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Todd Snyder on How He Created His $100 Million Men’s Brand

Badowers may be gone but it’s not forgotten — at least not by one of its most famous former employees.

Todd Snyder cut his teeth in fashion working on the sales floor of the Des Moines, Iowa, haberdashery in his youth and it left a lasting impression.

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In a conversation with Fern Mallis at The 92nd Street Y, the designer recounted how talent, a love for fashion and sheer determination allowed him to create his $100 million menswear brand that operates 15 stores around the U.S.

Snyder said that although he initially planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an engineer, he realized during the six and a half years it took to graduate from Iowa State University that he needed to embrace his passion for clothes and carve out a path in fashion.

During the 90-minute presentation, Snyder told his life story to Mallis, who has only interviewed three menswear designers of the 65 fashion luminaries she has conversed at her Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis series. The 56-year-old Snyder related how he grew up in the tiny town of Huxley, Iowa, population 2,000, the son of an engineer and his artist/art teacher wife.

“It was a pretty simple life,” he said. During high school, Snyder played a variety of sports — basketball was his favorite — and while he “was definitely not an A student,” he was voted best dressed in his class.

In those years he was partial to Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren and spent his summers working to make enough money to buy a great pair of jeans, top or the latest and greatest sneaker.

“When I was younger, I only had one pair of jeans with holes in it,” he said. “I always had this feeling that I never had enough. It kind of stuck with me.”

To make some cash to beef up his wardrobe and indulge his love of clothes, Snyder took on odd jobs. They included one “detasseling corn,” or removing the tops so the ears wouldn’t sweeten too much and could be used as seed corn.

“I did it for one summer,” he said. “It’s in the middle of August in Iowa and it’s 100 degrees and there’s nothing around you but fields of corn. But it definitely convinced me I better figure out what I want to do.”

During college, Snyder was still undecided, turning to architecture and then business after engineering and ultimately, he wound up in Iowa State’s fashion program.

Todd Snyder and Fern Mallis
Todd Snyder is known for his modern classic menswear.

“I was just finishing my finance degree and doing all these interviews with banks and I had this moment when I said: ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ I was 21 and thought I needed to start over, so I switched majors again.”

Earlier, he never thought of fashion as a career but after reading a book by Ralph Lauren, a lightbulb went off.

“I liked clothes but I never thought I could [make a living doing it],” he said. “But after reading Ralph’s book, where he touched on how he started, I thought I could.

“My dad gave me weird looks but I didn’t care, it was a dream of mine.”

That led him to Badowers, where Snyder worked for two and a half years and fell in love with tailoring. “They mainly sold suits and things that went with suits,” he said. “At that point, I was meeting reps from Ralph Lauren, who were coming to talk to us about next season and they would show us mood boards and I would get super excited. Ralph was great at creating a whole story behind a collection and I said, ‘I really want to do this.’ I couldn’t graduate fast enough.”

He spent every dollar he made — and more — on clothes, and as a young man, had a closet full of suits. “I probably had eight or 10 suits and that’s quite a few for a 20-year-old kid. But I just love tailoring.”

After graduation, Snyder set his sights on New York City and getting his foot in the door with one of the city’s top design houses. By perusing the yellow pages at his local library, he cold-called Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Joseph Abboud and other companies offering his services free as a summer intern.

“Back then, in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, they didn’t really have programs for that,” he said. “Ralph Lauren was my ultimate and I would call them at least once a week and ask to speak to the head of men’s design. Once I got to know the names of the people — I kept a log of who was doing what — I would call and say I wanted to speak to John Varvatos and they would connect me. I slowly came up with my own narrative: ‘I’m going to be in New York in a couple of weeks, I’d love to show you my book.’ And they said, ‘Sure, why don’t you come in?’”

So he bought a ticket, came to New York and met 12 fashion companies — he wound up getting offers from 10 of them. “I think working for free had a lot of appeal,” he said. “But I came prepared — I came wearing my product. I assumed everybody knew how to sew and do patterns so I was very good about creating not only a portfolio but showing the work I did. They were very impressed that I worked at a tailor shop and knew the craft.”

Eventually Snyder snagged an internship at Polo Ralph Lauren — and he was on his way. Over the years, Snyder worked for John Varvatos at Ralph Lauren — “I stalked him for 10 years until he hired me,” he said — and Mickey Drexler at both Old Navy and J.Crew, all in men’s design.

He received a lot of advice over the years, some of which sticks with him to this day. His father always said, “If you want to be the best, work for the best,” he recalled, and he watched in awe as Drexler exhibited his innate talent to always pick the hot items. “The thing I learned from him is most merchants buy based on last year’s success. But the few that are really good are the ones who go big on things, and Mickey was a genius at that. To this day, I show him my catalogue and he nails my bestseller without even knowing any of my numbers.

“There’s really no school that teaches what we do. It’s kind of a unique science that he created and a lot of people who worked for him have become very successful.”

That includes Snyder, who broke out during his time working for Drexler at J.Crew. It was there that he created an entirely new suit silhouette, The Ludlow, for the retailer’s first stand-alone men’s store, The Liquor Store in TriBeCa.

“Mickey was obsessed with making men’s more popular so I worked with our tailors and created this whole new suit from scratch that was more fitted,” he said. “Back then, Thom Browne was hot with the whole shrunken suit thing. And I wanted to create our own version at J.Crew.”

It worked — The Liquor Store began attracting a fashion customer — and it gave Snyder the confidence he needed to launch his own brand.

He took the plunge at the same time the country fell into a recession. But thanks to this little side hustle he and his brother had created called Tailgate Clothing Co., which sold college-themed merchandise, he was able to survive.

The Todd Snyder brand began to carve out a niche for its modern American menswear and in 2015, he realized it was challenging to operate both that and Tailgate, so he started looking for options. He talked to several big players in the fashion industry including G-III and PVH, and wound up selling his entire business to American Eagle Outfitters for $11 million.

At the time the Todd Snyder brand was doing around $4 million in sales and American Eagle’s chief, Jay Schottenstein, has said he envisions it as a $500 million business within the next three to four years.

To achieve that goal, Snyder will open at least five stores this year on the Upper East Side of New York, Los Angeles, San Jose, Calif., and other cities. He’s also reentering the wholesale business and his runway show in January at Pitti Uomo, where he was a featured designer brought him recognition on a global stage.

And while Snyder is contemplating other growth opportunities, including womenswear and home, his primary focus right now remains his collection and his stores.

“When I started thinking about doing a store, I really wanted to make it feel like the experience I had at Badowers,” he said. “It was an old school menswear haberdasher and we were taught to know every customer by name and call them Mister. It was this gentlemanly way that I wanted to preserve. Today, customers come in because they need to buy something for an event or whatever, but you put a jacket or the right shirt or shoe on them, and all of a sudden, you see their confidence come alive. And that for me is the magic of retail. You can’t get that online or through mail order. That’s the thing I wanted to capture. It’s the ultimate customer service.”

Next up for Mallis in her series will be Snyder’s former J.Crew colleague, Jenna Lyons, on April 17 at 7:30 p.m. at 92NY.

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