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Ariel and Shimon Ovadia, the 31-year- old twin designers of Ovadia & Sons, are not identical, though you would be forgiven for assuming that they were. They have the same close-cropped hair and red scruff beards. They finish each other’s sentences and sit at matching desks in their shared Soho office. But Shimon’s face, you come to realize, is a little longer, his voice a little reedier. He is the one you will sometimes find wearing leopard-print Vans.
This story first appeared in the November 26, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The occasional skate shoe aside, the Ovadias are most often found in sport coats, tailored trousers, and monk straps. They are the designers and poster boys for one of the brands most championed by the menswear blogosphere, a heterogeneous group that coalesces under the quippy rubric “#menswear.” Their designs represent one of the most popular of the movement’s many subsets: a stately, neo-geezer style. It accepts jeans and sneakers but prefers houndstooth blazers, pocket squares, and spread col- lars. It is a loving homage to an earlier time, before casual Fridays and the abolition of the requisite tie at ‘21.’
The brothers founded Ovadia & Sons three years ago, despite having no formal design training. It now has a small staff but remains Ovadia- owned and Ovadia-operated. “You hear all the time: Don’t go into business with your family,” says Shimon. “For us, it was only go into business with your family. We don’t want any outsiders.” It is a family business in the purest sense of the word, right down to its name, which alludes to their father and his history in the garment industry. “If it weren’t for him,” adds Shimon, “we would probably never be in this business.”
Moshe Ovadia, a professional soccer player in his native Israel, immigrated with his family to the U.S. in the early nineties. In his adopted country, he found his way into the garment trade. He knocked on doors in New York’s garment district, buying canceled orders from importers and licensees and then relabeling and selling them out of a set of red luggage. The company he founded, Magic Kids, was a family business by necessity. The staff included any and all relatives who happened to be around: his kids, his in-laws. After school, Ariel and Shimon would tag orders in their family living room until bedtime.
The company grew, and before the boys were out of high school, they were working like mid-level executives. In their teens, they were flying around the country to pitch their business to Walmart and JC Penney. “Our father was like, ‘If you want to go to college, you’re going to be a doctor or a lawyer,’ ” says Shimon. So they didn’t. They officially joined the company.
The apparel Magic Kids manufactures and distributes is both mass-produced and mass- market. Ovadia & Sons runs more to luxury: a line tailored not to mass tastes, but to their own. Theirs is a story of crossing the aisle from garmento to designer—or, put another way, how two kids without a college education or any design experience launched themselves from the observant Jewish enclave of Flatbush, Brooklyn, to a Vogue-sponsored fashion show at the Chateau Marmont. And did it without working on the Sabbath.
To hear the brothers tell it, they loved fashion from the beginning. “When we had the day off from school, we used to go with my father to work,” says Ariel. “We would walk in, and there would be bolts and bolts and bolts of fabric everywhere, mountains of it. Shimon and I would jump on it.”
“Even when we would walk around, we would always touch fabrics,” Shimon chimes in. “People thought we were nuts. I would just walk in a store and touch everything.”
At their yeshiva, the dress code was rigid: gray trousers and a light blue shirt or, on holidays, navy trousers and a white shirt. (Even so, they managed to sneak in the occasional Polo sweater.) Stifled by the restrictions, they lobbied for permission to go to public school and enrolled at James Madison High School on Bedford Avenue. “It was like a fashion show,” Shimon says.
There, they went through a rotation of the usual teenage style phases: streetwear, band T-shirts, punk-rock regalia. They spent weekends in Manhattan, shopping in Soho or on Madison Avenue, and shared a wardrobe, which they kept meticulously organized and arranged. “Every time he used to borrow something, it would come back with a stain,” Ariel laughs. “We’d yell at each other, ‘Put it back how you found it! Is that how I had it in the closet?’ ”
Meanwhile, their father’s business was expanding with the nineties boom. His original benefactor, who sold him his first canceled orders on credit, had acquired a host of lucrative licenses for children’s sportswear: jerseys from the NBA, NFL, MLB, and more. Ariel and Shimon continued to sell (if pressed, they will admit they still work on key accounts to this day). To modernize the operation, they pushed their father to open a showroom, got the company onto e-mail, took their wares to trade shows, and sent digital updates to regular clients in between. “My father’s super old-school,” Ariel says. “I said, ‘Dad, you can’t send Walmart a handwritten invoice. It’s not even an option.’”
“We were passionate about being successful and making our father proud of us,” Shimon adds. “I think that same passion relates to the passion we have for clothing. I don’t know why—who knows?”
By their late teens Ariel and Shimon had begun to develop their own children’s clothes but outsourced all the patterning and production. Design seems slightly too strong a word. “We would put a bunny here, a teddy bear there,” says Shimon.
The clothing was made in China, where factories handled every detail without question. “I could send them this table and tell them to copy it for me, and they’d do it,” says Ariel, rapping his desk. “It was a one-stop shop. Who knew about patterns? They get the zippers for you, they get the snaps, they make your woven label, the size label, the care instructions, the boxes….”
By contrast, from its first days, Ovadia & Sons has been made in the U.S.A., using fabrics sourced from France, Italy, and Japan. What one-stop shops had done before, several different factories are now required to handle. In the current business, up to eight different producers contribute to a single jacket, from trims to buttons, and all the patterns are custom-developed. (Increasingly, the fabrics are, too.)
The line began small, focusing mainly on shirting and some tailored pieces, all of which recalled an earlier, more formal style of menswear. (The brothers say they look to their grandfather, who loved to dress up, for style inspiration; their father tends to wear track pants and T-shirts unless under duress. Even so, pictures of both men are tacked to the brothers’ mood board in their office.) Their ties borrowed patterns from the British Royal Artillery; their shirts had the slightly starchy finesse of Savile Row, filtered through Ralph Lauren.
“For me, the tailored element of dressing was exciting because no one was doing it,” Shimon says. “I would put on a suit and a shirt and tie to go out to dinner. My friends would show up in T-shirts.”
THe 34th street childrenswear district might as well have been a continent away from the fashion establishment. They entered the business with no connections whatsoever, armed only with chutzpah (and, it must be said, the backing of Magic Kids). “No one helped us,” says Ariel. “Nobody. I tried. I went to people who had successful womenswear brands. They said, ‘I don’t know how to help you.’ We didn’t know where to make anything, who to contact. Zero.”
It’s not exactly fair to say the Ovadias had no support early on. Just from cold calls and e-mails—skills honed as Magic Kids salesmen— they managed to garner crucial early support from mainstream publications like GQ and major retailers such as Bloomingdale’s and, later, Barneys. But the key push for Ovadia & Sons occurred online, in the then-nascent menswear blogosphere, where there were no barriers to entry or industry connections to leverage.
The turning point, the brothers say, was when they were mentioned by Lawrence Schlossman, the blogger behind both Sartorially Inclined and How to Talk to Girls at Parties. In 2010, he wrote his first post about Ovadia & Sons, borrowing images from Women’s Wear Daily and linking to the Ovadias’ own Tumblr. “All of a sudden, any picture we put up had a thousand comments,” says Ariel.
Ovadia & Sons became one of the first brands to benefit from this groundswell of blogger support. The online menswear community was expanding rapidly—so rapidly, it ultimately spawned parodies of itself—and the Ovadias were primed, by accident or design, to take advantage. “Whether it’s coincidental that the Internet menswear [boom] was happening at the time they came up or whether they’re symptomatic of each other, I don’t really know,” says Schlossman. “But it seems like there’s a correlation between the two, for sure.”
The digital world created acolytes who grew with the brand and sought out its wares. It’s impossible to calculate exactly how this translates into dollars—though the Ovadias do run their own successful e-commerce site—but in terms of perception and recognition, it’s hard to over- state the influence. Schlossman jokes that Ovadia & Sons is on “the Mount Rushmore of the #menswear-endorsed brands.” Their strength in the digital space hasn’t diminished, he adds. “Now, when one of their new lookbooks comes out, if someone puts it on Tumblr—explosion.”
Industry players admit that suggestions from outlets such as Tumblr can be influential. “I don’t think it’s possible to work independently of that anymore,” says Sam Lobban, senior buyer at Mr. Porter, the e-tail site that began carrying Ovadia & Sons this fall. “There’s three or four menswear blogs that I check once or twice a day. I think it’s natural now for everyone to consume that kind of information online. To say that didn’t influence us would be kind of unfair, really.” (He hastens to add that it wasn’t as simple as seeing something on a blog and rushing to buy it. He had become aware of the line through several different points of contact, including GQ and outreach from the brothers themselves.)
Increasingly, the online world is bleeding into the off-line world. The second comment on Schlossman’s original 2010 Sartorially Inclined post on Ovadia & Sons is from a newly minted fan named Nicolas Lazaro. He now handles the company’s press. Schlossman has moved from independent blogger to editor in chief of Complex magazine’s men’s Web site, Four Pins. “A lot of people were paying attention to the Internet, what the bloggers were doing,” Shimon says. “Fast-forward a few seasons later, the bloggers are working at magazines, or they’re sitting front-row, or they’re editors or even buyers.”
Meanwhile, establishment accolades continue to roll in. In 2012, GQ named them one of its Best New Menswear Designers in America; later that year, the 111-year-old collegiate label J. Press named them creative directors of its new secondary collection, York Street. This past July, their own line was announced as one of ten finalists for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, a sponsorship competition that includes a cash prize and business mentorship.
On the heels of that announcement, the brothers launched themselves into the New York fashion week schedule with a presentation. The collection was by far their largest yet, and the most pronounced departure from their all-tailored look: Besides the usual double- breasted jackets and monk-strap shoes were emerald-green Hawaiian-print shirts and neoprene biker jackets. It was looks from this collection that they presented as part of the Fashion Fund group show at the Chateau Marmont, in L.A. They were a long way from Flatbush. David Beckham was overheard enthusing about their suiting; The Wire actor Michael B. Jordan was tweeting with them in the days after the show.
By the time this magazine reaches you, the winner will have been announced, and the odds for the Ovadias, to be frank, are long. But the momentum isn’t slowing, and though they acknowledge help and supporters along the way, the two have a way of making their own luck, not depending on outside forces.
“I was looking at the companies in the Fashion Fund, and, from what I know about the other brands, the other designers, they worked over here, they worked over there. It’s easier to have your voice heard if you’ve been in the business,” Ariel says.
“We’re really the only company that just came into this business, calling people on the phone with just the entrepreneurial spirit. Where we come from, everyone has this spirit, everyone has their own business. I called Barneys or Bloomingdale’s, and I said, ‘Hi, my name is Ariel Ovadia. I have a new brand that’s called Ovadia & Sons, and you have to come see it, because it’s the best collection you’ll see this season.’ ”
Their father, they report, thinks it is crazy that his sons sell shirts for more than $200 apiece, though he will wear one if they send it to him. And what it means for the future of the business they couldn’t say, but six months ago, Shimon had his first son.