As the founder of Restoration Hardware and former chief executive officer of Sundance, Stephen Gordon has a good sense for what makes people want to stay home and what makes them want to go out at night. Now some of that knowledge is being funneled into building his 15-month-old outdoorsy lifestyle label, Guideboat Co.
A year after the company’s first store bowed in a 19th-century lumberyard in Mill Valley, Calif., Gordon launched the brand’s first mail-order catalogue in September and an e-commerce site. Inspired in part by his childhood in the Adirondacks, Guideboat is an assortment of woodsy-worthy outerwear, sportswear and accessories. There are also more far-flung items such as tools, gear, camping sundries and books, including “Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities” and “Guide to Urban Moonshining.”
The company’s decision to up its catalogue distribution for the holidays to 500,000 in early November from 100,000 in September bolstered holiday direct-to-consumer sales by 50 percent more than Gordon’s expectations, which left staffers “scrambling for inventory,” he said. Offering shoppers the options of preordering and back ordering furthered sales via the catalogue and on its e-commerce site. For example, the oversold Guideboat’s $165 moleskin shirt required additional West Yorkshire-made fabric to be flown to the U.S. to assemble more shirts in time for the holidays, Gordon said. A $175 baby-alpaca roll-neck sweater and a French-designed quilted vest marked down to $150 were other holiday winners, said Gordon, adding, “We learned we’re in need of a more robust back-end system. In the end, I don’t believe we disappointed customers, but we certainly fatigued the staff — hence, my head cold.”
The seven-person corporate office was caught off guard by the number of shoppers who phoned to place orders, find out product and brand information and share stories about guideboats and the Adirondacks. So much so that eight recruits were needed to run a call center. “We spent quite a bit of time training them to ensure that if people were calling to connect with the brand that they were reaching real people who lived and breathed the brand also,” Gordon said.
The concept for Guideboat stemmed from his affinity for the 19th-century guideboats he used to row on Lake Champlain, growing up in the Adirondacks. After he acquired a rare 1892 J.H. Rushton guideboat a few years ago, Gordon decided to build an affordable rendition of Rushton’s hull design with American cherrywood trim and bronze fittings. He lined up YouTube cofounder Chad Hurley as financial and strategic partner to launch the Mill Valley-based endeavor. In addition to the $4,850 guideboat, the company now builds versions of a turn-of-the-century Maine Peapod and a 1949 Naples Sabot.
Designed to be authentic enough to hold up in the elements, the bulk of Guideboat apparel, about 65 percent, is made in the U.S. Design is handled by two independent designers that just decamped from their Brooklyn office to join the Mill Valley team. “I would love to do more American fashion, but America sadly doesn’t make a lot of fabric anymore,” Gordon said. “We learned really early on that consumers’ purchasing decisions started with, ‘God, I love it,’ and went to, ‘Is it a good perceived value?’ and then, ‘Is it made in America?’”
Gordon is considering wholesale, a concept that he got a taste for during a five-year run as ceo of Sundance that ended in 2010. “In that process, I developed new lines, opened some retail stores and brought in some design direction. That’s where I really got an affinity for apparel,” he said.
Prior to that, as founder of Restoration Hardware, Gordon expanded the chain’s retail from five stores in 1994 to 112 stores in 2010. (Today the company has 85 stores and generated $1.3 billion in sales in 2013.) The “penchant for editing” that he learned there is being put to use at Guideboat, he said. Camp Home, an edited assortment of summer home or cabin essentials, is a new category that has been added and “handsome but rugged” everyday jewelry, such as a sterling silver cuff that retails for less than $500, will be introduced in late spring, Gordon said.
Camp Home is in line with Gordon’s assessment of the cocooning trend’s staying power with consumers who continue to invest in home-related goods. As Baby Boomers age and empty nesters account for a larger portion of the population, both groups will be residing in smaller dwellings, he said. In addition, first- and second-home buyers are focused on higher-quality residences and furnishings, as predicted by Sarah Susanka’s book “The Not So Big House.” That trend will be fueled by rising real estate prices and continued interest in living “close in” rather than facing long commutes in order to live in big houses, according to Gordon.
“Thirdly, true environmentalism is all about producing less. Making shirts of organic cotton has less of a positive impact on the environment than not making them at all. The same is true in spades with home construction and home furnishings,” he said. “Less is better, and I believe there is an ever-escalating trend for first-time buyers of both dwellings and their furnishings being respectively focused on less and smaller spaces and less but higher-quality furnishings and goods. Less fashion, longer lived.”