This 110-Year-Old Seersucker Suit Business Is Led by the Founder's Great-Granddaughter. Here's How She Keeps It Current.
Summer is seersucker season, and this particular summer is especially meaningful to Haspel -- the brand that first put the striped-and-puckered cotton fabric on the map. Joseph Haspel Sr. founded the New Orleans-based clothing company in 1910, and, 110 years later, it’s safely in the hands of his great-granddaughter Laurie Haspel, current president and CEO.
A visionary of his time -- both in terms of product and marketing -- Haspel Sr.’s goal was to create stylish clothes that could stand up to Louisiana heat. He knew that the British wore seersucker in India, and realized the light fabric could translate from a laborer’s outfit to a hot-weather-ready suit. Customers agreed, and the look soon became synonymous with Southern style. (His for penchant for PR stunts didn’t hurt either.) The look quickly spread, and, through the ages, presidents (Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, JFK, George W. Bush) and actors (Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Jon Hamm, Paul Rudd) alike have been spotted in the brand.
The business’ journey has not always been smooth, however. Haspel’s son sold the company in 1977, as there wan’t a single member of the family’s third generation available to run it. When the brand went up for sale again, however, the Haspels bought it back. They licensed the name out for several years, and it wasn’t until 2014 that Laurie re-launched the brand. Which brings us to today.
As Haspel celebrates its anniversary, we spoke with Laurie about what it means to be the steward of a more-than-a-century-old family business -- and how she's taking it into the future while maintaining its most important traditions.
Your great-grandfather, Joseph Haspel, Sr., actually invented the seersucker suit?
He didn’t invent seersucker, but he originated and popularized the seersucker suit. I always say he was the originator, not the imitator. He was the fabric innovator who put seersucker -- and Haspel -- on the map. He was also the first to put technical fabrics into clothing: think stretch and resistance.
Word is he was quite a showman.
He once pulled a stunt that was surely the greatest of its time, without any social media. In the 1940s, he innovated the “wash ’n’ wear” suit. To demonstrate its introduction into the marketplace, he wore his new suit and jumped into the Atlantic Ocean during a trade show in Florida. As he exited the waters, he stripped down to his suspenders and boxers, hung his suit up to dry, and then wore it out that evening to the market’s nighttime event.
At some point your family licensed out the name, but then you took it back. What’s the story there?
My grandfather, Haspel, Jr., sold the company in 1977, and then our immediate family purchased the name back in the early 1990s. While we licensed the name out for several years, it wasn’t until 2014 that I re-launched the brand. During that process, I learned that our brand needed the TLC and sex appeal it had in its heyday. We needed to resume control over the branding and messaging. Today, the company lives online at www.haspel.com. I’ve always wanted our consumers to be able to find exactly what they wanted all in one place.
Were there naysayers who thought re-launching was a mistake?
Of course there were! But we’ve kept it to what we do best, our classics. It’s what our consumers expect to see from Haspel. If they want seersucker, we’ve got it. Poplin, linen and pincord? We’ve got that too.
How important is it for you and your family to live up to your great-grandfather’s legacy?
I want everyone to know what made our family’s brand popular, and more importantly what made it relevant. Haspel is cool, no matter the season, no matter the occasion. Our clothes are meant for a good time. That’s what we do. My grandparents and great-grandparents loved to entertain, and we built our collection around that idea. What would they wear to the cocktail party or a night out in NYC? How would they dress at a neighbor’s BBQ or pool party?
What’s the most challenging aspect of running a family business?
We must remain relevant in the marketplace, so that the brand continues for generations to come. I’m always asking myself: What’s the next big thing? What can we do to make a difference? It’s a legacy that I want to continue.
What's the biggest lesson you've learned about leading a heritage brand?
Not to lose the core essentials of the brand; you need to incorporate your heritage into everything that you do. You want every man to be comfortable wearing Haspel, in terms of style, attitude and comfort. We haven't lost sight of who our customers were, and who they are. Our biggest opportunity lies with those who did not know the brand all of those years ago. We want everyone to recognize that we’ve brought it back, better than ever, and it’s now a lifestyle brand that covers many generations and occasions.
Will Haspel continue to evolve over the next 110 years?
Damn right! We’ll definitely continue to add new categories to our product mix -- fragrance, women’s, home, boys. Our popularity will continue to increase as consumers understand that our brand is built on the idea of “clothing meant for a good time.” You shouldn’t always wear your work suit to a dinner party or social occasion -- and that’s where we come in. We have expert stylists on-hand to help you with your next occasion, whether it be a pool party, dinner at the club, cocktails with friends, or attending a destination wedding. We’re sophisticated without being pretentious.
If he were around today, do you think your great grandfather would Instagram himself walking into the ocean in a seersucker suit?
My great-grandfather would own social media and Instagram! @haspelclothing would be full of his creative stunts and brand messaging. I wish I could show him what we’ve done to further the brand from the days of tailored clothing to today’s additional categories of sportswear and accessories. This big anniversary would certainly make him proud; I would love to be sipping a cocktail with him at my side as we talk about history and our next 110 years.