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The Robert Graham Effect

Fashion’s contrarian has fun breaking fashion rules



(page 2 of 3)

Bill Sweedler, Investor

In 2011, Westport resident Bill Sweedler cofounded Tengram Capital Partners, a private equity firm focused on the consumer and retail sectors. The name is derived from ten (“the tenth in a set or one deserving the highest rating”) and engram: “the hypothetical neural change in the brain that accounts for the memory of a word, image, or great consumer experience.” Sweedler had helped create those kinds of experiences running Joe Boxer, working at Polo, and through his previous brand development and investment company, Windsong Brands.

“I love strategic partnering with great managers and brands,” says Sweedler from his Westport office. “I watched what Robert Stock created in 2001 and approached him a year later.” In 2011, Tengram acquired a controlling position. “It’s been a longtime coming,” says Sweedler, who has known Stock for decades.

“In the American market, there was no brand that was serving such a loyal men’s luxury customer,” continues Sweedler. Over time, the brand had developed almost a cult following—guys who found that their Robert Graham clothes brought not just the usual fashion compliment but an unusual cuff trim or surprising jacket lining actually sparked conversations, and fellow enthusiasts would gravitate toward one another at parties. “I met one guy who had over 300 pieces of Robert Graham apparel. He actually pulled out a picture of his closet to show me!” recounts Sweedler. “People want to fall in love with what they buy. We love brands with that emotional connection.

“Robert Graham also had an incredible distribution channel, with top retailers: Neimans, Saks, Nordstrom and the Mitchells and Richards of the world,” says Sweedler, “with sell-throughs that no other brand rivaled. They were in one or two product categories, which meant a great opportunity for expansion. Our collectors [jargon for ‘customers’ at Robert Graham] were clamoring for more product. It was an easy transition to a full-blown sportswear line. Now we are working on our wholesale expansion, retail roll-out, a licensing strategy, and international expansion, along with a big e-commerce play.” Sweedler’s favorite product at the moment: Jeanos. “I have every color!” he says.

Sweedler, like Stock, has confidence in the team at Robert Graham: “I’m a huge believer that you have to have fun with what you’re doing. We have a world-class management team, and the individuals working at Robert Graham are passionate and love what they do.” Stock uses “happy” as his favorite descriptor for the brand, and that does seem to be the pervading emotion at the showroom. But Bill Sweedler finds happiness working out here. “My office is right on the Saugatuck River. I prefer that any day to sitting over Fifth Avenue,” he says. “A lot of fashion people live in Connecticut. New York is the fashion capital of the world if you ask me, but there’s nothing like the charm of Westport to get away from it all.”

Sweedler lives in town with his wife, Amber, and their three children. Bill has been a Westporter since he was ten. His father was the president of Gant, based in New Haven, and his mom “had the most important job of all: corralling the Sweedler kids.” His parents still live in Westport. Bill’s brother David lives in Fairfield and just so happens to be another spoke in the Robert Graham wheel.

David Sweedler, Vice President of Merchandising

At six-foot-six and resembling a Ralph Lauren model (not to overdo the RL thing, but it’s true), David Sweedler has what his brother describes as “impeccable style.” He’s hard to miss; although, he could be mistaken for a mannequin in the Robert Graham showroom. He wears a classic navy sport coat with a cobalt kerchief in the breast pocket, a gray scarf fashionably knotted about his neck and jeans. Argyle socks appear when he sits down and a Rainbow Loom bracelet gives away that he’s a dad.

“I came over with the acquisition,” explains David. “My background has always been working with Billy, my role always on the brand management, design and merchandising side. With Robert Graham, which was primarily known as a woven shirt company, the first goal was to branch out into other classifications. Over the past two years, we’ve established ourselves as a true luxury lifestyle collection in the U.S. We do knits, sweaters, bottoms, jeans, outerwear, sport coats, and license socks, bags, neckwear, dress shirts, eyewear. Fragrance and footwear are coming. On a yearly basis, we do over 1,500 SKUs of product—that’s a tremendous amount. Our goal is to become a global luxury lifestyle collection, à la Etro or Paul Smith.”

With the eclectic Robert Graham collection, the updated traditional X Collection and the casual collection, David Sweedler says, “We try to capture that guy’s wardrobe from Monday through Sunday.” What he gets most excited about are the details in each item. “I’ve worked at a lot of other higher-end luxury brands. No one goes to the level of detail that we do. Look at the Jeano, for example. The stitching on the outside is copper, and on the inside, it’s a two-color twist. We select these two colors for the bottom hem for our collectors, who literally collect our product like art or wine. They’ll put on this pant for the fifth or sixth time and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t see that!’ That’s the level of detail we offer on every single garment.” The company’s internal motto is “The devil is in the details.” David points out some new polo shirts with a little red devil logo. “We wanted to come up with something that really identifies the brand, and we are a little devilish. We are an irreverent, tongue-in-cheek brand. We dress men who don’t take themselves too seriously. Here everyone understands that we are designing clothes; we are not putting someone on the moon.”

Even in Connecticut, David says, “We are finding that average guy who doesn’t want to be average. He is looking for clothes that make him stand out.” Fairfield County collector Rob Citrone, a principal at Discovery Capital, raves about the fit of Robert Graham sport shirts, “the exciting pops of color on the cuffs and collar, and the slogan ‘knowledge, wisdom, truth’ embroidered on each creation.”

David adds, “We get hedge-fund billionaires, average joes, bikers, young kids, celebrities…” Blake Shelton, 50 Cent, Melissa Joan Hart, DJ Pauly D, and Mike Tyson are all fans. “There are over 150 people in the world who own over 100 pieces of our product. You could count on your hands the number of brands on the planet that get that type of reaction.”