The influence of Ralph Lauren is omnipresent in the American fashion industry. The brand’s status as an iconic fashion house drew many young designers to its ranks in the past few decades. One of these designers is Mike Faherty, who launched an eponymous brand with his brother after leaving the Ralph Lauren. Their brand, which captures the New England beach lifestyle, has a different aesthetic from the heritage styles of RRL, Polo Ralph Lauren and Ralph Lauren Purple Label. But it was the training Mike Faherty received at Ralph Lauren that set him up for success and gave him the ability to create a range of unique, quality garments. We sat down with Faherty to discuss lessons learned: the value of process, the importance of relationships and the science behind making fabric.
Q: How did you get started in fashion?
A: I majored in Fashion Design at Washington University in St. Louis. That was when I got a sewing machine put in front of me, and it was like: Learn how to sew, learn how to make patterns, learn how to illustrate. It was a crash course in that. Once I got into the actual act of sewing garments, I knew it was the right place for me. And then when I graduated, I started at Ralph Lauren. Then I was there from ‘05 to 2012.
Q: What was it like at Ralph Lauren?
A: That place is so defined: the style, the way it is. The one thing about being there — and especially being there in ‘05, when stock prices were soaring — it was like a golden era. Anything was possible, which meant that as a young designer, you have fabric mills that are actively asking you to just do shit for you. It was like a field day in terms of pattern and color. Just to get some plaids in the line, we would sketch out or color up 100 swatches to pick one. It’s one of those things where the more you see, the more you touch, the more you go through the act of the design process through the actual adoption of the line, you see so many fabrics and things in the process. And that’s kind of when you learn it all in terms of the design side.
The act of creating specialty fabrics is really a science. And understanding the nuances of it is what can make things feel and look different.
Q: Did you have any aha moments over your tenure there?
A: Yeah, there’s aha moments in the process when you start learning the science of it, because it really is a science. To make fabric, it starts with the raw materials. Those raw materials need to be specified. There’s different-size cotton yarns. Then once you select the size yarns you think you need, there’s a whole construction to it: essentially how many yarns go vertically and how many yarns go horizontally to create the density. And then, it’s, “How is it woven?”
So, in the beginning, you just see numbers. You just look at the specification of fabric; it’s like, 20s by 20s, 50 by 44. And you’re just like, “Whatever.” I think it’s the aha moment when that all connects. Now, I can pick up a piece of fabric and tell you basically the yarn size and some version of the construction pretty closely. And that’s just a matter of being around it so long.
When it all came together, that was a monumental moment in understanding how fabric is made. Because at the end of the day, in this business, anyone can cut and sew a garment, but the act of creating specialty fabrics is really a science. And understanding the nuances of it is what can make things feel and look different.
Q: So it was all about creating unique fabrics?
A: It was thought less upon to pick any swatches off a mill card. It had to be from scratch, and I took that with me. It’s part of the journey, and what, to me, makes a killer garment: It all came from scratch.
Q: So after your time there, what did you take with you when you started Faherty?
A: I think one of the big things I took with me was the relationships. It’s a tough business, and basically, without meaning to, it’s run by the big guys. All the suppliers want to work with the big guys, and they don’t want to waste their time with startups because they’ve seen so many brands start and so many brands fall.
The experience at a place like Ralph gets you a direct line to the owners and operators of these factories, from the guys who make the buttons, to the guys who make the labels, to the guys who make the fabric, to the guys who sew the garments. When I was ready to start this thing, I had someone I trusted who I knew made killer shit who was willing to take a 75-piece order in the beginning.
Q: What was the most important thing you wanted to bring to Faherty’s garments?
A: It was handfeel, and then the way we were going to operate with color. So, things were going to have that sun-kissed color — it’d still have the brights, but it wasn’t over the top. When you saw our stuff, it was always going to have that little patina on it, whatever the fabrication may be. And then I took a lot of the literal things I learned in terms of studying vintage at RRL, and then spun it where it still — from an authenticity perspective — captured it, but that when you felt it, it was like, “Whoa, that’s soft. I want to put that on.”
Q: What have you learned since starting Faherty?
A: This is one of those industries, and you don’t realize it until you’re in it, where overnight success isn’t real. It takes a lot of time because we’re not playing a price-point game, and we’re not creating some alt-industry that’s never existed before. We’re going after something that’s solidified and we want to become the next big thing within it. I think we’re at this crossroads in the industry where a lot of the titans are starting to fall, and you see it every day in the news. There’s opportunity for new brands to become bigger pieces of the puzzle.
What didn’t exist five years ago even is these venture backed online companies that turn-and-burn shitty product by spending tens-of-millions of dollars advertising on Facebook. But what is the value of that brand? All their business is generated off of online advertising. If you look back to some bygone eras of some of the bigger fashion houses, it really was an authentic long-term play. For instance, Ralph Lauren: It took them 10 years to create any sort of mainstream appeal. With Faherty, it’s just a lot of staying on course and staying true to our vision. With time comes expansion. It’s all in an organic way.