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Family Ties

Natural collaborators, the founders of Mitchells and Vineyard Vines share similar backgrounds.

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Special Issue
WWD Milestones issue 07/21/2008

NEW YORK — When Vineyard Vines cofounders and chief executives Shep and Ian Murray left their corporate jobs in Manhattan to start a small neckwear company on Martha’s Vineyard 10 years ago, they had no idea that their little line of colorful, offbeat ties would grow into a $60 million lifestyle brand, complete with a network of retail stores.

This story first appeared in the July 21, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

 

“We left the daily commute to New York City and our corporate jobs to pursue the things we love, and spread the island state of mind by making ties that represent the finer things that life has to offer,” says Shep.

 

In 1998, with their day jobs behind them, the two brothers turned what had been a weekend-only concept of making neckties inspired by Martha’s Vineyard into reality. They peddled their silk ties on Martha’s Vineyard, sometimes off their boat and other times selling their product door-to-door.

 

One of the first accounts the duo landed off-island was none other than Richards, the renowned Greenwich, Conn., men’s specialty store run by the Mitchell family. Ed Mitchell created his own success story when, like Shep and Ian Murray, he abandoned his advertising career in Manhattan to open a small men’s specialty store in Westport, Conn.

 

Shortly after Richards began carrying Vineyard Vines, the Murray brothers, both Greenwich natives, began spending a lot of time at the store, learning the retail environment and observing firsthand the Mitchell family’s superior form of customer service. “We started to feel like we were employees of the store,” says Ian. “We learned about their work ethic and customer service, and we started having great trunk shows and really enjoying our friendship with the family.”

 

Over the next few years Vineyard Vines expanded exponentially beyond its initial tie offering to include a full range of sportswear for men, women and children. The need for a larger space to properly represent the brand’s complete collection quickly became apparent to Shep and Ian, who got on the phone with Bob Mitchell, the co-president of his family’s company.

 

“We said, ‘We want to open a store in Greenwich, but we don’t want to compete with you,’ and they immediately said it was great idea and would help us any way they could,” Ian recalls. “They had become emotionally invested in the brand, in what we do, and both parties realized the need for a Vineyard Vines store—how and if we were going to partner was secondary.” The strategy was simple: Diversify the Mitchells business a little bit, while Shep and Ian gained expertise and knowledge in the retail arena.

 

In September 2006 the partnership became a reality when Ian and Shep celebrated the debut of a 5,500-square-foot Vineyard Vines flagship store at 145 Greenwich Avenue with the Mitchell family. “There’s a whole segment of people who wanted to buy this brand, but Richards was just not their shopping environment,”

 

Bob Mitchell told DNR at the time of the store’s opening. Fittingly adorned with lobster traps, fishing rods and a cash-wrap replica of Shep and Ian’s boat, the store embodied the lively Vineyard Vines spirit and served as a template for future stores. “You get the same hospitality when you walk into a Richards or Mitchells, but the difference is you have Jimmy Buffett playing on the speaker and cocktail parties taking place in the back at night,” says Cameron Gammill, the manager of retail sales for Vineyard Vines stores, who oversees the units with Anne Danielson.

 

The partnership worked so well—with the Mitchells responsible for the hands-on store operation and the Vineyard Vines team designing, producing and marketing the product—that the two families opened three more stores together.

 

In November 2007 a small Vineyard Vines outpost at The Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Fla., opened, followed by a 3,500-square-foot space in Westport, Conn., and a 6,000-square-foot store in the nation’s capital, both this past April.

 

The Mitchells also help operate the brand’s Edgartown flagship. (Vineyard Vines also maintains partnerships with Massachusetts specialty shops Murray’s Toggery and Puritan Clothing Co. to operate freestanding stores on Nantucket and Cape Cod, respectively, and they joined forces with the Levy family, owners of renowned Memphis, Tenn., specialty store Oak Hall, to open a Vineyard Vines store in Memphis this past January.)

 

“The Mitchell family runs a class act,” says Shep. “They have so many moving parts and family members—the product they deliver is incredible, and they are passionate about continually evolving.”

 

While each store has its own merchandise plan, the retail formula remains the same. Both organizations have strong and identical theories on customer service, and all employees get training at the store as well as Vineyard Vines headquarters. “The attention that the Mitchell family gives each customer is a philosophy we preached as a brand before going into retail,” says Gammill. Hiring mostly comes via word of mouth or internal connections. And while
both sides are mum about what the retail stores are generating, Shep told DNR that they are doing better than was ever expected and that more are likely on the way.

 

“The Mitchells took a chance on us,” says Shep. “If someone had asked them two years ago what their strategy was, they would not have said us—they are continually willing to think outside the box and keep taking it to the next level.”

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