Jeff Abrams, founder of US casualwear brand Rails, tells Drapers about the inspiration he gets from travelling and what brings him back to his home in Los Angeles
In his early twenties, Jeff Abrams moved from Los Angeles to Italy and spent time travelling around Europe. During this period, the idea for Rails was born – a womenswear brand that combines European and Californian styles, inspired by travel and using beautifully soft fabric. He began in the summer of 2006 by selling a hat, but the brand quickly became known for its checked shirts. For autumn 15 Rails introduced some menswear and kidswear, and for spring 16 more denim and dresses, underpinning Abrams’ plans to develop it into a lifestyle brand and eventually open some stores.
You don’t have a fashion background – why launch a brand?
The idea came to me when I was travelling around on the Eurorail. I wanted to blend the more sophisticated styling I was seeing with the more casual, relaxed vibe of my southern California upbringing. I had been working for a TV company, in marketing and advertising, but I didn’t want to do it forever; I wanted to create something. I came back to the US, bought a black hat, sewed a Rails label on to it and started walking around stores trying to get people to sell it.
I spent three or four months driving all over the US with my hat, walking into stores as a door-to-door salesman, trying to get orders. Slowly I began to build up retailers and adding pieces to the collection. I went to China and made a plaid shirt with this super drapey, luxe feel, and that’s when it started to take off.
How did the brand attract such a strong celebrity following?
Since the beginning we’ve always had a lot of celebrity press and that’s been a huge part of our growth. We’re always showing up on people like Gisele (Bündchen), Kate Moss, Cara Delevingne, Beyoncé. A lot of that has been organic, we haven’t paid anyone to wear anything – we might do some celebrity seeding, but a lot of the time they’ve actually bought it as consumers.
The next day the company called and said, “Sorry, the truck was robbed and all of the boxes are missing.” I had to call Anthropologie and explain
What was the hardest part of launching a brand on your own?
When I started I had no employees or partner. For the first two years it was like pushing a boulder up a hill. I’d wake up at 6am, switch on my computer and start trading stocks until 1pm, then I would go downtown and work from 1pm to 9pm trying to figure out what to do. I’d walk around from factory to factory asking people, “Will you help me make this?” I stood in the factories, learning.
Did you ever have second thoughts?
My first big order in the US was 3,000 units for Anthropologie. It took me three months to make, working by myself. I packed up every box and an 18-wheel truck came to pick them up. It was an $80,000 order. The next day I came in, and the company called and said, “Sorry, the truck was robbed and all of the boxes are missing.” I had to call Anthropologie and explain it was too late to remake everything. I could have gone out of business. But you learn to become a problem solver.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
From travelling. This year I’ve been on three big European trips already, including to London, Paris, Scandinavia, Germany and Italy. I’ve been to Australia because we have a big distribution there and I’ve been to China three times this year. While I try to keep that southern California branding, it’s important to know what’s working in each country.
Despite your love for travel, you are still based in LA. What keeps you there?
LA has that beachy California vibe. The pace of life is slower than, say, New York. People are outdoors; they’re active. They want to look good but be comfortable. Also, California has become much more influential on the global fashion stage. Through social media you have such easy access to bloggers and celebrities, and a lot of them are based in LA. We’re starting to get questions on how LA is influencing Parisian style. Before, no Parisian was going to look to LA for their style cues.
Do you have that beachy lifestyle?
I used to surf all the time, but as I’ve got busier it’s been less frequent. I do try to get in the water in LA during the summer and occasionally take a trip with my friends to somewhere like Costa Rica. I’m not an expert surfer, but I’m decent. There’s something relaxing about going in the water.