen became our partner. It was probably the biggest week in our life. I think timing is everything in this business and those years and some of the exposure we got — the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and the CFDA Awards. We had been working for a couple of years to get to the point where we had a foundation to really benefit from the exposure…In this day and age, sometimes young companies get the press and don’t necessarily have the infrastructure to handle it. For us, it was a huge springboard to build the infrastructure of our company through wholesale.
WWD: Who is the Rag & Bone customer?
M.W.: I think Rag & Bone has some cool, good philosophies and design background. It first started in 2005 and it was 100 percent men’s clothes. That was the key to Rag & Bone and I think in terms of having the design part, we chose skills close to what we were doing, catering workwear all in the context of New York. And it’s more our way of thinking about clothes, and New York is incredibly inspiring, and the way you put clothes together.
WWD: What about retail? In 2008 you opened your first store. How did it change your business?
D.N.: It’s an interesting story. We had a meeting with Ralph Lauren in 2007 and one piece of advice that Ralph gave us was, open a store whether you can afford it or not. Don’t worry about it, just open it and it will force you to think about something and force you to create some environment and clothes and stories for our brand. So we had an amazing studio in the Meatpacking District and I used to walk to work and we couldn’t afford the rent on. We found a little coffee shop on Christopher Street and that was our first retail store. Then the video store became available next to us and it was everything that I just mentioned. And we opened this store and it did well. There was more space and we had sort of taken that and run with it and now we have 23 stores in America and incredible flagship locations in Los Angeles and Chicago. We have extremely productive and profitable stores and I think that’s largely based on the assortment that we have in the world of Rag & Bone.
WWD: We’re in 2015 and in 10 years you’ve built a solid business. What’s the secret to making this work?
D.N.: There are lots of different parts to our business and at the end of the day things are changing incredibly fast. The way you consume information…and it’s critically important that we keep up with that. The first thing you have to remember is you have to stay true to who you are and maintain the craftsmanship. The business today is fantastic and incredibly exciting. And you always have to remember that. With that being said, our focus is on innovation and doing things that feel new and feel exciting.
M.W.: It started out as men’s wear, representing men’s wear in a traditional runway format and it dawned on us, essentially, over a period of time that no one really cared to see yet another runway show. While it’s interesting and a beautiful format, everyone else was doing that so we turned it on its head. Instead of doing [a runway show], we can build on creating new ways to share the clothes. There are various films we made and it’s really fun … it’s fantastic and hardcore and it’s just really fun to do. There’s so much noise, you need to stay relevant and do things that last.
WWD: Consumers are more in control. How do you continue the conversation without compromising the values of the brand ?
M.W.: I think we have to be honest to our brand, authentic, to be simple. From the beginning we needed to embrace social media in our way. Back in 2011 we launched the DIY project pre-Instagram. We asked girls to take photographs of themselves because we didn’t have an advertising budget. So we sent them a box of clothes and a camera and weirdly, it was actually around the birth of Instagram. It had an incredible reach. Someone like Miranda Kerr taking pictures of herself — it was a huge success in terms of reaching the customer and doing it in a very cool way that was very original at the time.
WWD: Do you think it’s an intense time to be a brand right now?
D.N.: Yeah, absolutely, I think its pretty exciting. One of the things we talk about is the fact that — yesterday and tomorrow it’s important to be respectful of the past, realistic about the present and optimistic about the future. I think there are ways for the brand to engage in all of these things that are now available to us. Our CMO is talking about marketing budgets, we have money to be able to do these things and the lifestyle and we’ve never been shy about that.
WWD: What’s next for Rag & Bone? How can you achieve the Ralph Lauren-size business without losing the cool factor?
M.W.: It’s difficult. Our focus is on building the company. You have to focus on making the clothes that we sell. You have to be clear about your brand, speaking to people on lots of different levels. We’ve been very driven and work really hard, we’ve had a lot of luck, a lot of amazing advice and we definitely do feel like we have the opportunity to become one of the big American or one of the next big global brands. How we do that, we’re constantly figuring out. The way we communicate is probably most important. Then having fun and staying true to who you are and keeping at the back of your mind, always connecting with the consumer somehow. You’ve got to be creating that desire and asking, why do people buy clothes? They’re just being bombarded and there’s going to come a point where these guy are supporting one brand and it has a massive effect. What if they’re supporting 40 brands? Does it have the same effect? Our job as designers is to think about what is next — not next year, in the next decade. We have to start thinking, are we still a fashion company in the true sense of the word? Or do we start thinking immediately, start thinking like a tech company?