We spent a week this summer invading the offices and going inside the minds of six American menswear heroes. First up in our series, Todd Snyder discusses his Midwest origins, how to quit a cushy job to follow your dream, and the engineering behind an impeccable lapel roll.
MEN’S SHOP DAILY: Growing up in Iowa, what was your first summer job?
TODD SNYDER: “You won’t know what it is, but I detasseled corn. The corn has tassels on the top that have pollen that gets into the corn itself, and either turns it into sweet corn or, uh…honestly, there’s a whole process, but I don’t know what the hell it is. My science teacher would be horrified that I don’t remember all this, and so would my dad.”
The sex life of corn?
“Yes, exactly. But anyway, you would have to take the tassels off because you didn’t want it to pollenate. So the only way to do that is to go through it with your hands and pick it. It was probably the worst job ever. After I did that I was like screw this I’m going to work for my dad.”
What did your dad do?
“He was an engineer, so I worked on the survey crew. I would literally be laying out roads, bridges, houses, things like that. [Designing clothes] is a lot easier than working in the summer in the hot sun, looking through an instrument, running numbers all day and trying to figure out where to put all the points. You’re not dealing with heavy equipment behind you, waiting for you to put the road down. I would literally get these big trucks and these angry construction guys—’When you gonna have that done?’ It was crazy.”
What life lessons did you learn on the survey crew?
“I worked with a lot of construction guys that would never let your ego get out of hand.”
What was it like working for your dad back then?
“One of the things I learned most from my father was just being very diligent in my work ethic. He instilled that at a young age…I hated it when he was doing it, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I talk to students all the time, and I always say, there might be people that are more talented than you, but don’t ever let somebody work harder than you.”
Where did you go to college, and what did you study?
“I went to school at Iowa State, and since my dad was an engineer, I kind of wanted to be an architect. But to be honest with you, there were no girls in the class, so I was like, ‘This sucks.’ Plus, you think you’re going to build all these amazing things, and I was building like, sewer intakes. So I switched over to Finance, and there were no girls there either. And then I switched to Fashion—almost right before I was going to graduate. And I kind of fell in love with it.”
What led you to switch to a major in Fashion?
“I started working in a men’s store [during college], doing whatever I could just to learn. Sweeping, cleaning up, sales—and then when I saw the tailors come out, I was like, ‘What are they doing?’ And it all kind of made sense. I want to do that. That, to me, seems more fun than selling, let me go do that, because I really like working with my hands. That’s where I learned how to tailor a garment. I taught myself to sew, and that’s how I started honing my skills. It became a hobby.”
Did you always have an interest in personal style?
“I was always into clothes…I got voted best-dressed in high school. I was obsessed with Calvin Klein back then, Ralph Lauren, anything designer. But then I had Levi’s, and my Nike Air Force 1′s. That’s when they first came out. I worked all summer to get a pair.”
Did you have reservations about making such a big leap—from Architecture to Fashion?
“I mean, growing up in Iowa, everybody’s either a farmer or an engineer or a dentist. It was like, ‘You’re going to do what?’ But after I read Ralph Lauren’s book in the ’80s, I could just see, like wow, somebody can really do that. I found out Halston actually came from Iowa, and somebody like him coming from there and doing what he did was amazing. And then, when I told my grandmother I was going to be a fashion designer, she said, ‘Ah, that’s interesting. You know your name in Dutch means tailor.’ So after hearing those things, I was like okay, I’m on the right track. I’m not nuts.”
How did you get your start in the industry, after college?
“My wife and I got married and we moved here [to New York City] when I was 25, and I started making my own shirts.”
You mean literally. In order to clothe yourself.
“Right. I didn’t have any money…I’d see all these great shirts that everybody was wearing, and I’m like oh, I can’t afford that. So I’d go to the fabric stores that would have all these remnants from designers, and you would go through and there’d be a Donna Karan, a Calvin Klein and it’d be like, I’ll take that. And for like $20 I would make a shirt. That’s what I would do on the weekends—just make shirts. I just loved doing it.
“It was really how I expressed myself and creatively showed what I could do—and that’s kind of how I got ‘discovered,’ so to speak, at Ralph Lauren, where I went from, you know, an intern, off in the corner, to like, ‘Oh wow, this kid.’ [The higher-ups] would be like, ‘Oh, that’s a really cool shirt, where’d you get it?’ ‘Oh, I made it.’ ‘You made that?’ And all of a sudden, it just started snowballing.”
What’s the best advice you ever got?
“My father told me at an early age, if you want to be the best, you’ve got to work for the best. And it was really important for me to learn as much as I could and become an expert before I did my own collection. I worked in the industry for 18 years for other people.”
What was it like when you decided to branch out and start a company of your own?
“Well, it was funny, because I quit…my very secure job…thinking originally I was going to start Todd Snyder in 2008—right as Lehman Brothers went belly up. [The recession] got worse and worse, and I was like, ‘Holy sh–, I just quit my really good job!’ So then I spoke to my brother [who had taken over a small side-project I had started in 1997, Tailgate Clothing Company] and said, ‘Hey, how about I help you guys out.’ Then that started growing very quickly…and we launched Todd Snyder in 2011.”
Sounds like it all worked out.
“I definitely was nervous. I signed a one-year lease on this place thinking, I don’t know if I’m going to make it—but we’ve been here five or six years now.”
And you’re expanding more and more. Tell us about your upcoming Todd Snyder suiting collection.
“We collaborated with Southwick, a factory in Massachusetts that’s been around since 1929. Some of the people that work there have been there for 20, 30 years. That’s all they’ve ever done. They’re kind of the last great American tailor, and that to me was perfect for what we’re trying to do—to kind of reinvent tailoring for the younger generation. You’re seeing a lot of kids these days buying Alden shoes, and wearing, like, what my father used to wear.”
What defines a high-quality suit jacket or sportcoat? What is ‘canvas’?
“Canvas is really what enables a jacket to get a better ‘roll’—this very subtle kind of roll to the lapel. It’s an inner lining that, as it gets sewn into the garment, there’s a tension as they stitch it in that creates this natural roll—whereas a lot of factories will just press it, and they’ll get a really sharp [crease]. So any time you see a jacket, look at the lapel—when you start seeing this very natural roll to it, that really defines a great jacket.”
The jacket you’re wearing today is half-lined. What does that mean?
“[A half-lined jacket] actually takes more time than if you just line the [entire thing]. You get someone to actually sew this on, make sure this looks nice [pointing at interior details]. It almost looks as good on the inside as it does on the outside.”
What’s the benefit of a half-lined or unlined sportcoat?
“For me it’s really about the comfort—the less layers, the better—right? In my opinion, it wears better. It’s nice having it be almost like a shirt, almost like a sweater. Plus, I like to show off how great a jacket it is. Somebody asks you, ‘Oh, who made your jacket?’ You open it up, and they’re like, ‘Okay, got it.’ It’s kind of like looking under the hood of a car.”
How important has it been for you to have that fundamental understanding of sewing, tailoring, shirt-making?
“Once you know how something’s built, you can make it different—change it. You know how it’s constructed, so you can always work with the factory on how to make something—because a lot of times the factory’s like, no, you can’t do it. And I’ll be like well, actually, you can. If you try it this way, and you do this—and before you know it, they’re like oh, okay, this guy knows his stuff. And they kind of let you into their world. And then you start to push the envelope more and more.”
Your previous sportswear collections have contained a lot of military references. What inspired that?
“Military, I think, always has a huge influence in menswear. I didn’t realize it until I started working at Ralph Lauren, and he does military [so well]. The cargo pant is obviously military, but even down to the T-shirt, which was invented by the Navy to cover men’s chest hair. The desert boot that I’m wearing was invented for soldiers in the desert—they created this gum sole so their foot wouldn’t sink through [the sand]. I didn’t know all this stuff, but as I started getting into menswear, you start realizing there are so many references toward military.
“What I like about it is, there’s a basic, utilitarian style to it—and taking those elements, and fusing them with luxury is always a challenge for me. Trying to figure out how to make luxury utilitarian—which [in a way] are complete opposites. But that’s always been my challenge in creating a balance between the two.”
Form meets function.
Your latest collection is a bit different. What inspired Fall ’13?
“We called [this collection] Rebel Gentleman. I’ve always been inspired by motorcycle jackets, and this season, really liked the idea of mixing biker with tailoring. In years prior, we always had military mixed with tailoring, and it seemed very natural to mix motorcycle jackets in with it.
“This guy’s kind of a badass, you know. He’s somebody who’s well-educated, lives in the city, is very well-read but isn’t pretentious at all—he has a motorcycle and kind of likes to play on the bad side a bit. But you know, deep down, he’s a good guy.”
What is it about motorcycle jackets that inspires you?
“There’s a utilitarian aspect about it—it protects you. But then there’s this kind of bad-boy sensibility about it, because you envision James Dean, The Outsiders. It’s probably the most rugged thing you can wear, other than a pair of old boots. What I love about it too, is the older it gets, the better it gets. Something in design I’ve always appreciated is like having something that you’ve had for a long time, and it’s like an heirloom that you’re always going to cherish.”
Do you own a motorcycle yourself?
“I don’t. Deep down inside, I think every guy is like, yeah, I wish I had a motorcycle. I had a moped. I used to ride it to and from baseball practice.”
What are your favorite pieces to work on these days?
“Leather and outerwear is really where I come full circle, because it’s the closest I can get to being an architect. There are so many details that go into it—the instructions you give to a factory to make it, it’s almost like giving someone a set of drawings for a building.”
You’re an expert vintage shopper. Any tips on thrifting?
“Dig deep. Everybody’s very surface-oriented—they’ll just kind of graze. You need to go deep because that’s usually where nobody goes, and you always find the best stuff…There’s good vintage and bad vintage. The fit is probably the most important thing…Never be afraid to spend too much on something good, though, because it’s usually one of a kind. A lot of [jackets we make] were inspired by old German and British jackets that I collected.”
Favorite vintage shops?
“There’s a store called Old Hat, in London, that sells…old hats. I know, good name, right? But they sell old gentleman’s wares, everything from umbrellas to—it’s just amazing. You find these one-of-a-kind pieces…I bought a jacket, opened it up and it says, ‘Made for Henry Kissinger.’ I’m like, really?”
Do you travel to London often?
“Probably about once a year now…I’ve always been inspired by Jermyn Street and Savile Row, and kind of the old world of menswear—the old tailors and shirt-makers and shoe-makers. I always liked the idea of having this small village of these artisans.”
What are some of your favorite movies?
“I like the old movies. I love watching Cary Grant in about anything he ever was in. Paul Newman I think had such incredible style. You look at Paul Newman or Robert Redford and you’re like holy sh–, these guys are really cool and they just had amazing style—before stylists.”
What else inspires you lately?
“Constantin Brâncuși, a famous sculptor. He would create these very geometric shapes, but still kind of organic and natural, in wood or stone. He created these amazing objects, that when you look at them, you’re like, that’s so beautiful —but then you’re also like that’s so simple. There’s a ruggedness about his work, it’s heavy, but it’s still elegant. Plus he just had this incredible beard, and style without even trying.
“[And the architecture of] Mies van der Rohe—it’s amazing when you look at his designs from like 1920 and you think oh, that’s a building from now…And then you’re like no, actually it was designed and built in 1920. He had this way of transcending time, and as a designer you kind of shoot for that…To be able to design something that endures time is the ultimate.”
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Key items from Todd Snyder’s Fall collection:
Leather Trucker Jacket | Slim-Fit Infantry Pants (green) | Wool Herringbone Blazer
Chambray Shirt with Contrast Collar | Slim-Fit Officer Pants (black) | Wool Crewneck Sweater
SHOP ALL: TODD SNYDER
[Photos by Robin Stein. Interview by Justin Abbott.
Special thanks to Todd Snyder and team.]