NEW YORK — Nick Graham offered up a preview of the title and cover art for his new book — “If You Don’t Ask, the Answer Is No: True Stories About Changing the World…and Its Underwear” — during a Fashion Group International event Wednesday night. One problem though: The book isn’t actually written yet.
But that didn’t stop the founder of Joe Boxer and the Nick Graham collection from offering up an hour of lively stories and motivational moments from his career. Those stories will be the crux of the book — when the designer actually finds the time to sit down and write it, he said.
Since his childhood in Canada as the son of two immigrants from England, Graham has found innovative ways to get noticed. That includes everything from the world’s fastest fashion show — 1.2 seconds by a human cannonball — to a presentation at 30,000 feet on a transatlantic Virgin Atlantic flight, shooting underwear into space on a rocket to 126,000 feet, and other off-the-wall antics that have come to define his career. Most recently, he has shown his lifelong love for science by teaming with astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Bill Nye and NASA for collections inspired by space travel.
But don’t dismiss Graham as merely a performer. With no formal advertising, he built Joe Boxer underwear into a $100 million brand with an 87 percent awareness rate. And his current collection of tailored clothing and furnishings is carried at Macy’s and other retailers.
Graham got his start in fashion by trying to impress a girl who lived down the street from him in Calgary. To attract her attention, he decided to make her a dress. He made the dress, but didn’t get the girl.
When he was in his 20s, he moved to San Francisco and started designing underwear. He quickly attracted the attention of the FBI because he had printed $100 bills onto boxer shorts, a definite no-no. They raided his loft and confiscated and burned every pair except the one he was wearing.
But that didn’t deter the entrepreneur. He went on to create a more-legal line of novelty ties and boxer shorts and set out to make his mark.
“People buy feelings, not things,” he said, adding that creating a successful brand is more about building an emotional relationship than merely selling product. He pointed to brands such as Ralph Lauren, Apple, Chanel and Disney as among the companies that own this strategy of offering up what he defines as “emotional gross margin,” the difference between the cost of the goods and their value to consumers.
What sets these brands apart, he said, is that they were founded by true storytellers who created a personality for their products, something other aspiring entrepreneurs should emulate.
Amid a slide presentation that showed Graham dressed in drag alongside Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic and a rendering of one of his bow ties adorning the neck of the Statue of Liberty, Graham offered some other valuable lessons.
Success is defined by “brand memory,” he said, or creating a lasting connection with consumers, and “The Brand is the Amusement Park, the Product is the Souvenir.”
He ended his “performance piece” with a thoughtful set of slides from a book that he actually did write, called “100 Questions.” (A signed copy of which is available on Amazon in hardcover for $20.16.) For eight minutes, he flashed questions on the screen that asked about people’s backgrounds and motives and how they want to be remembered.