In Medias Res: Sid Mashburn
In Medias Res: Sid Mashburn
- Words Chris Fenimore
- Date June 4, 2019
"In Medias Res" is a column in which photographer Chris Fenimore links up with some of fashion's most interesting people to see what they're wearing throughout the week.
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What was your childhood like? Tell me a bit about your background, both in terms of your personal life and before opening Sid Mashburn.
I grew up in Brandon, Mississippi, and I had two older sisters and an older brother. My dad was a chemist, and my mom was bookkeeper at the school. We lived a fairly uneventful life. Pretty basic Southern upbringing. You go to school, you go to work, you go to church twice on Sunday, and you play sports. Besides playing sports, there was loving music, and loving clothes. Everybody in my family loved clothes. My brother had Cystic Fibrosis, so he was a very small guy, but super sporty. He was too small to play sports anymore [as he did as a kid] but he was the stat guy on the sports teams. He always looked like a million bucks. He had this one look: a khaki trench coat with a houndstooth suit.
That’s a wild look.
That’s kind of my image of him, since he was a little bit of my style muse, and still is to a certain degree. I went to the same school my whole life: Brandon Elementary, Brandon Junior High, Brandon High School. I graduated from school and I actually got a chance to go play football in college, but decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I went to Ole Miss but I didn't have much guidance or direction. I wound up majoring in English, because that's where I had the most credits. About midway through college I told my dad, "I'd like to go to a fashion school." [My dad] is a chemist from Pelahatchie, Mississippi, pretty practical dude. He said, "Son, I'll help you go to regular school, then you can do whatever you want." It was actually very good advice. He said, "No, you're not going to do that unless you want to do it on your own."
I wasn't really ready to jump out and go to New York without any safety net. When I finished school, he told me, "You see that Monte Carlo?" It was a '79, baby blue with a Landau roof, no opera window. He said, "Sell it, go to New York, see if you can figure it out." I sold it. I think I got $3,800 bucks for it, so I pocketed that, and had some other money I had saved. I took it all, in one wad, in my front pocket, to New York City with a couple of trunks.
Tell me about your time in New York.
I had my amplifier and turntable, and speakers in there for sure. I was not leaving without that. I stayed at my friend's house for about two weeks until I went to the Upper West Side. I was working at a place called Santa Fe Restaurant. I always worked in restaurants or clothing stores.
What was your first job in clothing?
I got my first real job at a clothing store when I was 15—the day I got my driver’s license. I really loved the idea of connecting with people, sharing what I liked and taking care of them.
Back to New York...
That restaurant job didn't last very long, but I met Frank Jetta who owned Frank Stella Clothiers. I went to work with them in February of '84. Literally, I walked in and he asked, "Where are you from? What's your name? What do you do? Do you want a job?" I said, "let me think about it," and that night I called him back—it didn't take me long. My place in the Upper West Side was 98 square feet, on 76th Street. It was like I was living in a dorm or a frat house. Then I got a job at British Khaki. Robert Lighton was very good to me. He was using this drill cloth from India, and khaki actually means earth or dirt; some people would call it manure, just from a color perspective. It was elegant, but it was also a little hippie; Gurkha shorts, Gurkha pants and safari jackets with madras shirts. He hired me to come sell for him. I asked, "will you teach me how to design?" and he agreed. He taught me how to pitch colors, which is still the way I think about colors today.
How did you meet your wife, Ann?
I went to the Long Beach out in New Jersey one day with my buddies from Mississippi and that's when I saw Ann. That was June 2, 1985. She was with her roommate and her roommate's Italian boyfriend—Meg Goldman and Pietro—and she comes over and asks some silly question like, "Do y'all know when the trains leave?" We got up to leave and she popped up and followed us and we stopped to take pictures. Then I swung around and followed her to the train. She said, "Oh, by the way, if anyone wants to sit down, there's an extra seat." So we were on it. I had a girlfriend so I had to figure that out. I went home and I thought, "Golly, this girl's great." I didn't have her number, and of course you didn't have cell phones. So I called her mom, because she told me where her parents lived. Sure enough I called her home and Ann’s mom gave me her number. I go to dial it, and I'm thinking, “Stalker. This just reeks of stalk.” And so I bagged it. I didn't call her. This is the way it was.
I usually worked until about 5:00-5:30 but I didn't have any dough; I was making nothing. I came back one Thursday night and Gary said, "Hey, man, this girl just called you. Ann Daggett." I called back, of course, but she's gone. I get her the next day and she said, "Yeah, we're having a party and we didn't have enough guys, so I thought you might want to come." There was no party. She was making it up as she went. She was doing a shoot down at the Palladium. It was just opening. And she told the secretary at work, "Please, Cill, answer my phone because the man I'm gonna marry is going to call me." She actually ended up getting me a job. I met a friend of hers who was going to work at a nameless startup catalog company in New Jersey—which admittedly, all of those ingredients don't sound good. Catalog, New Jersey…
It was J.Crew. I became the first menswear designer at J.Crew. All of my experience, from sewing with my mom, to working at tailor shop at the store I was in, to working at British Khaki, I just kind of learned it all along the way. The other thing Robert Lighton did, besides teach me how to pitch colors, was how to analyze fabrics—just the way things hang and fit and how you want them to fit. J.Crew was fun because almost anything we did, people liked. So, I did all men's product, outerwear—I didn't do sweaters, I didn't do knits—wovens, bottoms. The place was so fluid and so dynamic then, I asked, "Can we do shoes?" They said, "if you've got time." I said we need dress shirts and ties and jackets, and it was all the same way. "If you have time." I made time, because I loved it. J.Crew was my heart and soul. We had a lot of quality in the product: pearl buttons, two-ply fabrics, even a full canvas jacket. I started at J.Crew in 1985, maybe '86, worked there while we were in New Jersey, then we moved to New York City and then I got a call from Ralph Lauren. I got invited to come interview, got a job offer. Ralph wanted to start a line like J.Crew, which was interesting because they didn't realize that part of the success model was so price driven since it was direct-to-consumer. Because all of their business was wholesale—and to independent specialty stores, department stores—they didn't really have a store business to speak of.
That’s very interesting. So speak more about Ralph.
I went to work and I reported to Jerry Lauren, Ralph's brother. He never quite gets the credit that he should. He was very, very good. I was a school-kid compared to the guys I learned from there. Going to Polo, I quickly learned how narrow your job could get because there were so many people doing so many things. At J.Crew, it was like you were a Swiss Army Knife. At Polo, it was like you were a laser beam. That was part of their success, too, because you had specialists.
That got me to the point where I left there in about '95 and we moved out to California. Came back East, had little business for myself that didn't work out very well, and then came back to New York and worked for Tommy Hilfiger. Tommy offered me the chance to go to Italy, and to build something that we’d both like. I would spend about three months a year in Italy. I worked for Tommy for a while and got a call to come out to Lands' End. It was to run men’s and women’s design, as well as kids’ and home. It was a big job. At the time, they were all built on quality, service and value. The mandate they gave me was for style, but then they quickly said, “Not too much.” At least they knew their lane.
We were there for about six or seven years. '99 through 2006, and it was bought by Sears and was run by this guy out of Connecticut, Eddie Lampert. We had a difference of opinion about the way we wanted to do business, so my opinion and my position fell out of favor and they let me go. It was a bummer, but it was also great because I'm not sure I would have left had I not something quite as dramatic as that to send me along. If I had been on the other side of the table from me, I would have probably let me go.
Where’s your family in all this?
By this time, we had five kids. We picked up the fifth one in Wisconsin. We had one in New York City, two in Connecticut, one in California. My wife’s thinking like a concerned mom. I said well, "Let's try this idea," and she said, "You mean the one you've had for 30 years?" She said, "Okay, do you know what a 529 is?" It's a college savings program. "Okay, we've got two 529s in place, we've got a few extra shekels. We'll go, we'll spend this amount of money, and if it doesn't work, we'll go back to New York."
So we looked at setting up in one of nine cities and got it down to Chicago and New York. She said, "How about Atlanta?" I said, "How about Praise God, let's go," because I knew South would be a great place. So we went to Atlanta. The crocuses were blooming. I loved it.
How’d you arrive at the location of your shop?
A good friend of mine took me to this place, it was like the Meatpacking District, but a little more remote. It had a two-times James Beard Award winner in it. It had a taqueria in there that was awesome; he actually became a James Beard Award nominee. It also had another restaurant that just opened and that guy ultimately won "Best New Restaurant in America." Internally I knew that the adjacencies were cool and important, but not until I had a business did I realize that they're reflective of who you are. Who's next door to you says something about who you are.
At J.Crew, it was like you were a Swiss Army Knife. At Polo, it was like you were a laser beam. That was part of their success, too, because you had specialists.
Who is the Sid Mashburn guy?
When we came to market, our perspective in was shaped by me working at Lands' End because I did a lot of work for Sears in trying to help them figure out what their clothes strategy was. They had this merchandising strategy called, "Good, Better, Best.” We would have a pair of 16 wale, 85/15 corduroy pants and then we would have a 10 wale from England. Very, very nice corduroy, 100% cotton. That one would be “Good.” The 10 wale corduroy from England would be “Better,” and then we'd have cotton cashmere corduroy from Zegna at “Best”. The prices would go from $72 to $110 to $195. I liked that because that also told you that more than one kind of guy could shop at the same place to get the same look. Our youngest customer ever, kid came in and his parents were, they were pretty flush. They bought him a pair of double monks, he was 11. Our oldest customer ever was a guy named Claude Rodbell; he was named "Best Dressed in Atlanta" around five times. He was 87. You've got 11 to 87, and it didn't matter what your political views were, what your ethnicity was, what your religious view are, what your sexuality is. We just looked at you like, "Come on in, man."
When you walk in the shop, we don't even ask you what you want to look for. You're coming into our house. You know the concept of “The Third Place?” “The Third Place” is this psychologist’s or sociologist’s theory. He posited that home is your “First Place.” Work is your “Second Place.” What's your “Third Place?”
Like a barbershop?
Oh, perfect. We want to be that. We don't want to usurp your “Third Place,” but we want to say "we're here for you." And when we cast the guys who work for us, we try to think bit like Ocean's Eleven, you know everybody needs an Alan Arkin, everybody needs a Bernie Mac, everybody needs a Matt Damon. It's like everybody has a role that has this expanse to it. When a customer walks out of the dressing room and his pants are muddled up, man, it is the biggest power move as a complete servant to pop down on your knees and turn a guy's pants under. You’re saying to him, "Man, you're super important. It's most important for me to take care of you."
That’s some of what Ann brings to it also. We think, "How do you make a place for somebody that feels good?” It’s important for us, when you come into our store, that it's neat. That there's order to it. We kind of learned that from a guy. Do you know Diego Della Valle?
He ran Gucci for a while, and now he runs Tom Ford. He came in the store one time early on, looked at our shoes and said, “These are a mess.” Then he looked at the dress shirt wall, and he's like "Whoa, wow, that's a power center." All of the shirts were right there, and guys like to think, "Let me see it all at one spot, at one place, that way I don't get distracted." It's important for us to keep that order. Same thing in the women's shop.
You've had a lot of guys I know personally work for you and they’ve gone on to do some interesting things in fashion; I’m thinking Patrick and Justin Doss, Mark Anthony Green. What does it take to work for you?
A little bit like that Friday Night Lights line "Clear eyes, bright... "
Yeah, clear eyes, full hearts. I tell every single person I talk to that's going into their job, "Get there before everybody else, leave after everybody else leaves.” To us, if you're not grinding, maybe you're not going to have an edge. I like that. We probably run a pace in Atlanta that was more New York than it was Atlanta. We've really enjoyed helping guys learn, and helping them find their next spot. We build each other up. It's super important for us to help raise people's boats.
I’ve unfortunately never been to a Sid Mashburn store, but I’ve heard and read of the hospitality and passion of your staff. What do you think makes for a good retail experience? Similarly, what do you think is necessary for a store to be interesting?
I think you've always got to have some surprises in the mix, but not fake surprises. I grew up cutting a lot of brush. We have axes in the store. You're like, "Axes? What are the axes for?" But they're hand-made from Gransfors Bruks, the best axes in the world. They're legit and they're there for a reason. Playing records. Nobody plays records because it's a hassle. I grew up playing records. I love them. Open air tailor shop? Nobody had one, unless it was a real tailor shop. It’s not just for the theater. It’s because we are trying to tell people this is what we believe in.
What are the keys to owning a successful brand, especially when the brand is so tied to its founder personally?
Our focus is on doing something we really like and love and seeing where it goes. The keys are also getting great people to come join you and be a part of it. This is a total team sport. We’re sourcing the fabrics, buying the fabrics, we're buying the trims, we're designing the canvases that go in the product, we're picking the leathers. You have to make sure that you've got people that can run with you, that can push you, that can challenge you.
It's like a family. Being real honest about things is important. Being hopeful is big, because the currency in encouragement spends hard. Sometimes, business might not be great but you've got to lean on something and still be excited about what you're doing and believe in what you're doing. And being helpful to people. We're here to help each other. I don't have all the ideas. My wife doesn't have all the ideas. It just gets more interesting.
Our focus is on doing something we really like and love and seeing where it goes. The keys are also getting great people to come join you and be a part of it. This is a total team sport.
Do you think there are any non-negotiable pieces a guy should own, regardless of personal style and occupation?
Well, I think the navy blazer is a fantastic piece to have because it will give you entry to almost anything. We dress a lot for manners. We need to be thoughtful of where it is that we’re going.
Having a great navy suit is super because you're probably going to have something that requires a suit. If you don't wear the suit that much, at least the jacket can be your navy blazer.
The only other thing I'd think guys need is a good pair of leather-soled shoes. A great white shirt. And you can never have too many blue shirts.
Do you have any specific style do's and don'ts?
We don't love untucked unless it's a [camp collar], or unless it's a shirt jacket. It feels lazy to me. I like guys to make an effort; always dress a little bit better than where you're going.
Do you have a favorite clothing item?
No, I really don't. I love shoes. I love outerwear. I think one of my favorite pieces as of late has been our traveler’s trench coat. It's awesome. I've got blazers I love. I love a little bit of everything. It's a problem.
What is your design process look like and how do you arrive at the staples that make up Sid Mashburn today?
We try to work from our closet outward. “What's not in my closet?” That's really kind of the kick-off to every season. And then, "what's in my closet that's wearing out and is replaceable?" You always need a baseline. We needed a good pair of jeans, a good blazer, a good shirt. We like a pretty tight point of view about our design, so we don't want to offer a bunch of fits. For buttons, we use horn, Corozo, pearl, brass, nickel and silver, but we don't get fancy with things like that.
We have a framework that we work within, but to kick off a season the first thing we do is compile things for the next season. We're halfway through Spring '20 right now and we're already compiling things for Fall '20.
When we started out, we had Levi's jeans and A.P.C. jeans and I said I'll never do jeans. First of all, because I thought the minimum quantities would kill us, but I also thought I could cover it with those two. Well, it turns out I can't because I wanted my Levi's tapered and A.P.C.'s a little shorter in the rise. We made our own and it's absolutely the best fitting jean. I'm not just saying that because we're trying to sell it; it requires almost no touch, other than shortening.
What's on the horizon for Sid Mashburn, both the man and the company?
I take it as it comes but we've got 125-130 people at our company. We've got a burgeoning business and we're trying to figure out what's the best way to do it. When we started, we were purely brick-and-mortar. We knew we were going to do e-commerce. We're actually doing a wholesale project for this fall. We never really wanted to grow our wholesale much because we didn't think we could do the experience as well as we would like to, but we realize how many people we can't get to without it. This [upcoming wholesale partner] gives us an opportunity to selectively find the right person that could work with us.
It’s about how we grow the business and get more eyeballs and footsteps associated with what we do. And not just to grow the business, but be helpful to a lot of people. Because we say: When you come into the store we want to enhance your life. Relationships are super important to us, as is taking care of people—finding new friends is always pretty cool.