The Robert Graham owner talks to Ana Santi about naming shirts after the brand’s fans and his early days with Ralph Lauren
How did you get into the fashion business?
I used to work at an indie retailer in the Bronx [in New York], where Ralph Lauren would come in and sell us his ties in the late 1960s. He introduced me to a friend who had a trouser business, so I was going to college at night to study liberal arts, and selling trousers by day – I was making $2,000 a week, while my friends were on $30. A few years later, Ralph got in touch and I became a designer for his trousers business, Chaps. After a couple of years I decided I wanted to design under my own name. The last time I saw Ralph was about a year and a half ago. I really admire him – we used to say that when Ralph was 13, he was actually 40.
Why did you launch the Robert Graham brand?
I launched it about nine years ago because nothing was happening in the men’s shirting market. Only Paul Smith and Ted Baker were exciting, but there was so much you could do with men’s shirts that no one else was doing. It was difficult to find a partner that would make the collection because our designs were
so avant-garde, but then we found a manufacturer in India willing to make the shirts for us. Each shirt had four to five different fabrics and trims.
So why is the brand called Robert Graham instead of Robert Stock?
I started the business with Graham Fowler of textile company Timney Fowler, but he left the business two years after we launched.
Is it true that Robert Graham fans can get shirts named after them?
Yes. Over the past two years the brand has become quite ‘culty’. Anyone who owns more than 100 Robert Graham shirts gets a shirt named after them. We pick a shirt from the collection and put the person’s name on the label.
Menswear is one of the first sectors to be hit in a downturn – how is it affecting you?
The recession is absolutely affecting us, but the people who buy our shirts have money and want to feel good. We also have an amazing distribution in the US – we’re in [luxury department stores] Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and some 650 independents. Our customers also range from 20 to 80-year-olds because we’re more a lifestyle brand – it’s about an attitude, not an age.
How’s business in the UK?
We’ve been in the UK for almost two years now and it’s going well. In this dead economy we’re one of the bright spots in a lot of indies. The product really stands out. The same product that sells in the US sells in the UK and we’re building our UK distribution to mirror our US business.
What does the future hold for Robert Graham?
We’re looking at expanding into other product categories. We already operate a leather goods and hosiery business under licence and we’ll be introducing trousers, hats and cufflinks for spring 10. We’ll probably do footwear, but I want to spend a year studying the market. I admire brands like Paul Smith – when they do something, they do it well.
What is your favourite era in fashion?
The 1930s – everybody was so elegant then.
Which designers do you admire?
Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani and Paul Smith.
What is your favourite shop?
It used to be a men’s mod shop in Greenwich Village in New York, but it’s no longer open. Now, it’s a Japanese bespoke footwear shop in Florence called Hidetake Fukdya. The shoes cost ¤3,000 (£2,551). I don’t buy them.
Which is your favourite city to shop in?
London and Florence
- Robert Stock owns men’s and women’s shirt brand Robert Graham