It all started with a visit to Greenwich Village.
This story first appeared in the November 3, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Bronx, N.Y.-born Robert Feigelstock was in search of the perfect bathing suit, and with $9 from his mother in his pocket, the teenager hopped on the subway and headed down to the bohemian shopping district. When he arrived, he was bowled over by all the cool retail shops and apparel choices that he found — everything from the Village Squire and the Shed House to the Naked Grape. From that point on, there was no turning back. “I was hooked,” said Robert Stock, who subsequently shortened his name to make it more generic.
That one visit downtown spawned a career that includes the launch of several successful lines including Country Britches, Chaps and Robert Stock, as well as his most recent undertaking, the colorful and eclectic Robert Graham collection. Over the course of his 41-year-career, Stock has won several accolades, including both a Cutty Sark Award and a Coty Award. He was also an original member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
The Robert Graham line, the backbone of which is its high-end woven shirts with their intricate mix of fabrics, trims and embroidery, now has annual sales in excess of $100 million. Earlier this year, the company received a cash infusion from Tengram Capital Partners LLC, which is intended to catapult the brand to the next level. So far, apparel industry veteran Michael Buckley has been added to the team as chief executive officer and the company has signed licensing deals for denim and tailored clothing to add to its sportswear, furnishings and outerwear. The company also produces a women’s collection that consists of sportswear tops and outerwear. There is one store, on Venice Beach’s Abbot Kinney Boulevard in California, with more on the horizon, and the label also sells at upscale stores including Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus in the U.S., Bloomingdale’s in Dubai and Harry Rosen throughout Canada. Overall, the brand has a presence in nearly two dozen countries.
Not bad for a kid from the Bronx whose first real jobs in fashion were for Bronx retailers Simon Ackerman, an Ivy League specialist, and Alvin Murray Ltd., a store on the Grand Concourse that Stock said was “the epitome of cool” at the time.
Interestingly, Stock isn’t the only fashion designer who grew up in the Bronx.
“One Saturday, I opened the [Alvin Murray] store with the manager and this dude comes riding up on a vintage Morgan wearing a flight suit and an aviator hat. He was carrying a bunch of ties,” Stock said.
That tie salesman was none other than Ralph Lauren, another Bronx boy who was trying to make his way in the fashion industry by designing ties.
Not long after, Stock said, Lauren confided that he was going to launch his own business and “a few months later, he started a company named Polo.” Shortly after that, Stock visited Lauren at his tiny office in the Empire State Building and asked him for a job.
Although there was no room for Stock in the fledgling Polo operation, he related, Lauren instead recommended “a company making really cool tweed bell-bottom pants.” Lauren made a call on Stock’s behalf and he joined Paul Ressler as a salesman. The year was 1966.
“I was totally into Brooks Brothers, very classic and traditional, but he hired me as a salesman and my territory was the Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island and New Jersey,” Stock said. The stores in the Village that had attracted him as a teenager were now his customers. “The Village Squire would place an order, the pants would come in on a Friday, they’d sell out over the weekend and then they’d get more the next Friday.”
After a few months, the company asked if Stock would be interested in getting into design, and he agreed.
That opportunity opened up a whole new world for the young man, who left soon after to start his own brand, Country Britches, a classic sportswear label. Success soon followed and three years later, Stock received a call from his old friend Ralph Lauren. whose own business had grown to the point where he could add staff. Lauren asked Stock to come on board to work on a more moderately priced division of Polo.
“I always believed in Ralph and thought he had a vision way beyond his years,” Stock said. So in 1973, Stock sold Country Britches to join Polo and work on the development of Chaps. “It was pretty successful,” he said with a smile.
But soon after, Stock said, “we decided to part ways.” According to a story in DNR in 1977, Stock left Chaps in a period when the company was having financial difficulties and in the midst of a managerial shake-up. “I loved working with Ralph but I felt it was time for me to go out and design under my own name,” Stock said.
Stock joined Manhattan Industries, working with Alan Sirkin and Henry Grethel, then Eagle Shirtmakers before joining Creighton Industries, where in 1977 he created the Country Roads by Robert Stock collection of traditional sportswear. It was for this collection that Stock won the Coty Award the next year.
With that accolade as an impetus, Stock branched out on his own and launched Robert Stock Designs, a men’s sportswear company that soon branched out into other categories, including tailored clothing, furnishings, neckwear, jeans, knitwear, hosiery, footwear, loungewear and outerwear. “Our first license was in Japan and we also had a license with Lanier Clothes for 10 years,” Stock said.
At the same time, he produced Robert Stock Finery, a higher-end collection, and for this line he won the Cutty Sark Award for best American sportswear brand in 1986.
In the mid-Nineties, Stock began designing sandwashed silk shirts under the Robert Stock label. “I became the King of Silk,” he said with a laugh. His shirts and activewear-inspired apparel were a big hit with customers and, at its peak, he was shipping 1 million units a month.
But like a lot of good things, the business soon dwindled and Stock decided to just license the Robert Stock brand to Capital Mercury.
“But in 2000, I started getting restless,” he said. “Capital Mercury had taken over all Robert Stock products, I wasn’t happy because I couldn’t run my own show and I wanted to expand as a designer. Most of what they were doing was a main-floor line, not a collection. I wanted to expand my horizons.”
So Stock traveled to Première Vision in Paris and was visited Timney Fowler, a London-based brand from the husband-and-wife team of Sue Timney and Grahame Fowler that was selling fabrics as well as “unusual funky embellished shirts.”
“They had a few shirts that were different and cool. They had numbers on the back and different patterned sleeves,” Stock said.
The intricate designs did not lend themselves to voluminous sales, yet Stock was convinced the shirts could be a commercial success.
“We decided to collaborate on the design of the collection and went to everybody to see if they could make the shirts,” Stock said. “They thought we were crazy and said they were impossible to manufacture.”
But he turned to his Indian manufacturing partner, the Goenka family of Textport, with whom he had a 25-year relationship, and they produced the samples. They also helped finance the launch of the first collection of what would become Robert Graham.
“It was myself and Grahame but we needed somebody to sell it and believe in it,” Stock said. Enter Neal Kusnetz, who had his own record company but also served as director of sales for Calvin Klein.
“I said, ‘We should hire this guy,’ but Grahame said his hair was too long,” Stock said with a laugh.
Stock prevailed and Kusnetz joined the company, first as a part-timer and then as a full-timer. He serves today as president of the brand and has an equity stake in the business.
Robert Graham made its debut at the Designers Collective in summer 2001 and its first promotional materials were produced on a shoestring budget, featuring a gardener in Bangalore as the model, Stock related. But the unusually patterned shirts attracted retailers and Fred Segal was the first store to place an order. “They were our first customer and they’re still our customer,” Stock said.
Although Fowler opted to leave the business after the first couple of seasons, the company has flourished in the past 10 years. “We’ve had a wonderful run,” Stock said. “The whole reason for starting this company was to offer a whole different take on men’s wear.”
Instead of blue oxfords and pinstripes, Stock sought to design what he calls an “American eclectic” collection that blends British, Italian and U.S. influences together “like a good bouillabaisse with a little humor.” He likens the look to Paul Smith or Etro and views it as “wearable art.”
Over the course of the past decade, no two shirts have been alike and each style has a different embroidery inside.
Stock said his brand was responsible for popularizing the turn-up cuff in America as customers sought to show off the different patterns on the inside.
“We design all our fabrics from scratch,” he said. “We have a huge library of textiles and we will take patterns apart, recolor them and put them back together.”
And embroidered on each shirt is the company’s motto: Knowledge, Wisdom, Truth. Stock said the saying came after a brainstorming session with Kusnetz and Fowler. “We needed something,” he said. “We weren’t doing polo players or alligators and we wanted to put something on the shirt. We came up with those words because that’s how we want to run our lives.”
Stock admits that while he hoped the line would be successful, he never expected it to be this popular.
“It is a true pleasure working with Robert and his entire team,” said Russ Patrick, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s wear for Neiman Marcus. “We have a long-standing relationship based on our mutual passion for delivering new and exciting product on a continual basis. The creativity and novelty that Robert provides has led to a very successful business in every Neiman Marcus location. We not only have a core group of passionate collectors but we are also introducing new clients to the brand every day. We also greatly appreciate that the Robert Graham team understands the importance of visiting our stores on a regular basis. That connection with our management, associates and the final consumer is critical to our continued success.”
Carol Denton, co-owner of The Club in Carmel, Calif., said, “It’s amazing the volume we do with Robert Graham.” Stock designed two special shirts for a recent Porsche event, she said, and the store sold 160 units in four days. She said the company discovered the brand at “a tiny booth at Project,” and it has been a top seller ever since. “Every day, we would call and ask them what else they had. We would take ones or twos of anything until the next delivery. And people collect the shirts. He comes here every August and designs five shirts for us. People will call a month in advance to find out when they’re coming in. It’s a phenomenon.”
The brand knows of at least 49 collectors who each own 100 or more shirts. Once documented, a customer with that number of shirts can have their own style created and named after him. They also get two free shirts.
“Sir Ronald has over 300 shirts,” Stock said of one of the company’s best customers, Ronald Baker of Arizona.
“It’s one of the most amazing phenomenons,” he said. “Never in my wildest dreams would I think that over 40 people would own 100 of my shirts. That keeps me motivated and pumped up.”
What also keeps Stock motivated is the opportunity to expand the brand even further with the backing of Tengram.
“We felt the timing was right to expand the business beyond the present partnership, which was me, Neal and our Indian partners,” he said. “So we sold a percentage, but we wanted to sell to people who understand the business and take it to the next level.”
Bill Sweedler, co-founder of Tengram, said at the time of the investment that he was attracted to the brand, which had expanded beyond just woven shirts, into “a true American lifestyle brand with a very strong following among 35- to 50-year-old men.” He believes the future is bright “to foster, support and build” the business over the next several years.
Even though Stock is 65, he has no plans to retire. “This is like a hobby to me,” he said. “I love it so much, I will continue to work as long as I’m healthy. But I have great people around me if I want to ease out.”