Prepare for an English invasion
Brits David Neville and Marcus Wainwright conquered New York with their Rag & Bone label. Now they're making a triumphant return to these shores. Rebecca Gonsalves meets them
Much is made of Rag & Bone's Marcus Wainwright and David Neville's lack of formal fashion training, but it's safe to say that with a prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) award for menswear designer of the year in 2010 under the British duo's belt it is all so much water off the proverbial duck's back.
"I don't think we have a complex about being self-taught," says Neville at the brand's New York headquarters. "I think it's helped us in the long run. It's given us a point of view and I don't think we feel any less worthy than anybody that's been trained."
Still, success has not come easily to the pair who first met at a prestigious boarding school, Wellington College, in Berkshire, and spent their formative years getting in and out of scrapes together during school, gap year holidays and university in the north-east of England. Since then they've matured together and had families at similar times. "People may think that it's happened pretty quickly," Neville adds. "But we have been doing this for quite a long time and a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into the early years."
Wainwright says that the brand started almost by accident: "I had the idea one day to try figuring out how a pair of jeans was made." That was back in 2001, after he had moved to New York to follow a woman he met on the beach in Mexico and who would later become his wife. "There was no real premium denim then; Levi's, Guess and Diesel were the main jeans brands. I had no idea what to do and it was a long process of making a lot of mistakes early on. Eventually I found this little factory in Kentucky."
It was here that not only Rag & Bone's first pair of jeans began to take shape but also the designers' ethos. "I went down to the middle of nowhere and met all these ladies who'd been sewing jeans straight out of school at 16 and were now in their 50s," Wainwright continues. "Today we very much pride ourselves on the craftsmanship and quality of the clothes."
The company's first sale came in 2004, when Isa – a now defunct Brooklyn store – placed an order for eight pairs of jeans and 10 T-shirts. Other boutiques soon followed and in 2005 Rag & Bone womenswear launched. But the partners realised that premium denim shouldn't be the sole focus of their efforts early on. "In the middle of the last decade it looked like everyone and their mother was looking to start a denim brand," says Wainwright. "But there was so many of them the market oversaturated itself and most of them went straight out of business. As we'd focused on building more of a lifestyle brand it didn't really affect us."
As well as denim, and men and women's ready-to-wear, Rag & Bone now has a successful shoe and accessories line and is set to launch a handbag range imminently. All of this will be housed in a new London flagship that opens this week in a former bank on Sloane Square.
"What's so brilliant about stores," explains Neville, "is that they show customers the real breadth of what we're offering. Seeing a few rails in a department store doesn't do it justice. People who have seen our American stores really get a sense of what the brand is, how it all works together."
More personally: "There's definitely a sense of nostalgia," he says. "We grew up going to pubs around there and it's amazing to think that we're now going to be opening a store on Sloane Street. It's a big deal."
"My grandmother lived around the corner [from the new store]," adds Wainwright. "I grew up in Peter Jones and Harrods with her and my mother. My father banked there and it's kind of surreal to be back and opening opposite Tiffany and Cartier."
This enclave of London is also home to the new outpost of boutique Browns, which has moved to new premises closer to the Sloane Square end of Sloane Street – reportedly to distance the brand from increasingly impersonal Knightsbridge – a move that the Wainwright hopes will lead to something of a renaissance of the area.
"We wanted to focus on building the best, coolest store that we could," says Wainwright. Rag & Bone will also be staging their London Fashion Week catwalk debut in September.
"We've tried to position ourselves to cope with what we think is coming in the future," Neville says. "Growing isn't necessarily our concern at the moment; we just want to ensure that we grow in the right way. In 2008 things were a little bit tough, but it wasn't too bad because we weren't that big at the time. We're very lucky that we've known each other a long time and there's an element of trust in what we're trying to achieve. One of the coolest things is that in some ways Rag & Bone is a reflection of a lot of the experiences we've shared."
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