Todd Snyder, Men's Summit

Having worked in the industry for 20-plus years at companies such as Ralph Lauren and J. Crew, the designer, a three-time CFDA award nominee, ventured out on his own four years ago to launch his signature brand.

Todd Snyder was unabashed about how abandoning his collegiate plan to become an architect allowed him to build a house of a different kind.

Having worked in the industry for 20-plus years at companies such as Ralph Lauren and J. Crew, the designer, a three-time CFDA award nominee, ventured out on his own four years ago to launch his signature brand. “My dad always told me, ‘If you want to be the best, work for the best,’” he said. “For me, there was nothing better than Ralph Lauren. And when I met Mickey Drexler, there was nothing better than his vision and what he’s done. I started my own brand because I saw a real void in the marketplace. Throughout my career, I was able to shop the industry to see what was missing.”

This story first appeared in the April 2, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Snyder said he aimed to build a brand around updated American classics such as a sweatshirt, chinos, “a great jean” and a suit — essentially the go-to items in his own closet. “But I wanted to reinvent that and update that. I felt that the American designer especially is always getting eclipsed by the Europeans,” he said. “J. Crew really showed me there’s a customer out there who wants great quality and something a little nicer, but that is still luxury.”

After interning at Ralph Lauren in 1992, a year later he joined J. Crew, where he taught himself how to sew, thanks in part to helping the company’s tailors during his off-hours. Unable to afford designer labels, he went to Manhattan’s “amazing fabric stores” and started making his own shirts at home on the weekends. “That’s actually how I got known. I was in a meeting with the head merchant, who said, ‘That’s a cool shirt. Where did you get it?’ I told him that I made it’ and he said, ‘What?’

“It seems like a crazy idea, but…that got me noticed. And lo and behold, I started getting invited to more meetings and getting my opinion asked more. I was able to use that experience to build my career and work with some great people,” Snyder said.

After leaving J. Crew in 2005, Snyder played a pivotal role in opening The Liquor Store in TriBeCa in 2008 with Andy Spade. “That curated men’s shop with multibrand collaborations located in what used to be a neighborhood bar and liquor store really changed the way J. Crew was perceived in the industry,” Snyder said. But teaming with Alden and Shinola did not come easy, as Snyder said he sometimes had to ask potential partners more than 10 times to work with him. Such tenaciousness paid off, considering that J. Crew sold more than one million units of Timex watches, for example, according to Snyder.

Motivated by the successful collaborations he helped to put in place at J. Crew, Snyder lined up ones with Champion, PF Flyers and Cole Haan once out on his own. He also cited the successful launch of his soft-shoulder, American-made $795 suit under the Todd Snyder White Label that launched with Nordstrom and is now being added at Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue.

“In the last 10 years, men have become incredible connoisseurs of whiskey, food, clothing and art. Millennials have really changed how they look,” Snyder said. “They want to know, ‘Who makes it? Why is it designed that way? Where do the vegetables come from? What was the name of the cow that was killed?’ The same thing has happened with men’s wear. They don’t just want to go to a department store. They want to know everything.”

With a three-story multibrand store called The Townhouse up-and-running in Tokyo, Snyder plans to open three more stores in Japan through a partner there. Having seen how a three-month pop-up store with Champion in New York wound up being extended to 18 months, Snyder said he would like to eventually open a permanent New York store. But the city’s requisite 10-year lease, and six months’ rent in advance policy is too much of a financial burden for him to carry on his own. “We’re trying to find a partner or a pop-up opportunity or something,” he said.

Snyder, who is also working on a gray flannel version of Eames’ management chair, said the dominance of European designers remains a struggle for American designers both here and abroad. “I will say this to the retailers here: Everyone wants European brands right now [in the U.S.] and it’s the same thing in Europe. It’s really hard to open accounts there. The only exception is Japan. They love American fashion and they really embrace it.”