Success Stories: Totally Prepped

 

Not everyone will be able to vacation in the Bahamas this winter, or book a house on Martha’s Vineyard for next summer. Other concerns—paying the mortgage, working a second (or third) job, taking part in Occupy Greenwich—could intrude. But we can still dress as if we’re on vacation, and even while merely shopping for beachwear we can feel as if we’re walking around on Bimini in January or Edgartown in July. And we won’t be alone.

Vineyard Vines, the island-centric line of prepped-out casual wear born in Greenwich and now based in Stamford, has steadily gained favor with a rapidly increasing number of land-locked, desk-bound citizens with palm trees and lobster pots in their eyes.

Started 12 years ago by brothers Shep (he’s at left in the photo) and Ian Murray, the company has grown from a dozen playful men’s ties sold on the Vineyard and the Cape to a full range of shirts, sweaters, jackets, caps, skirts, pants, belts, flip-flops and totes for men, women and children sold across the county. The vacation-themed gear is currently available in 30 Vineyard Vines stores nationwide, as well as online and in some 600 specialty, boutique and department stores, including Bloomingdale’s, Nord-strom and Saks Fifth Avenue. Its products also hang in hundreds of golf and tennis pro shops.

Like that other early tie peddler, Ralph Lauren, the Murrays are really selling lifestyle, and that’s best experienced in their own retail stores (Connecticut outposts are located in Greenwich and Westport), which function as alternate realities to everyday life here on the mainland. But unlike Lauren (born Ralph Lifshitz in the Bronx), the brothers come to their product almost by way of birthright.

Shep, 40, and Ian, 36,  grew up in Greenwich, where they attended the exclusive Brunswick School and summered with their family on Martha’s Vineyard. As young men, they accompanied their parents on business trips—their father, the late Stan Murray, was a travel writer for the Robb Report, among other publications (including Connecticut Magazine). Not only did the boys get to stay in some of the best resorts in the Caribbean and Europe, they got to observe what made those operations run.

“We saw the other side of the experience,” recalls Ian. “We would see the general managers of these incredible properties on their hands and knees cleaning a stain they noticed as they walked through the hallway at night, or in the kitchen unloading a truck.”

It was a lesson the Murray boys later incorporated into a kind of  business mantra: “Work hard to make it look easy.”

After graduating from Skidmore in 1993, Shep worked first on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, then for an ad agency. Ian graduated from Lafayette in 1997 and eventually wound up at a Manhattan public relations agency. According to company legend, it wasn’t long before the two threw off their suits and ties and, with an $8,000 cash advance on a credit card, began selling homemade silk ties on beaches and in boatyards and bars—anywhere people of like tastes might buy them.

“There was no real reason why it was ties,” says Shep. “The whole idea was that you could go to a place and, aside from T-shirts, there was nothing to tell anyone that you had been to the Vineyard. And we said, ‘Why not make ties that represent the things that we love to do on the Vineyard? Let’s put street signs on them, let’s put the shape of the island, let’s put bluefish.’ Everyone thought we were nuts.

“We thought ‘Vineyard Vines’ was a catchy name,” he adds. “The Vineyard was where we grew up and vines were the neckties that wrapped around your neck, that kind of choke you.”

For two guys who claimed to loathe wearing the things, they had an unspoken business mission statement that was brilliant: “Let’s make cool ties for other guys to wear!” It worked. They slapped a pink whale on their new company logo—based on a carved wooden whale that had hung over the front door of the Murray family’s colonial—and began offering a dozen designs to island retailers on consignment. At the same time, they started an online catalog business and before long had opened two small shops on the Vineyard and the Cape.

Back in Connecticut, the fledgling brand was gaining traction, appropriately, at the Darien Sports Shop and Richards, the upscale clothing store on Greenwich Avenue owned by the Mitchell family of Westport, whom the Murray family knew. Richards agreed to give Vineyard Vines its own small space in the store, an arrangement that worked well until the dozen ties expanded to 40 and, joined by polos, shorts, pants, totes and swimwear, flooded the allotted floor space.

“We wanted another place in town,” Ian recalls, “where people could get not just all the products but also our vision and the grand experience of coming in and walking around and smelling and breathing it.”

In 2005, the Murrays approached Bob and Russ Mitchell, co-presidents of the family-run Mitchells/Richards enterprise.

Together, they formed a partnership to open a stand-alone Vineyard Vines store on Greenwich Avenue. The Mitchells would operate the stores and the Murrays would supply the product and creativity.

“We thought of the Mitchells as the best in the entire world at providing the ultimate retail experience, and hugging their customers [Jack Mitchell wrote a book entitled Hug Your Customers], and our having a platform to build on was invaluable,” says Shep of the arrangement.

The Mitchells, for their part, were supportive, if cautious. “They were super-optimistic and we were, ‘Well, we’ll see,’” recalls Russ Mitchell. “But it worked better than anyone expected.”

On a Friday in the fall of 2006, the partners received a certificate of occupancy for the Greenwich Avenue store, just in time for the grand opening the following morning.

“[The brothers] were nervous—they were saying, ‘No, we’re not ready, we want to make sure the fish on the walls look perfect,’” Mitchell says. “We said, ‘Guys, people are expecting you to open today. You’ve gotta open.’ They agreed to open at noon.”
By 10, a line had started forming outside the store. The first in line—and the first in the store—was a 12-year-old girl. When the doors finally opened, she ran in and shouted, “I’m first! I’m first!”

“Oh, my God,” Russ Mitchell remembers thinking. “This brand means something to people!” It helped that the first 500 in the store got to pick and sign ties that then went up on the walls—but still.

While the Mitchells handled in-store operations, the brothers worked the Vineyard Vines label like mad men—speaking at schools, loading the company truck with catalogs, slapping Vineyard Vines logo magnets on the sides, and hitting the road to college campuses, concerts, fishing trips and surfing events. As the brand took off, Shep and Ian became something of minor fashion celebrities. At one Jimmy Buffett concert, two guys reportedly were caught posing as the brothers. (These days, several Chevy Suburbans loaded with catalogs and clothes, and staffed by younger stand-ins for the brothers, are out on the road.)

By 2008, the Mitchells and Murrays had opened four additional retail stores in locations with similar frames of reference: Westport, Boston, Georgetown and Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

But when the retail world fell flat later that year, along with most of the rest of the American economy, the Mitchells pulled back to keep their own stores afloat. Deciding to go it alone, in 2009 Ian and Shep bought back shares in the existing stores and sought new markets for the product line.

And where corporate headquarters had once been a room in their parents’ home, they now moved operations to more workaday  quarters—a sprawling, 36,000-square-foot former clutch factory, surrounded by a barbed-wire-topped chain-link fence in a gritty section of Stamford.  
 

It might be freezing and snowing outside this winter, but inside Vineyard Vines headquarters it’s eternal summer. The old factory doors open into a reception area and showroom that could be a Vineyard Vines retail store on a balmy shore. The floor is wall-to-wall boat decking. The shelves and small reception island are sheathed in vertical boards painted glossy white, the walls a deep-sea blue. Like many of the company’s 120 employees, the receptionist is young and dressed for the office in khaki shorts, flip-flops and an un-ironed woven shirt with the sleeves rolled up and tails out.

The brand’s totes, ties and belts are produced in the U.S., the rest in Asia and South America. Fulfillment is handled in a facility in Edison, N.J. But everything else happens in southern Connecticut. The sprawling Stamford space winds through half a dozen departments—customer service, PR and marketing, creative (where the 10 yearly catalogs are produced)—before reaching design. Here, mannequins stand among racks of clothing, cubicles outfitted with enormous Mac screens, and eight-foot-high boards pinned with sketches, swatches and photos of upcoming collections. Ties lie draped over cubicle dividers, belts wrap around structural supports or posts. The executive office the Murray brothers share resembles one big adolescent bedroom with the beds moved out and twin desks moved in. Mounted fish, maps of the Vineyard and family photos cover the walls. Model boats and books line the shelves. A skateboard is propped upright against a wall. A pair of wicker couches—Navy blue upholstery with white piping—are strewn with clothes, as if the boys had just gotten home from college on winter break.

As with the products themselves, the Murrays have put their stamp on everything, including the design of this office and of every store. The colors are hardly random hues from paint cans picked up at Home Depot. The pink of the whale (Pantone No. 197) and the blue of the walls (Pantone No. 289) were carefully chosen to represent the lifestyle they embrace and market.
On this afternoon at the Stamford facility, Ian is wearing a blue striped shirt with the tails out over khaki shorts and Vineyard Vines flip-flops decorated with bonefish. Shep has on a blue polo shirt and shorts.

“Every day should feel this good,” says Ian, out of the blue.

“We like to say we never want to dress the guy to go to work,” Shep says from one of the couches. “We want to dress him to take some fun to work. But we’ve just kind of put an invigorated twist on the old-school good life.”

What the two are also doing, of course, is dressing the guy who fantasizes about doing business the way the Murrays do.

They’ve also helped dress, if inadvertently, politicians on both sides of the aisle. When John Kerry was running for president in 2004, his staff ordered a custom collection of ties for the campaign trail. Since then, both Bushes, John McCain, John Boehner, Mitt Romney, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (who vacations on the Vineyard) have all sported the nonpartisan neckwear.

But how does the label play “in this economy,” as the stock phrase goes? Shep Murray has an answer. “The thing about our stuff is that we’re at an aspirational yet attainable price point. Our clothes are more of a staple, not a reach. Somebody may not be able to spend 200 bucks for a tie, but they can spend 75.”

Prices are, in fact, attainable, more or less. Vineyard Vines silk ties and bow ties are priced at $75 and $45, respectively. The designs are emblematic of the world that nurtured the Murrays and the business: bonefish, whales, sea turtles and crabs; lacrosse sticks, golf balls, tennis racquets; cocktails and cigars. There’s also a line of several dozen college-logo ties. (By comparison, ties at J. Crew these days range from $49.50 to $69.50, but they’re skinny and not all that much fun.)      

At any one time, the brothers estimate, the Vineyard Vines warehouse holds some 12,000 SKUs (the “Stock Keeping Units” a manufacturer uses to track stock by assigning a unique number to the smallest unit available for order, such as one item in a particular size, fabric and color). Four thousand SKUs change on a monthly basis and new ideas for products develop at a rapid clip.

Shep holds up a prototype—pants with one leg red, one green—that he calls “F-You” pants, then a pale salmon-colored pair decorated with white whales. “I bet you know someone who would wear this,” he says to me. (As a matter of fact, I do—the guy lives in Greenwich.)

More impressive than the retail success, perhaps, are the licensing and custom-design deals the Murrays have signed in half a dozen years.

Vineyard Vines now has licensing partnerships with Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NHL to produce custom ties and totes for all teams. In October, it renewed its partnership with the New York Giants, and this past fall, one seat in the Giants’ home MetLife Stadium was painted pink and emblazoned with the Vineyard Vines whale. The company has also produced custom ties for some 150 schools and colleges and has a multiyear license agreement with the Kentucky Derby, with Vineyard Vines now the “Official Style” of the annual event. In addition to the Golf Collection’s presence in pro golf shops, custom products have been made for major championship events, including the U.S. Open from 2006 to 2010.

The company is private, which means numbers don’t have to be made public, but, according to the Murrays, annual sales reached $100 million in 2011, divided almost evenly across wholesale, retail and online catalogs. And they don’t appear to be slowing down.

Last fall, Vineyard Vines opened new retail stores in Newport Beach, Calif., Short Hills, N.J., Plano, Texas, and Hingham, Mass.  
Every day should feel this good? For young would-be entrepreneurs sitting at desks in suits and choking ties dreaming they were somewhere, or someone, else, the mantra might better be, “Every business idea should be this good!”
 

Success Stories: Totally Prepped

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