The Interview: Jeff Abrams, founder, Rails
Jeff Abrams is founder of Rails, whose signature "hand-feel" shirts became a global phenomenon. The Southern Californian brand has since expanded into a full ready-to-wear offer for women, men and kids. It has a number of premium stockists in the UK and has been popping-up at Harrods and Harvey Nichols. Abrams talks us through his ambitions for the UK and beyond.
Can we take you back to the beginning and ask how and why you started Rails, since we understand at that time you had not fashion industry experience?
I grew up in Los Angeles immersed in the arts - painting, sculpture, photography - with a deep connection to the aesthetics of fashion. I was always thinking about how to express myself through a visual medium. It was in my early twenties living in Europe where I began to concept what would become the Rails collection. Despite my lack of technical experience, I always had a vision of what the brand should be – I envisioned a brand that blended a refined global aesthetic with the innate effortlessness of the Southern California lifestyle.
In less than 10 years, and through a journey of product evolution, Rails has grown from a single black hat, into a leading global lifestyle brand that is sold in more than 40 countries by more than 1500 retailers, including Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, Intermix, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Shopbop, among others, and has generated more than $350m at retail to date.
You started out selling hats but are best known for the shirts, what was the niche you saw that you could fill with those?
I started the line in 2008 with no technical background in fashion. I was looking for a way to jumpstart the brand, while I learned the ins and outs of designing a full collection. I sewed the word Rails onto a single black hat and walked into stores unannounced trying to get orders. I got into Fred Segal and the hat quickly sold out, but I knew I needed to evolve beyond a single item and focus on an enduring product category.
When I first started making shirts, almost all of the button-downs in the market were in some form of a stiff cotton fabrication. I saw a unique opportunity and wanted to bring a luxe cashmere-like feel into the classic shirting category. I made a unique tencel rayon blend that at the time no one was using, and this was the turning point for Rails. Luxe handfeel became the brand’s cornerstone and we launched new categories always with this ethos in mind.
The range has now expanded to men’s, women’s and also children’s styles, can you talk us through the design and manufacturing process?
For many years, our Women’s collection has been the focus of our business. Each season we refine the creative direction and create versatile pieces in luxe fabrications that represent the effortless Southern California lifestyle. We’ve introduced new categories including knitwear, jersey, dresses, outerwear, silks and luxe loungewear – staples that weave into our customer’s everyday.
From ideation to execution, our design process is very hands-on. We start with our color and trend inspiration, pulling from our international travels and local vintage market finds. We hand design each of our patterns and fabrications – whether traditional plaid tartans, stripe color ways, prints or classic solids. We pride ourselves on being fabric innovators. Once in production, our fabric is run through multiple wash processes to give it the drape and luxe handfeel we’ve become known for.
With shirting as a core category, menswear was a very natural brand evolution, and a huge growth opportunity for Rails. We’re mirroring certain fabric concepts from our Women’s collection and delivering an assortment which includes wovens, outerwear, sweaters, tees and lightweight jackets. We are partnering with a focused number of specialty retailers for our rollout and anticipate a steady growth of our Men’s business this year. Little Rails is off to a great start, and we’re capitalizing on the mommy and me demographic. Our brand loyal women’s customer is cross-shopping in these categories and outfitting her family in Rails.
The style and feel of the brand feels very Southern Californian and yet has worldwide appeal, why do you think that is?
I’ve seen Rails as a global brand since day one, ever since I concepted the line while travelling around on the Eurorail in Italy, which is where the brand name originated. Today we have a global network of 15 sales and 10 PR partners, selling in 40 countries, to around 1500 retailers. Our focus is on amazing product and building an emotional connection to our brand. We spend time in each market understanding local nuisances and keeping those things in mind as we design upcoming collections.
At what point did you begin expanding globally, which markets did you target and how?
I recognized early that our product was resonating with a global audience. As Rails grew domestically, I kept receiving calls from international boutiques and interested retailers. International markets were noticing RAILS on celebrities and in major US storefronts like Intermix and Saks Fifth Avenue. I made a concerted effort to slowly expand the business and started selling in the UK, partnering with Palladio Associates, a sales agency in London. Mackenzie Bryant, who was representing our brand in the UK, is still with Rails today as our in-house Global Sales Director.
Let’s talk about the UK, where are you stocked here and how important is the market for you?
The UK is one of our strongest and largest international markets, and we’ve grown significantly over the past seven years here. We’re currently selling at major UK retailers including Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, Fenwick, Trilogy, Net-a-Porter and more than 80 speciality boutiques. We spend a lot of time cultivating long-term relationships with our retail partners in the UK and hope to continue growing in a focused way in the coming seasons.
You have been staging pop-ups at Harrods and Harvey Nichols, please tell us about those and how they have been working for you?
We’ve been stocked at Harrods Fashion Lab since 2014, when the Rails collection was primarily button-downs. Over the years, the collection has evolved and Harrods has allowed us the opportunity to showcase that evolution. For our Spring 19 launch, we partnered with Harrods for a Rails pop-up shop to showcase the new collection, which was shot in Salvador, Brazil. The Rails brand had its most successful weeks to date during the Harrods pop-up and we look forward to launching another pop-up shop soon.
This past April, we also launched a pop-up at Harvey Nichols which was a huge success. We showcased many of the new categories including dresses, jumpsuits, novelty tops and a full assortment of spring product.
These major department stores are a critical part of our brand expansion, but we equally value our speciality boutiques who have helped us grow our brand in the UK and hope to do more focused events and trunk shows with them in the future.
Are there any particular products or styles that have been particularly popular with the UK consumer?
While shirting remains at the core of our business, we’ve seen an increasing demand for all of our new offerings. Dresses and jumpsuits have been among our highest selling categories the past two seasons. We’re finding our customer is looking to create an entire outfit from Rails as opposed to buying a single item. Our UK customer is evolving with the brand as we extend beyond our core shirting category.
Given the success of the pop-ups are you considering permanent retail in the UK, or are you looking to do more pop-ups elsewhere?
We’re jumping on the success of the pop-up model with activations at more UK retailers later this year. We’re also expanding our reach beyond London to other parts of the UK including Edinburgh and Dublin. Domestically, we have plans to launch our first flagship store in our hometown of Los Angeles in Fall 2019 with London on the horizon in the next few years.
The brand seems to be going from strength to strength, what is next ambition-wise?
We have many exciting initiatives in the pipeline. Our first focus is always on product, and continuing to build out our Women’s, Men’s, and Little Rails collections. We are planning to roll-out additional pop-ups with our key UK retailers and are aiming to open our first flagship store in Los Angeles in Fall of this year, with additional stores in other key cities thereafter. We’re constantly trying to build a stronger connection between our brand and our customer, and communicating the visual and emotional DNA of our brand. Stay tuned for amazing things to come!
Do you have a piece of advice you would offer to any aspiring fashion brand owner, given the journey you have been on?
There is no blueprint for creating a successful fashion brand. You need to follow your creative instincts, try not to be everything to everyone and be innovative in a way that’s marketable. There are always challenges that arise and you need to be thick skinned and resilient. I can’t tell you how many setbacks I’ve experienced, - you have to maintain the drive and determination that no one is going to stop you and you will be successful!