IFC Interviews Nick Graham

nick-graham.jpgYesterday, I attended the Innovative Fashion Council’s first “fashion atelier,” a Q&A style interview with designer Nick Graham, founder of Joe Boxer and the man behind Goodwill’s William Good recycled fashion label. After a local designer I know told me that the IFC’s last networking event was a fun, informative one, I decided to sign up for this one. While there were a few bumps in the road (it started almost an hour late and had about 12 attendees, which I am told was not the case for the networking party held at Muse afterwards), I’m glad I went and heard Graham talk about his company’s beginnings during the San Francisco punk scene of the 1980s and its rapid journey to become the global brand that it is today.

One of the first things Graham said to the audience – in response to a question about his youth – was that he’s still growing up, and it’s easy to believe him. Despite his gruff, gravely voice and 50 years, he has an unmistakably boyish demeanor that goes hand in hand with his former company’s cheeky attitude.

Explaining his start in the underwear industry, Graham quipped that he “needed underwear and was too cheap to buy them,” before later conceding that he and his business partner at the time were looking for a product they could easily manufacture. They first began making men’s ties, but later jumped into the boxer biz after an acquaintance asked them to make several pairs for his upcoming bachelor party. That friend happened to be a buyer at Macy’s. He was so delighted with the result that he started stocking them in the department store. And, as they say, the rest is history.

Sort of. If Graham has one great skill, it’s most certainly his innate talent for marketing and spin. His products sold well, but he also raised his company’s profile by staging numerous events and attention-grabbing stunts that established the irreverent, fun, adventurous personality for which the Joe Boxer brand became known.

One of his favorite such stunts, Graham recalled to the audience, was a wild ride with Sir Richard Branson aboard the first Virgin Atlantic flight from London to San Francisco. Somewhere over Greenland, an underwear party broke out.

“We congo lined around the jumbo jet over Greenland completely out of our minds,” he told us.

But while the designer obviously enjoys rehashing tales of his wilder days and was quick to gloss his bad boy persona with one-liners about most of his good ideas coming from “bad drug experiments,” he was equally skilled at doling out practiced nuggets of marketing wisdom (“co-branding is basically branding with someone else paying for it”) (“the brand is the amusement park and the product is the souvenir”) (brands are emotions, not products). And that duality, really, sums up my impression of Graham as both a designer and a business man.

He is both the envelope-pushing, post-punk character and the shrewd, ambitious (and probably quite calculating) entrepreneur. He has the rare ability of a born salesman to sell you something before you’ve realized that you were even shopping in the first place. His persona sells his products almost better than they sell themselves. Still, he manages to sell without coming across as completely insincere. In fact, he sounds altogether inspired and authentic when he describes his reasons for collaborating with Goodwill, saying, “they are the pioneers of recycling, they’re the world’s largest recyclers,” and his plans to help create ongoing training programs for Goodwill workers as the William Good label expands.

We’ve had several lengthy comments about the William Good line on this blog, with some readers expressing irritation with what I’d describe as the mainstream underpinnings of his new indie-minded label. And I think that’s a large part of what makes Graham so interesting to indie designers and indie-minded consumers these days. In one sense, he is the ultimate indie entrepreneur. According to his own legend, he started sewing on a lark and fell into the business in the mid-80s because he couldn’t make money any other legal way without a green card (he’s Canadian). But today, he’s bringing a corporate structure to an indie trend, i.e. recycling and restructuring clothing. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I’m in love with all things indie fashion – mainly because I respect how hard the designers work to grind out their creations – but, at the same time, I realize that very few designers out there would refuse if Macy’s came knocking at their door.