Todd Snyder: The Man Who Taught Men to Love Clothes
Todd Snyder is the man who slimmed down your suit, persuaded you to shop in a liquor store, and got you to buy a turtleneck. He’s created a world where men can care about furniture. And American manufacturing. And the kind of boots usually seen on construction sites. Here, the most influential menswear designer of his generation explains how he convinced ordinary guys to care about what they wear.
A little after 9:30 A.M. on a crisp late November day, a potential customer tried to enter designer Todd Snyder’s flagship store, located a camel-coated walk across 26th Street from Madison Square Park. Snyder watched as the guy rattled the doors. The store would open, as it does Monday through Saturday, at 10 A.M. (11 on Sundays.) The guy would have to come back.
This stuck in Snyder’s craw.
Snyder explains all this to me as we sit in a scaled-down branch of El Rey, the hipster-beloved downtown coffee shop, that happens to be located inside his store. Snyder looks not unlike an off-duty superhero transported from the 1950s—maybe six-two, sturdy and strong-jawed. He acts like one, too. He’s Midwestern polite and shockingly even-keeled, not just for a fashion designer, sure, but for any kind of human alive in 2018.
This morning, Snyder sits with his back to the wall and observes, placidly noting whether everything is in its Snyder-approved place: the new barber for the in-house barbershop (needs keys), the preparation of the eggs on the cafe’s breakfast sandwiches (“How come sometimes it’s scrambled?”). The next time we meet, also at the store, he’ll be derailed within seconds by the height of a sale sign occupying the main window. He’d like for it to be raised ten inches, he tells an employee, and then greets me with a bear-paw handshake. The store is his magnum opus. It won’t ever be perfect, or finished (if you want, you can buy the rugs; two people have), but that won’t stop Snyder from trying to make it so. Because it’s here that the Todd Snyder project is most painstakingly articulated. The store is a proposition: This is everything a man needs.
These days, the menswear labels that show on European runways, flood department stores, and blow up Instagram accounts prize novelty, artful ugliness, and the almighty logo. In comparison, Snyder might scan as safe, or just not interested in playing the same game. But as granddad sneakers and all-embroidery-everything rise, peak, and fall out of favor, he’ll be here, tucked away just north of Madison Square Park, selling khakis and Alden shoes and bodywash to guys who trust him to do what they themselves can’t: make them look and feel like better versions of themselves.
You’ve seen that better version because he’s now everywhere. He’s your frat brother who lived in cargo shorts, and then showed up to your wedding in a suit with a shockingly slim lapel. He’s your actual brother, who arrived at Thanksgiving wearing an uncharacteristically dapper topcoat, a pair of tailored sweatpants from a heritage sportswear company, and a pair of reissued sneakers from a different heritage sportswear company. He’s your coworker, whose watch—vaguely military face, colorful fabric band—earned him compliments after the marketing meeting. Maybe he’s you, who finally pulled the trigger on a turtleneck. (It looks great, by the way. You’re totally pulling it off.)
This is the Great Every-Guy Makeover, and it’s happening for many reasons. Perhaps the most significant one: it’s happening because Todd Snyder knows exactly what guys are willing to wear to look good.
Snyder himself is Exhibit A. He wears mostly his own clothes—a Todd Snyder camel topcoat with Ralph Lauren jeans, or Todd Snyder black chinos and sneakers that Snyder designed in collaboration with New Balance—to each of our meetings. These are his staples, best characterized by their deep respect for American manufacturing, but also the nonzero chance that wearing them might get you mistaken for a Sporty European or a Reformed Sneakerhead or a Successful Turtleneck Wearer. The Todd Snyder aesthetic isn’t overtly challenging, but I wouldn’t call it boring, either. It’s clothing from an imaginary Menswear’s Greatest Hits catalog, a brand that’s just as happy to educate a curious guy on the slim sweatpant revolution as it is to sell four-figure outerwear to that guy three years from now. It’s clothing that marks Steve McQueen as the high point of American style, which is no longer the hip thing to do but is also really hard to argue with.
Todd Snyder isn’t the most famous American menswear designer of his generation. But he just might be the most influential.
The people who become movers and shakers in American fashion generally come up in high-fashion places: New York (Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs), or San Francisco (Alexander Wang, John Elliott). Todd Snyder is from Huxley, Iowa. Growing up, Huxley, then a town of 2,000, was not a fashion capital. “Probably half the kids went to college, half didn’t,” Snyder says. “Most of them were farmers.” But between parents Rosa, an artist, and Dennis, an engineer, and his own bone-deep interest in getting dressed, life as anything but a designer seemed kind of tough to imagine.
His career has progressed with the near-certainty of someone who knows he’s doing the only thing he’s meant to. It’s also been marked by a willingness to make tasteful things for people who didn’t yet know to want them, which meant he had to teach himself first. Snyder spent summers doing draftsmanship for dad, and eventually landed a gig at a men’s shop in Des Moines. There he met a Ralph Lauren rep: “I was like, ‘I want to do what that person’s doing.’”
So he did. In the early ‘90s, after college in Iowa (his nickname: “GQ”), he called the Ralph Lauren offices until he won an interview, then an internship. The band-collar shirt he cut and sewed himself convinced a higher-up to let Snyder be more than a coffee boy. (While telling this anecdote, Snyder made a sort of mental note: “Band collars are kind of back now. It was oversized. Actually, it would be very good right now.”)
From Ralph Lauren he went to J.Crew, then the Gap, then back to Ralph to work for John Varvatos and alongside would-be menswear luminaries like Tim Hamilton and Frank Muytjens. In that era, Thom Browne and Michael Bastian moved through the design studio, too. The whole thing was to the nascent world of menswear what the University of Kentucky now is to the NBA. “It was the university,” Snyder recalls.
Snyder returned to the Gap—Old Navy, actually—to be reunited with CEO Mickey Drexler, the retail guru who built Gap into a powerhouse in the ’90s. Old Navy was new. “It was Mickey’s little sandbox,” Snyder tells me. “It really showed me how to do mass and make it look amazing, but it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.”
Drexler was fired, then resurfaced a year later at J.Crew, a musty brand in desperate need of a reboot. He convinced Snyder to come over in 2004 to run menswear.
“At Ralph, the team would create these rig rooms,” Snyder explains, to show off the season’s collection. “They would spend days building this room that you would walk in and be like, ‘This is magical.’ It would change your point of view.”
Linking back up with Drexler, and having learned how to launch a brand with Old Navy, Snyder had an idea: He would take that rig room and turn it from industry secret to the store itself. He’d make the place where men shopped less about the clothes, and more about seeing themselves in a tasteful loft with an impeccable vinyl collection and art on the walls—and, yeah, they’d wear shades of camel while sitting on the tufted leather Chesterfield. In doing so, he’d pull off the impossible: convince guys who might spend a Saturday in the gym that shopping, done the right way, could activate the same joy and curiosity receptors sparked by every other leisure activity worth pursuing.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that, in his four years running menswear at J.Crew, Snyder fundamentally changed the way American men dress, as well as the way they shop. “At the time, men’s was always in the basement,” Snyder explains. “It was always the back of the catalog. You were an afterthought. You were always in the back of the store. You were always the step-child.” But every time he’d set up one of those rig rooms to show Drexler that season’s men’s collection, Drexler would leave convinced they needed to open a men’s-only J.Crew store. The business side, Drexler tells me over the phone, always said no. Eventually Drexler secured a yes. He enlisted marketing savant Andy Spade, and, in the summer of 2008, the trio found an old liquor store on a quiet block in TriBeCa that, with a little elbow grease and a tasteful neon sign, became as much a clubhouse as a shop.
“That just changed everything for J.Crew,” Snyder recalls. “I knew it was going to be great, but I had no idea how great it was going to be. That store alone did almost as much business as the store on 5th Avenue.”
And then, while the new everyday-is-Casual-Friday ethos was taking over everyone’s job, J.Crew launched a suit, the Ludlow: slim, approachable, affordable. (Until J.Crew’s legal department interfered, Snyder says, the suit was to be called the “Tribeca.”) “There was a lifestyle we had at the Liquor Store, and the Ludlow suit became the uniform of the time,” he tells me. “The Alden wingtip, the longwing, I guess they call it? That became the other part of the uniform. The rolled-up jean became the other part of the uniform. There were a lot of things that were kind of birthed at the Liquor Store.”
It’s worth pointing out that Snyder didn’t invent that uniform single-handedly—it had long existed in out-of-print copies of style Take Ivy and on blogs like A Continuous Lean. What Snyder did was figure out how to sell a real fashion moment to skittish guys who were used to thinking of their closets as a series of checkboxes meant to be ticked. How do you get skeptical guys to trust your clothing? You pair them with things they already trust. If you’re selling trimmer-than-ever khakis, set them next to beautiful Indy boots—literally named because Indiana Jones wore them—from 134-year-old American shoemaker Alden. At the Liquor Store you could buy a new shawl-collar cardigan and a vintage Rolex. Snyder learned that if you can’t do it better than someone else, don’t—go get the best and sell them, too.
“If you look at the world today, collaboration has become kind of the word of the moment,” Drexler recounts. And it’s true: collaboration is perhaps the marker of cool in 2018. Of course, Snyder’s job was never to chase “cool” quite so plainly—it was to fraction off the portion of cool that regular guys could stomach, and help them integrate it into their lives and wardrobes.
That year, menswear, in the most traditional sense, was booming—not yet dominated by logos and streetwear, but by suede derbies and slim cargo pants and ultra-dense oxford shirts. In other words: by stuff Todd Snyder had, if not invented, told guys they were allowed to wear.
And then, on a Friday not quite a month after the Liquor Store had opened, Todd Snyder tendered his resignation. The following Monday, Lehman Brothers collapsed.
There’s a whole list of things that American men from 25 to 50 now own because of Todd Snyder’s clairvoyance. But Todd Snyder that man did not become Todd Snyder the $10 million dollar business just because an Iowan guy knew that suits could be a little slimmer. No, he owes much of his financial success in large part to that bastion of dudeliness: the college-logo T-shirt.
Snyder quit J.Crew in 2008, after four years, planning to start his eponymous line, but he’d actually been working a side hustle since the ’90s: Tailgate Clothing Co., which he helped his father and brother launch with tees for Iowa State, Snyder’s alma mater.
“Because I worked at Ralph, I knew how to make really nice t-shirts that didn’t shrink three sizes,” Snyder said. “So we started doing it, and it took off. I was still working my full-time job, so I helped [my brother] get started. And it kept growing, each year. He started selling to Urban Outfitters. The hope was that it would get big enough that I could go do my own thing.”
It did, eventually selling at places like Bloomingdales, Gap, and Old Navy. Snyder had built a career teaching mall companies how to tap into upwardly stylish guys, then turned around sold those same companies the lounging-around tee those guys still craved.
And then, in 2011, Todd Snyder the label was born unto the world, racks on racks of sweaters and button-fronts and outerwear that a million guys felt safe buying. His first collection—shown in March 2012; all flannel and suede and tweed, dark colors and military silhouettes—wasn’t terribly challenging, which explains why it was a hit. “I want to blur the lines between the designer level and the J.Crew level,” he says. “I think there is a white space in between the two.”
Every collection since has put an arrow in that bullseye. His clothes are more refined than the mall brands—finer fabrics, typically from Italy; 202-level outerwear, like a calf-length, investment-grade shearling coat—with a price point that won’t make you spit out your Orange Julius. (A dress shirt from J.Crew will run you $70, where Snyder’s range from $125 to nearly $300.)
“You get great clothes, and you get someone who has a specific vision,” explains GQ’s creative director-at-large Jim Moore. But Snyder, he continued, also “wants to dress real guys, wants to elevate their style, give them colors that are complementary to their skin tone and give them shapes they can wear even though they might be a 34 waist. Not to put him in that everyman category always, but he has this way of elevating them, and solving problems for them, and giving them confidence.”
Snyder has emerged, less as a mythical Tom Ford-esque shaman of luxury or a Raf Simons-grade artíste, but as a benevolent god of well-designed chinos. Deification makes sense in that, if you want to boil down his success, it’s as much about fortune-telling as it is craftsmanship. Snyder possesses an awareness of what the everyman is willing to try out, and an even stronger sense of what he’s not ready for. If influence is quantified by the number of men a designer has taught how to dress, then Snyder is as influential as they come.
Since that first show, he’s opened, closed, and reopened City Gym, a Manhattan pop-up to house his ever-growing collaboration with Champion. (Back in his Ralph days, Snyder began collecting Champion sweatshirts; now, he says he’s got a thousand of them in storage.) He’s opened—and closed—four stores in Japan. And, in 2015, he parlayed the growth of Todd Snyder the business, underpinned by massive online sales and the relentless success of Tailgate Clothing Co., into a sale to American Eagle for about $11 million in cash and stock.
The working arrangement gives Snyder the autonomy to stock and operate his Madison Square palace as he sees fit, and it also gives him something vanishingly rare in the fashion world: job security. He declined to share concrete numbers, but said that his business had doubled in the last year—and more surprisingly, that since opening the store in December 2016, all business (retail, wholesale, and digital) was up 300 percent.
“People love to catastrophize how retail is,” Snyder says. “Traditional brick and mortar is dead, and people have to figure out how to change and evolve.” Which, sure—true. But Snyder’s ace in the hole isn’t disruptive tech or high-concept environments built for Instagram likes, and he knows it. “You got stores that you can go into that you can’t walk out with the clothes, they’ll send them to you,” he says, rattling it off. “Then you have stores that everything is untucked.” A smirk. “Then you got stores that sell a lot of suits.” And then, the kicker: “But they lack two things: taste and experience.”
Snyder’s looking into launching a subscription box, he tells me, another way to build his non-wholesale, non-flagship audience. (Eighty percent of his sales happen online, the inverse of the 80-percent wholesale business that Snyder claims most other designers hit.) But the box will be curated by a staff stylist, and, anyway, the clothes will be certified-gold Todd Snyder classics. Where the dot-commers have an algorithm, he has something better.
“You got stores that you can go into that you can’t walk out with the clothes, they’ll send them to you. Then you have stores that everything is untucked. Then you got stores that sell a lot of suits. But they lack two things: taste and experience.”
“I worked for a Ralph Lauren. I’ve worked for J.Crew. I’ve worked for Gap,” he says. “And 20 years of that teaches you a lot. I know how to put all the pieces together, whereas a lot of these brands don’t have that.” Those brands, for instance, are long on sneakers. Snyder, ever clairvoyant, knows better than to be. “Sneakers are gonna be hard for guys to give up,” he says. But he’s already seeing the look go wrong in the wild. “When you see the sportscasters wearing sneakers,” he says, it’s time to move along to what’s next. (Did you know that Todd Snyder is one of three Crockett & Jones stockists in New York?)
As for the luxury brands that hover in the sky above? “I think what’s happening right now in fashion, we’ve benefitted from, because it is a bit polarizing,” he tells me. The stratosphere-level high-fashion clothes that models, athletes, and musicians showcase are intentionally challenging: embroidered out the wazoo or willfully, hilariously ugly. Todd Snyder doesn’t do ugly. And when he challenges, it’s with an elbow to the ribs to get a guy’s attention, not a poke in the eyes.
Snyder presented his fifteenth runway show this week, even though his guy has no vested interest in watching models strut around in next season’s looks. “The show has its audience,” he says—meaning the fashion industry editors he needs to court for coverage, and who thrill to dramatic silhouettes and weird shapes, to pokes in the eye—but “our customers rarely watch it.”
“We did pleated pants last year,” he explains, “and they didn’t do that well. So it might be a couple of years ahead on that one.” Pleated pants, he thinks, are his new turtleneck: a piece he introduced on the runway, teased into the main line, and last year saw become a best-seller. As Todd Snyder knows better than anyone else, the average American man’s wardrobe expands in painfully slow fits and starts. And when you’re ready for pleated pants—and he knows you will be—he’ll be here to get you into a pair.
- October 19, 2017
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- October 21, 2017