Vineyard Vines: A Whale of a Time

Explaining how their company, Vineyard Vines, stemmed from wanting to enjoy life more, co-founders and co-chief executive officers Ian and Shepherd Murray...

The dunking machine said it all.

This story first appeared in the September 27, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Explaining how their company, Vineyard Vines, stemmed from wanting to enjoy life more, co-founders and co-chief executive officers Ian and Shepherd Murray casually mentioned how their employees surprised them at the last staff gathering with a dunking machine. Clearly, while building their brand into a $37 million retail and wholesale operation in eight years, the brothers are having fun along the way.

“It’s about really good people living really good lives,” Shepherd Murray said. “That life can be great if you set out to do things you want to do.”

Sailing, fishing, road races, regattas, barbecues, college road trips and charity drives are among the many interests they have managed to work into their job descriptions — all in the name of branding. But it hasn’t been all fun and games.

Tired of the daily white-collar commute into Manhattan, the Murrays decided to break out by starting a business printing neckties with insignias of their favorite place, Martha’s Vineyard. Their aim was to create conversation pieces that would bond people together. Sons of travel writers, the pair had globe-trotted enough and stayed at enough $2,500-per-night hotels to know there were more enjoyable ways to live. But they weren’t blinded by the good life. “We were not allowed to get a soda from the minibar because that cost $4,” Shepherd Murray recalled.

Before quitting their corporate jobs and while still living at their parents’ home in Connecticut, they applied for as many credit cards as possible, bought a used car and made the most of their dental plans, which included having their wisdom teeth pulled even though Ian Murray didn’t need to. Unsuccessful in borrowing money from their local bank to launch their company, they used credit cards to roll over their debt from one month to the next for the first four years they were in business — throughout which time their parents asked if they were meeting with headhunters about real jobs. The graphic designers at Young & Rubicam, where Shepherd Murray worked, helped develop a logo for the new firm. His brother routinely showed up there in a business suit to focus on the venture. “No one knew he didn’t work there,” Shepherd Murray said.

Inspired by entrepreneurs such as Jimmy Buffett, Richard Branson, JetBlue’s David Neeleman and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz for reinventing products that had long been in existence, the Murrays said they, too, wanted to take a seemingly boring thing and make it an experience. Early on they weren’t above hawking ties at middle school holiday bazaars and, to this day, much of their marketing continues to be rooted in grassroots efforts instead of conventional advertising. The brothers also have been savvy about getting American dream-type stories in the media, which only raises the brand’s profile.

They also use ingenuity whenever possible. When then-president Bill Clinton came under fire during one of his summer vacations on Martha’s Vineyard for a tie given to him by Monica Lewinsky, the Murrays worked their own tie angle. Ian Murray dropped by the presidential press center unannounced and draped himself in Vineyard Vines ties. Needless to say, his extreme tie modeling was splashed all over the media.

The brand has expanded over the years into women’s, men’s and children’s clothing, as well as flip-flops, bags, belts and other accessories. But all the products are in keeping with the label’s island-inspired lifestyle.

Vineyard Vines’ catalogue and Web site are also extensions of that way of life and feature everyday people with short synopses of their lives, Murray family photos, customers’ wedding snaps and images of the company’s pink whale logo spotted in far-flung places. Even the company’s four freestanding stores are covered with photos of customers wearing the brand.

“This has never been about making money,” Shepherd Murray said. “When you do the right thing, it shows in your success and with good people you become even more successful.”