Twelve years ago, Robert Stock had a bright idea. Although he had been a designer in the men's fashion business for much of his life, partnering with Ralph Lauren on the Chaps line and founding his own successful Country Roads by Robert Stock collection, he found most menswear selections b-o-r-ing. So he decided it was time to unleash every man's inner peacock.
The result is Robert Graham, a popular line of colorful menswear with eye-catching detailing, such as embroidered cuffs and ribbon stitching. The collection began with shirts and has expanded to include knitwear, pants, shorts, jackets and a women's line.
"When people start getting compliments, they start feeling good. I'm in the business of selling feeling good."
Recently Stock visited Houston for the grand opening of a Robert Graham boutique in The Galleria. While the line is found in major stores like Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom, Houston is only the company's second stand-alone boutique. It opened its first store in Venice, Calif., to showcase the entire brand.
Stock said he chose Houston because it is one of the best markets for his clothing. "Warm weather climates are very good for us because we're big on color and when people can wear color throughout the year, it helps," he said.
The furnishings of the Houston store reflect the brand's quirky style. A patchwork sofa is covered with swatches of men's shirting fabric, a '50s jet engine is the pedestal for a coffee table, a lamp has a shade made of sunglasses, and rugby balls are the seats for stools amid classic photos of Babe Ruth, Frank Sinatra, Ben Hogan, Muhammad Ali and Marilyn Monroe that dot the walls.
"I want to make sure everything has a little bit of a Robert Graham style," he said.
During a tour of the store, Stock noted that every jacket comes with a colorful pocket square and pointed to a line of classic jeans, called Jeanos, that comes in bright colors with such features as a denim belt loop with a paisley underside. He also singled out the X Collection, a special 10th anniversary collection of artfully-composed shirts, and noted that customers who own more than 100 Robert Graham shirts are inducted into a special club, in which they have a shirt named for them.
"Some of these limited edition shirts are hand-painted silk. It's like wearable art," Stock said. "We design all the fabrics ourselves (on all the shirts). No two garments have the same embroidery inside."
Over a cup of cappuccino, which the sales staff serves to customers, Stock admitted that while his latest success has surprised him, one should never underestimate the desire to be noticed.
CultureMap: Have you ever met a color you didn't like?
Robert Stock: I don't really like dark murky colors or dusty colors. I like rich colors and primary colors. My wife is an artist, so she's really a better colorist than I am. One of my designers is a color fanatic. I'm kind of good when I see the color but don't ask me the name of the color. I have a poor memory for names but I know when I like something.
"I describe Robert Graham as kind of a treasure hunt. When you buy something you start looking at it (closer) to see what you will find."
CM: How did the Robert Graham line come about?
RS: The original name started with a gentleman named Graham and myself. He was a textile designer. We decided to colloborate on the project. He left after a year and a half. We felt at the time that the marketplace was really kind of boring. We wanted to do something different. Men had never been afforded the ability to really go out there and buy some unusual type things. It was very ripe for the picking at the time.
CM: Before you launched the line, there was the perception that men don't like color. But you proved that wrong. Why do men like color?
RS: It's letting men show off a little bit more. They love it. They get attention and it becomes contagious. When people start getting compliments, they start feeling good. I'm in the business of selling feeling good. That's what my whole thing is.
CM: How come up with idea for decorating the inside of cuffs with special fabric?
RS: It just happened. It was kind of weird. We just decided that we're going to do prints and things inside of cuffs and roll 'em up and see what it looks like. I describe Robert Graham as kind of a treasure hunt. When you buy something you start looking at it (closer) to see what you will find.
CM: Why did you expand into designing women's wear?
RS: What happened was women started wearing the men's shirts. We started to see women show up at parties wearing the same shirt as the guy across the dance floor. So we decided it would be a better idea if we did things that were geared to women. We did different prints and designs than for the men. We expanded to short dresses and tunics. It really rounds you out because the women were getting jealous the men were having more shirts in their closets than they were.
"Women were getting jealous the men were having more shirts in their closets than they were."
CM: When you started the collection did you think it would be what it is today?
RS: In my wildest dreams I never expected it. My dad collected shirts. I remember when I was a kid, he owned a gas station; he was a mechanic in the Bronx. But he'd come to dinner wearing this gorgeous shirt. I'd go through his drawers to check them out. He had dozens of shirts made of beautiful fabrics, almost like art today, and they were beautifully laundered. It was exciting.
I didn't draw. I didn't sketch. I didn't paint. But I saw in the weaves and the colors, all of a sudden it was wearable. That's sort of what got me into this whole thing. But I never would have believed it.
CM: Any worries that opening your own boutiques will take business away from the established stores?
RS:About 23 years ago I was walking on the beach in Montauk (Long Island) and I ran into Ralph (Lauren) and his wife Ricky. At that point he had just taken over the Rhinelander Mansion on 72nd street to make a Polo store. He said to me, "This was the greatest move I've made in my life, to be able to take all my product and house it under one roof." Two weeks after he opened, Bloomingdale's decided to build the biggest Ralph Lauren department they had ever had. Success breeds success. The more product that's out there, the more it helps everybody.
CM: You are 65. But you have no plans to retire.
RS: To me this is fun, it's not work. I enjoy it. It keeps me young, mentally. I work hard but I know how to take it easy so I won't burn out. Everyone needs a challenge.