Change. More so than any other season, this New York Fashion Week: Women’s is shaping up to be defined by it. Leading the charge is rag & bone. In June, Co-Chief Executive Officer David Neville left the decade-plus brand to pursue other projects. Neville, who has known founder and designer Marcus Wainwright since their school days in London, is still a major shareholder and remains on the company’s board of directors. The company is also inviting change as a driving force behind the industry’s direct-to-consumer paradigm shift, with just as much of a focus on digital and direct access to customers as with wholesale accounts.
Though Wainwright peppers in bits of his British heritage, the brand sings like a New York City anthem humming across downtown’s streets, leaving a legion of cool customers in its wake. Strolling through Nolita on a balmy summer night or sprinting down Lexington Avenue to catch the 6 train, you’re almost sure to spot a rag & bone customer clad in some assortment of its expansive line of women’s and men’s ready to wear, accessories and shoes. The brand’s clothes have an insouciance about them that works to the customer’s favor, too. You may have spent hours in front of the mirror, but the overall look will come across as effortless.
It’s this ease that Wainwright plans to continue to imbue rag & bone with as he leads the brand as its sole Chief Executive Officer. The shift is widely expected to elevate Wainwright’s profile as he flies solo for the first time in the brand’s history. It is a role that suits him. Neville’s departure might shake things up a bit, but with new stores on the horizon, plans for an expanding international footprint, and more, rag & bone is anything but change averse. When speaking with Wainwright, he preferred to keep the focus tied to the here and now rather than discuss the past few months. It’s this emphasis on the present state of the brand and the industry that can take rag & bone to future heights.
BY KRISTINE KELLER, CFDA
Going back to the beginning, what made you want to become a designer and start rag & bone?
I moved to New York on a whim in 2001, following a girl who’s now my wife, Glenna, from a beach where we met in Mexico. I had never had any formal design training when the idea first struck, but I was always fascinated with creating clothes. The whole thing came about because I couldn’t find the perfect pair of men’s jeans, so I decided to make them myself, and from there things continued to grow naturally. We showed our first collection for Fall 2005 with men’s and women’s on the runway.
When did you realize you had success on your hands?
Being selected as a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund gave me confidence that we were on to something. Receiving the support of the industry in 2007 when we won the CFDA’s [Swarovski] Emerging Talent Award solidified it. A lot of doors opened up for us from there.
What is it that sets rag & bone apart from other brands?
I think there’s a lot that sets us apart, but the common thread throughout everything we do has always been an emphasis on the integrity of the garments we create. Right from the very beginning, we wanted to distinguish ourselves as a brand that makes timeless pieces from the highest quality materials.
How has fashion changed since you started rag & bone?
Fashion will always be a changing industry, from the trends each season to the growing digital sphere and the new emphasis on ‘see now, buy now, wear now.’ Staying ahead of the curve and anticipating what those changes will mean for us as a brand has set us apart.
How have these changes impacted your aesthetic vision?
Aesthetically, it hasn’t changed anything. We’ve always referenced our heritage in our choice of fabrics and prints and the design remains directional and modern, inspired by downtown New York, sport, military and English tailoring.
How have you been able to maintain such a loyal customer base over the years?
We have a very specific point-of-view; we design with the individual in mind so that each unique piece appeals to a diverse group of men and women. Because we’ve remained true to our brand ethos over the years, our customers know they can rely on us for timeless pieces that are extremely well-crafted.
How do trends impact your brand’s vision?
They don’t. It’s about remaining true to our brand and creating unique, high quality clothing.
How is the current state of the industry, namely some designers’ decisions to pursue a ‘see now, buy now’ approach during New York Fashion Week: Women’s, impacting rag & bone?
‘See now, buy now’ is a large conversation and for us, it’s more about ‘buy now, wear now’ and fixing the calendar so we stop delivering fall coats in July and spring dresses in January.
Any personal rituals before New York Fashion Week: Women’s?
A cold Peroni (or two) right before the show.
As an Englishman in New York, what is your take on American fashion?
It’s been cool to put my own spin on it with a bit of British heritage over the past 15 years… my take is what you see from rag & bone! New York has afforded us many opportunities we couldn’t have found elsewhere.
How does living in New York play a role in your collections or influence design?
The brand started in New York and our headquarters are here, so at its core, rag & bone has always been highly influenced by this city. Being from England has allowed me to draw on certain British influences, like military and tailored silhouettes, but year after year we are really just focused on creating cool clothing that anyone can wear.
What type of customer do you keep in mind when you’re designing?
One of the best things about rag & bone is that we’re focused on designing unique pieces that could easily fit into the wardrobes of many different types of people. We want all of our customers to feel effortlessly pulled together no matter what their style and simultaneously confident they are wearing very well-made clothing.
What are the differences between fashion in America versus on a global scale?
Where should I begin?
You have been heavily involved in the CFDA’s Fashion Manufacturing Initiative. How important is domestic manufacturing for you and why?
We wouldn’t be where we are today without the Garment District. When we were a younger brand, it gave us the foothold we needed to get up and running, so it’s really important to us to keep that going for new designers. Now, as a more established brand, it still provides many advantages, including the ability to be much more involved in all the stages of creating a garment – from the initial design through manufacturing to the final product you see in stores. We like to have a factory in mind from the very beginning of the process so that we can play into their unique skills.
How do you see technology changing your brand?
Technology is changing everything. It’s made social media and online outlets where everyone goes first these days; all the information you could ever want is at your fingertips. Because of that we have to respond to the constant need for content even faster, so we’re shooting our campaigns in a different way, we’re putting an enormous effort behind our e-commerce business, and we’re continuing to push ourselves creatively through projects like rag & bone Films. We have some really exciting projects in the works on all fronts…
What is your favorite piece that you’ve ever designed?
The first pair of jeans I created probably has the most sentimental value. It was a full straight leg selvage jean with triple needle stitching and hidden rivets. It took a while to track down the factory that would make them the way we wanted, all the way in Kentucky. Creating the perfect pair of jeans from scratch was an extremely difficult task to begin with; I fought some of the most technical challenges right away with no prior experience. That taught me a lot about how to create well-crafted clothing.
Who are some of the most exciting people that have worn your clothing?
We’re excited anytime anyone wears our clothing. Seeing our designs on a passerby is just as gratifying as seeing them on an athlete, a musician or an actor.
Do you still ever have ‘pinch me’ moments?
We recently shot Mark Hamill for our Men’s Project. I’ve been obsessed with Star Wars since I was a little kid, and my seven-year-old son is taking after that.
He and I flew to London for the shoot and he got to meet the real Luke Skywalker. Mark was really generous with his time – hanging out with my son and even signing his lightsaber. The opportunity to share that experience with him was pretty surreal. I also recently got to have a Guinness with Harvey Keitel, who’s one of my idols. It’s been a year of epic moments.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Buy shares in Apple…
You are an important industry mentor, most notably within the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, but do you yourself have an industry mentor? What advice for your career has resonated with you the most?
We’ve had a lot of great advice over the years from a lot of industry figures we really admire, but Andrew Rosen saw something in us from the very beginning and without his support over the years (and initial investment) we wouldn’t be where we are now.
Looking back on the brand since you first launched years ago, what thoughts come to mind?
As much as the industry continues to change, the foundations of rag & bone remain the same. I started this business because I wanted to make high-quality product that would stand the test of time, and that’s what we plan to continue doing.