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How did two straight guys from England without a stitch of fashion or design experience between them turn a pair of jeans into a surging American brand that’s in more than 700 doors globally?

This story first appeared in the May 29, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

David Neville and Marcus Wainwright, who met as teenagers at a boarding school in England, don’t consider Rag & Bone a denim company despite a healthy jeans business, but the label’s roots go back to a simple, rudderless moment in Wainwright’s life. In 2001, after living in New York for five months with nothing better to do — no job prospects, fashion or otherwise — he decided on a whim to try to make himself the ultimate pair of jeans. “That was the initial sort of seed that led to us to the Yellow Pages, looking up patternmakers, going up to the Garment District to try to find denim,” Wainwright said.

It’s not as romantic and happily accidental as that. Wainwright, who at the time was in business with another schoolmate from England, Nathan Bogle (he eventually left the company), had the foresight to trademark Rag & Bone in 2002, two years before he had any product to show. His first attempt at producing an order with a Chinese agent was “pretty crushing,” he said. “There was no soul to the product. It didn’t have that timeless feeling. It wasn’t well made. Everything was wrong with it from my perspective.”

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Back to the Yellow Pages, where Wainwright found a factory in Kentucky that had at one point employed 3,000 sewers to work on denim for Levi’s and Wrangler. It had been bought by a Mexican company and reduced to a team of 60, who Wainwright convinced to work with him on Rag & Bone. He spent nearly two years working alongside the seamstresses to perfect his product, a mixture of denim and English tailoring, only to see the factory go out of business when its owners pulled the plug.

“It took 18 months of constant trips, of learning and f–king up until we had something that was salable,” said Wainwright. “To watch that wealth of experience evaporate in one day made us understand that we wanted to make clothes that were real and stood for something.”

Thus the birth of Rag & Bone the brand — and Wainwright and Neville very much consider it a brand as opposed to just a fashion line. “Before we did this, I was definitely a consumer,” said Neville, who joined Wainwright in 2003, as the marketing and business counterpart to Wainwright’s design position, though both hold the title of managing partner. “I loved the idea of brands. I loved going to Gucci when Tom Ford was doing it in the late Nineties. I loved what Hedi Slimane did for Dior. I was completely enamored with Ralph Lauren when I first came to New York and seeing that Rhinelander mansion. I think ‘brand’ is a communication really. It’s all perception, it’s sort of a belief in how that brand speaks to you. Why would you buy a white T-shirt from Rag & Bone versus Calvin Klein? It’s because of the way it resonates with you.”

This philosophical point of view has reinforced Rag & Bone’s aesthetic vision — a blend of New York street, classic English tailoring and American sportswear, smartly priced at the advanced contemporary level ($255 to $2,800 at retail for women’s wear). The fashion quotient, particularly for women’s, has steadily gained as Rag & Bone’s runway show has become a hot ticket during New York Fashion Week. That in turn attracted the right industry people: Howard Socol and Julie Gilhart when they were at Barneys New York; Anna Wintour, who helped them participate in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2006, where they were finalists, the same year they met Andrew Rosen.

Rosen has been pivotal in Rag & Bone’s trajectory, as a friend, mentor and minority stakeholder. The latter happened after the three were introduced through a friend of Neville’s wife, makeup artist Gucci Westman, when Rosen was looking for designers to relaunch Helmut Lang. Ultimately, Neville and Wainwright weren’t right for that job, but Rosen saw potential and bought in and bestowed upon Rag & Bone his lifetime of wholesale and retail expertise. His immediate advice was to focus on the U.S. market and pull back from Europe and Asia, where Rag & Bone had been trying to build without the proper infrastructure.

“He also gave us the confidence to build,” said Wainwright. “When you don’t know where you’re going, it’s quite hard to step up the confidence to do certain things.” They increased their deliveries and started doing pre-collections. The business grew from a handful of employees to the 350 at present count. Rag & Bone relaunched denim under the label Rag & Bone/Jean, which is now roughly the size of women’s ready-to-wear, the company’s biggest business. They also added shoes and most recently handbags, two categories where they see major opportunity to grow. Earlier this year, Rosen brought on John Howard’s Irving Capital as another minority investor.

One of the most monumental moments in Neville and Wainwright’s career came in late 2007 when Wintour set up a meeting with Ralph Lauren, another designer who started with a single item, in his case ties, and built it into a megabrand. “We were both a little star struck,” said Neville. “His biggest piece of advice to us was to open a store.” They did, beginning with a small space on Christopher Street in 2008, and they’re now up to 12 freestanding stores globally.

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