Every other Thursday, Stephanie Osei asks employees and employers at our favorite shops around the world what their most cherished in-store item is for our column Staff Affections. This week, she caught up with Robert Babigan, the founder of Rhode Island's WHARF about the WHARF Summer Edition Work Shirt.
Why did you select theWHARF Summer Edition Work Shirt? Aside from being a great looking shirt, the fabric is amazing and I really feel the end result embodies the WHARF ethos of high-end production at a good value, rooted in utilitarian wardrobe staples. I love the contrasting principles too. We took an extremely high quality dress denim from Italy and sort of broke it down to denim's original use- a piece of work wear. But because the fabric is so fine and we keep details minimal and subtle deliberately, you can wear it in so many situations. I also have been struggling forever with making a work shirt, like a chambray, for the WHARF lineup. But I did not want to tread over the same path that's been laid by some fantastic brands before and just fall short of their great work. I did not want "just another Chambray work shirt." The dress denim made it possible to accomplish that.
You've somehow managed to combine affordability and quality. It's one of WHARF's core principles—to offer a variety of products at price points that can fit in almost every person's budget—be it shirts, shoes, trousers, etc. I work very hard to bring in brands that offer the highest quality for the money. Sometimes that can be a $250 pair of denim, other times, it is as basic as a $20 T-shirt. It comes down to an individual's principles. Anyone that walks into the store or browses the website is weighing a value proposition. Often customers even come with a dollar value in mind. The guy walking in with $100 or $300 or $500—he may have a plan how to spend it. But then he has a chance to compare one item versus another at WHARF. That $250 denim may not make sense as much as five $20 T-shirts and a new pair of Thorogoods shoes. Or even walking home with $200 still in his pocket. And that's okay. It's like how I continually build my own wardrobe. Sometimes you have to weigh your life's demands and make choices that are right for you at the time. We just try to give you the best product for your dollar to help make those choices.
How did WHARF start? I had been toying with the idea for a few years of starting my own retail shop, but did not really hone in on the end product until the end of 2009 and early 2010. Even from my early brainstorming, I always wanted a place that stayed true to my personal use of product and the inherent utilitarian nature of the apparel and accessories I lean toward. The concept began taking a more substantial form through early 2010 and I opened the doors in a small Warwick location last September. Shortly after that, we gained traction from a pop-up shop during the holidays in downtown Providence, and we opened the full Down City store in June. Looking back it's really been less than 12 months since opening WHARF, but so much has happened it feels like we've been around longer.
When and why did you decide to create the WHARF private label? I always knew I wanted a private label to be a part of the store and brand. I never imagined it to happen from the onset, as I was really focused on the store development. I figured, once the store was developed and running smoothly, I would look toward building the WHARF commodities. But then I met the fine folks at the factory where WHARF shirts are made and they were at a similar early stage in their life cycle under a new (and wonderful owner). We saw a good partner in each other and the private label blossomed from there and the shirts really cemented the brand in people's minds as not just another flash-in-the-pan boutique. Ties made their way in shortly after as did the popular duffel bags. And there are various items at various stages of development as we move forward.
Who is behind the WHARF design team? It's a team effort between myself and the different producers I use. As the brand grows and the resources grow, the people I lean on for direction of the brand grows. Any good manager relies on people smarter than himself and I am certainly no exception. Why try to re-invent a pair of trousers from a factory that has been making them for decades? There are certainly details specific to WHARF in every piece, but the brand will always be rooted in utilitarian basics and the principles that make a great garment. But over time, as my point of view changes or I am influenced by new ideas and creativity from so many great people out there, I hope the brand can evolve and we make subtle improvements in design and aesthetics to the staples in your wardrobe. Despite any evolution, the brand will always strive to represent pieces that you will use for years to come.
What goes into putting the store together? Having come from a marketing, branding and sales background, I tend to have a strong opinion on how to build a brand or tell the brand's story. But with WHARF, it was also personal an endeavor, I would struggle at times with how to position the store and the brand. I mean, as a core principle, how does one express an opinion through (quite simply) apparel? But then, the more I looked into my own personal style, what I grew up with, what I use today, the brands, the quality, etc. I realized how relevant it still was—especially in today's menswear market. I felt I was best off working with brands I either knew from personal use over the years, or ones I discovered and learned a great deal about—either at the onset of the store or down the line—that I felt best represented the same values I have sought for years. It's that utilitarian root that I lean on and goes into the private-label design as well.