“I lived and breathed for these people. They got us started.” It’s not every day that a New York–based CEO of a globally successful apparel company gets choked up talking about the workers in a small factory in the hills of Kentucky. But this is not your central-casting CEO. It’s
the 42-year-old co-founder of Rag & Bone, the maker of downtown-inspired American sportswear, talking about the company’s earliest chapters.
Back in 2001, Wainwright, like many 20-something Englishmen before him, gravitated to New York City, first the East Village and then Williamsburg. He’d ditched his home country and a fledgling career in the telecom industry, looking for a new adventure. He was besotted with American denim but not overly enchanted by the boot-cut, distressed jeans then making their ’70s comeback, nor the other varieties with their fanciful washes, stitching and pockets. Wainwright decided to make his own—but he had no clue how to do it.
The first attempts were disasters. They “didn’t really work out,” he deadpans. He didn’t know how to make a proper pattern; what he came up with was more like a child’s drawing. But Wainwright pressed on, not so much as a beneficiary of the Dunning-Kruger effect—the presumably blissful phenomenon whereby an incompetent person is too incompetent to recognize his or her own incompetence—but through a combination of audacity, obsession and nagging curiosity about how jeans are actually made. Along the way, he picked up two British fellow travelers, Nathan Bogle and
making Rag & Bone a trio, and at a certain point a connection was made to Kentucky Apparel, a manufacturer in Tompkinsville, Kentucky. (It’s not far from Bugtussle, Mud Lick and Flippin, if you’re looking at a map.) By 2004, Wainwright got what he was looking for: a raw, selvage jean (in denim from Japan’s legendary Kaihara mill) that actually fit a human male. He walked a backpack full of them into Isa, a tiny boutique near his place in Williamsburg, and talked the owner into buying a handful of jeans, chinos and T-shirts. Rag & Bone was off and running.
Wainwright—a rangy guy with tousled hair and a few days’ scruff who looks like he could hold his own at both a billiard table and a board meeting—still rhapsodizes about Kentucky Apparel and the expert craftspeople there who guided his greenhorn operation along. He remembers “Mike Scruggs, just sitting in his office with no windows, with his cigarette hanging out of his mouth, watching him make a pattern.” There was Betty Gentry, who hand-sewed the “R&B” logo on the back pocket of each pair of first-run Rag & Bone jeans (which, no doubt, are now collectors’ items in the super-heated world of denimphilia). But the new business that Wainwright and Co. brought to Kentucky Apparel wasn’t enough to save the factory, and it closed in 2005. “I was devastated,” Wainwright says, as much for the impact on the people who had made their livelihoods there as for his own shaky enterprise. Rag & Bone moved on to a factory in Micaville, North Carolina, called Taylor Togs. The workers there viewed Wainwright as a kind of savior. The place closed down in 2007.
The heartbreak of watching these small factories, and American jobs, vanish was galvanizing for Wainwright and his partners: “That was how Rag & Bone started as a concept,” he says. “Clothes, for me—and Rag & Bone, for me—have got to stand for something greater than fashion.”
Ten years on, Wainwright remains committed to keeping the beyond-fashion, artisanal ethos alive at Rag & Bone. The company still favors small, old-line factories and mills, from Japan (Kaihara is still the denim of choice) to Peru (for cotton henleys and polos) to Los Angeles, where its jeans—which have become modern style icons—are now sewn. (A few occasional items are produced in China.) Rag & Bone continues to celebrate intimacy, authenticity, durability and craft, even as it creeps along at its own, Wainwright-dictated pace, slowly becoming a brand that looks poised to take on the wider, competitive world of retail. Last year’s revenue, as reported by the industry news site the Business of Fashion, was projected to be around $300 million.
The year 2017 has proven to be pivotal for the company, whose headquarters occupy a brick warehouse in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. (Long-retired meat hooks are still visible here and there throughout the offices.) On four hive-like floors, more than 300 employees keep Rag & Bone humming; the feeling here is more workshop than corporate fashion house. It’s been a decade since it moved into its current quarters and emerged as an integral part of a broad rethink of men’s style, a movement that saw the rise of Freemans Sporting Club, Michael Bastian and Thom Browne, along with the surge in heritage, workwear and urban lumberjackism, all offering new ways to reconceive the manly classics.
Wainwright’s glassed-in office is on the sixth floor. The walls, much like those of your typical Rag & Bone shop, are exposed brick. There are signed LPs by the National and Mumford & Sons along the windowpane. (Wainwright is a music fan, particularly of Radiohead, whose frontman, Thom Yorke, has composed music for Rag & Bone projects and has DJ’d company events.) A poster outlining the taxonomy of Leica cameras leans against one wall, and a precarious pile of art books creeps up another, topped with Robert Frank’s The Americans. There’s one big, boxy desk in the middle of all of this man-cave clutter, mounted with a best dad ever sign. (Wainwright and his wife, the former model Glenna Neece, have three children and live in a Victorian-era townhouse in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn.) “It’s a complete mess at the moment,” Wainwright says of his workspace. “This is mid-overhaul.”
It’s in flux because it is the office he shared for nearly a decade with Neville, his partner, who unexpectedly decamped from the company in June 2016. (Bogle departed almost exactly 10 years before.) The split, by all accounts, was amicable, a sort of inevitable breaking up of the old band. (Neville, who retains a share in Rag & Bone, has been working on a new initiative with his wife, the makeup artist and former Lancôme and
executive Gucci Westman.) Wainwright and Neville had made an imposing, not to mention highly marketable, duo: two handsome English dudes with smarts to spare, beautiful and accomplished wives, keen social instincts and great connections, including
an early champion of the brand. The big boost came in 2006 when
CEO of Theory, took them under his wing, making a significant investment in the company, which he still holds. That was a year after they unveiled the women’s collection, which came to represent a majority of the business within a few years. In 2007, the upstarts, having already gone way beyond denim, won the CFDA’s Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent in menswear.
Wainwright designed the clothes, while Neville, who left an investment-banking gig to join Rag & Bone, took care of the books and kept an eye on the big picture. (“The fact that I now have to talk about finances and stuff is fairly painful,” Wainwright admits.) In the year since Neville’s departure, Wainwright’s restlessness, along with a touch of contrarianism, has been more conspicuous than ever in the company’s approach. In February, during New York’s Fashion Week, Wainwright celebrated the brand’s 15th anniversary with a “Damn Good Party”—a blowout with an accompanying photo show—rather than the traditional runway extravaganza. He remains noncommittal about ever doing another Rag & Bone runway show: “I’d rather take everyone out for lunch,” he says, citing an advertising and retail climate that is changing faster than anyone can keep up with. In April, at the Tribeca Film Festival, Rag & Bone screened a five-minute short film, called Hair, directed by John Turturro, the most ambitious example yet of Wainwright’s exploration of visual media as a means of communicating the company’s outlook.
Wainwright’s diplomat father was stationed in Athens when Marcus was born, in 1975. He sent his son to English public schools, where the dress code was pure boredom. “I wore a uniform from the age of 8,” Wainwright says. As a teenager at Wellington College, a boarding school in the Berkshire countryside, Wainwright met Neville.
Wainwright ended up at Newcastle University for his undergrad studies. “Smoked a little weed and didn’t do much work” is how he sums it up. He didn’t bother to attend graduation. But one upside was that he deepened his friendship with Neville, who was studying nearby at Durham. After college, the two ended up kicking around in Portugal before landing in New York, where they eventually managed to get Rag & Bone up and running.
Bruce Pask, the men’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman (which stocks the brand), remembers the impact of early Rag & Bone. “They were cool guys living in New York City, and this was how they wanted to dress. J.Crew was ubiquitous, but this was something other.” That something was an unexpected mixture: all-American raw jeans and cotton T-shirts, with a smattering of leather and militaria, all turned out with a Savile Row attention to detail. Like the Beatles and the Stones with rock ’n’ roll, Wainwright and his cohorts took something quintessentially American, ran it through a filter of British cool and sold it back to America.
They priced their goods right down the middle—between Lanvin and Levi’s—bringing streetwear up to the level of fashion while bringing fashion down to street level. (A pair of men’s Standard Issue jeans or chinos now runs about $250; the women’s equestrian-inspired Simone Pant is $295.) The bet paid off. The original shop opened on Christopher Street in September 2008, just as the economy was melting down, and it is still holding its own. The layerable, matching, wearable, built-to-last Rag & Bone line was perfectly engineered for the person who thought a lot about not wanting to have to think about it.
“They just care about having great clothes,” Wainwright says of his customers. “All the time.”
Rag & Bone operates 27 retail shops around the world, from New York to Los Angeles, Dubai to London, where it opened a flagship (along with its European headquarters) in Soho this past spring. The next outpost opens in Miami’s Design District later this fall, in time for the arrival of the international art posse at Art Basel Miami Beach in December. Rag & Bone stores tend toward exposed brick, wood, patinated steel, clothing racks made from industrial piping. Like the clothes, these environments are all about materials, durability, refinement and comfort, with a dash of raffishness. At the men’s shop in Tribeca, you might find Dr. Dre’s “Deeez Nuuuts” playing on a turntable and a chatty staff offering a pour from a bar stocked with small-batch bourbons.
The fixtures for these stores come out of the Rag & Bone Custom Fabrication Shop, which, since 2011, has operated out of a 13,000-square-foot space in the hipster-industrial complex known as Industry City, Brooklyn. Here, 10 craftsmen create shelving, tables, racks and other accoutrements according to Wainwright’s needs. On a recent visit, heavy antique hangers (another Wainwright obsession) were being modified for use in window displays. They’re not for sale, but a collection of pleasingly angular forged-brass tchotchkes—bottle opener, money clip, belt buckle—will be soon; they’re being developed for the 2017 holiday season.
The fabrication shop speaks to that hands-on, crafted quality of everything Rag & Bone, from jeans and chinos to skirts and field jackets: The stuff looks made. Wainwright manages to bring this ethos to the brand’s celebrated imaging campaigns—photo projects, video clips, short films. They’re light on branding and product and heavy on aesthetics and atmosphere. Wainwright describes his approach: “If you took the clothes out of it, will it be good?”
‘Clothes, for me—and Rag & Bone, for me—have got to stand for something greater than fashion.’
The British photographer and filmmaker Glen Luchford is a go-to image maker for the brand. “Marcus will call me when I’m eating my breakfast and say, ‘What do you think for the next campaign, man?’ ” he says. “It’s kind of old school.” The results have been refreshingly off-kilter and occasionally off the wall. For a fall/winter 2015 campaign video, Luchford shot the model and actress Gabriella Wilde standing around in Rag & Bone garments while a giant hunk of concrete was dropped on top of a 1979 Porsche 911 SC, smashing it to bits. (The remains are on view at the Tribeca store.)
Other projects, by various directors, have shown Mikhail Baryshnikov and Lil Buck improvising dance moves, Winona Ryder hanging out in Coney Island, Harvey Keitel shooting pool, Wiz Khalifa looking cool and Léa Seydoux getting caught in a downpour to a whispery Sparklehorse soundtrack. The brand’s D.I.Y. project had such models as Emily Ratajkowski and Bridget Hall turning cameras upon themselves. Luchford’s own striking portraits (Yorke, Carmelo Anthony, Amber Valletta, Walton Ford, among many other friends of the brand), done with a giant Polaroid camera, were the main attraction at the Damn Good Party in February.
Perhaps the purest and most evolved example of Wainwright’s essentialist approach is Hair, the Turturro-directed short from this year in which he and Bobby Cannavale hilariously riff in a Brooklyn barbershop. The only clue that Rag & Bone had anything to do with it is contained in two smart-alecky lines. Turturro: “You look good in those clothes, I’ll tell you that much.” Cannavale: “This is what the kids are wearing now.”
Maureen Chiquet, the former global CEO of Chanel, who recently signed on as a consultant to Rag & Bone, tells me: “Some brands just want to do the latest, greatest thing. Marcus would rather do something in a quality way than do something that isn’t right for the brand. There’s a real artistry about what Marcus is up to.”
As the afternoon winds down at Rag & Bone headquarters, Wainwright takes a seat at a long table and watches operatives present various designs and fits for his approval. Soon enough, another season of Rag & Bone will hit the shops—Linton tweeds, a shearling jacket, relaxed jeans (welcome back, ’90s!), a leather-jacket collaboration with Schott. In January, the brand will launch Rag & Bone eyewear, teaming up with the old-school Italian maker Safilo. Going forward, he’ll no doubt keep extending the complex ecosystem—clothing, visuals, design—that has come to define Rag & Bone.
Wainwright admits that being a solo voice in charge is a big change. “It’s positive in many ways,” he says. “I now have only myself to blame if it goes wrong.”
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