Redefining the Modern Man: How Designer Todd Snyder Built an Empire Through Collaboration
Differentiating yourself in a well-established category can be difficult at best. But trying to become the next big heritage brand in American menswear when you're competing with the likes of Ralph Lauren, J. Crew and Calvin Klein? The task seems nearly impossible.
Not so for designer Todd Snyder, who believes that the best way to stand out among the ranks isn't to compete directly against them at all. Rather than going to war, he's forged his path in the industry by working closely and directly with brands and designers that inspire him the most, learning from them while gaining exposure and recognition for his own label.
This strategy has subsequently dubbed him "King of Collaborations," a title he's earned thanks to commercially successful capsule collections with heritage brands like Converse, New Balance and L.L. Bean.
Yet even within the ranks of classic collaboration pieces (think limited-edition oxfords and graphic tees), Snyder has continued to innovate upon the "classic" and give it his own twist. His interior design work for Hidden Pond, a small lodge in Maine that he helped curate as a part of his work with L.L. Bean, combined traditional outdoor elements with premium textures and fabrics.
This year, Snyder's namesake brand turns 10 and in celebration, he'll be launching a series of mini capsules that echo back to some of his most memorable collaborations, the first of which is with eyewear company Moscot.
The brand currently has three store locations, two in New York City (one being the flagship) and one in East Hampton. Snyder is currently on track to triple his business from where it was three years ago, thanks to help from a 2015 acquisition by clothing behemoth American Eagle in a reported $11 million deal.
Todd Snyder Zoomed into Entrepreneur from his New York office to catch us up on his latest moves, sporting his signature black-frame glasses while leisurely munching on lunch.
His easygoing demeanor is the essence of Mr. Snyder's brand — approachable yet intriguing; relatable yet chic. He describes his brand as a reinvention of American classics; he'll add an element of luxe to an essential, like a cashmere hoodie or an Oxford shirt printed with Japanese art.
In conversation, we delved into Snyder's career and come up, examining the tactics that helped him succeed as a leader, an independent brand and a fashion designer.
Fake it "till you make it … or at least have confidence in your abilities
Snyder grew up outside of Des Moines, Iowa, where red carpets and access to top-name labels and designers were a far-off fantasy. He describes his upbringing as "humble" but always had a love for the fashion world and everything that was a part of it.
"We didn't have a lot of access to fashions and magazines," he explains. "The only magazine I had, or that was out there, was GQ. And that was the only magazine I was looking at. So for me, I really became obsessed with it."
For him, it didn't matter whether or not he had the same access to industry professionals or events or products that other people who were more connected at the time did. Snyder's approach was always to make sure he looked the part and that when the opportunity came for him to walk through the doors he was working hard to push open for himself, he had the right shoes on to do just that.
"When I was young, I would always have the "best of,'" he says. "I would wear Levi's or I would wear a specific sneaker that was the sneaker. Even though I probably didn't have a lot of money, I always wanted the best … As soon as I could work, I started working — because I wanted better clothes."
Snyder began as an engineering major at Iowa State, inspired by his father, before switching to architecture and eventually business before making the final fated jump to fashion design during his last two years at school. He was inspired by none other than the iconic Ralph Lauren.
"I read Ralph [Lauren's] book in the "80s and I was like, "Oh my god, you can do this for a living!' And that was the bug that I caught. I want to say it was probably '88 or so … I thought architecture was the path. And then I think I realized that I always had this dream of getting into fashion after reading Ralph's book."
Get your foot in the door and soak up as much as you can
Snyder took a job at a local department store in Iowa called Badower's. Where he easily could have risen through the ranks as a top-performing retail associate or salesman, he instead decided to squeeze his role dry for any form of connection, knowledge or advice he could get from people who he saw as being on the inside. The real currency Snyder was being paid in was experience and exposure — and that would later become his most valuable payout yet.
"I started meeting people in the industry, like sales reps from Ralph Lauren. And different brands would come in and I would ask them all sorts of questions because I just wanted to know everything they knew … it's really a hard industry to get into if you don't know anybody," Snyder explains. "And this is before the internet — all of my research was going through books and looking through phone books and getting people's names. And I ended up wanting to do an internship so I ended up switching majors … I really kind of took that knowledge and working at Badowers, working in apparel, I was able to get myself into the tailor's shop there, I was able to do some alterations and I just wanted to learn as much as I could."
He became seasoned in the art of cold calling companies and getting through to design teams, essentially offering to do freelance work before he landed the gig of his dreams. It was for Mr. Lauren himself, and it had one small caveat: he wouldn't be being paid. Snyder didn't care.
"I worked for free at Ralph [Lauren] in the beginning. And then after about four weeks of working there for free, they offered to pay me which is great. I mean, I basically was gonna get my foot in the door. I ended up getting like three or four offers when I came to show them my portfolio and that's how everything started."
He went on to design outerwear for Polo Ralph Lauren. He then became the Director of Menswear for the Gap before becoming Senior Vice President of menswear at J.Crew, working alongside the esteemed Mickey Drexler.
"My dad always told me if you want to be the best, work for the best," Snyder says. "And that's generally what I did — Ralph being the great designer, but then Mickey being the great business person."
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em
It was at J. Crew where Snyder had his first go at brand-to-brand collaborations with Red Wing. It served as the jump-off point for what would eventually become the backbone of what put the Todd Snyder brand on the map.
In the past 10 years, Snyder has collaborated with countless American heritage brands, his biggest and longest-standing with Champion. He says the idea of collaborations stemmed from traveling over to Japan where designers were constantly collaborating and succeeding in the process.
"Most of these brands have been around for over 100 years. Champion has been around for since 1919. And L.L. Bean, which we did last year has been around since  and Timex is another one [since 1854]. For me, it's a great way to work with a brand that has amazing heritage — you can't really replicate it, so why not just work with them? I really enjoy working in design in general. So for me, getting to see someone else's craft and how they do something is really exciting. And also, selfishly, it helps build my brand awareness. [Collaborating] does those two things. It services my desire to learn and get inspired by other people … People know who L.L. Bean is but they may not know Todd Snyder, and it's the same thing with Champion. And so I've really used that to kind of leverage brand equity and have that come over into my business."
The designer says that collaborations now account for about 25% of his business, a change from what used to be about 50% collaborations and 50% Todd Snyder-branded product. The shift, he says, was intentional. But he's not ready to throw in the towel on collaborations just yet.
"Collaborations will always be a part of what I do down the road, Just because I love doing it. I'm kind of an addict now," Snyder jokes. "It's really hard for me to turn off that valve. It's a lot of fun. I mean, can you imagine being able to collaborate with people that you admire and brands that you admire and really get into their process in their minds? It's really special. Being able to work with young talent and these amazing brands that have mastered their craft is an honor. So I see it as being an ongoing thing."
Know your niche and use it to your advantage
Though Snyder says last year was tough for business due to the pandemic ("As you can imagine, we didn't sell many tuxedos," he jokes), the brand saw a return to high sales volumes for comfort basics (think joggers and hoodies) as people wound down and prepared to stay home. It's here where the brand excelled during a time when many clothing brands lost their grip, especially big-name luxury labels and more niche-focused retailers. The key here was Snyder's visibility and footprint digitally.
"We've been doing the Champion collaboration for the last eight years and it really took off this last year. That was our number one item, a Champion sweatshirt, a hoodie, a jogger, a short — anything knit is really what kind of kept our business afloat. We were pretty fortunate — in the last three years, we've tripled our business. And last year was a tough year, but digitally it was pretty solid. Stores [revenue] was probably 30% of the year prior and it's just now starting to come out of it. Were probably at 70% of a normal year for the month of April, up until April it was still probably 50 … I think [the pandemic] really kind of taught us what's important for us from a brand perspective and making sure that we have those kind of essential items for the guy."
The brand aims to cater to the "modern gentleman," a concept that has morphed over the past decade that the Todd Snyder brand has been around, but something that at its core has remained consistent. Snyder uses the image of architecture (never straying far from his roots) to explain how he conceptualizes building pieces for each collection.
"The beauty of menswear is that things don't change as quickly as they do with womenswear … menswear is like a build that you do, especially in creating a wardrobe for a guy," he explains. "You build the foundation, you slowly layer on. And certainly, there are things that kind of come and go, but those are usually few and far between. You want to root yourself with more of that classic but then add the fashion. And that, I think, most men can digest. They don't want to look too trendy, but they also don't want to look like they're too boring … I think that's really been our sweet spot — simplifying things for a guy, but then upgrading him."
Make clear goals and keep aiming higher
When Todd Snyder's namesake brand was purchased by American Eagle six years ago, the designer knew that the deal would position him for higher-scaled growth and exposure.
"Jay Schottenstein [American Eagle CEO] has really given us the goal to become the great new American designer," he says. "I see it too. There's whitespace right now in between luxury and contemporary — we're positioned well to move into that, that's our goal.
Snyder plans to open anywhere from five to 10 new storefronts next year while still keeping the focus on digital retail, with the brick-and-mortar locations serving as "discovery points for customers to then shop online."
For most Todd Snyder shoppers, this is how the process works — you're exposed to Snyder through collaborations, through his master-aesthetically curated catalog (the company is set to print over 1 million copies this year) or through moseying around his storefronts. Each experience gives shoppers enough to become curious and interested, and when consumers like what they see, they're converted into customers.
Snyder estimates that the business will shift from about 90% online to 75% with the opening of the new storefronts but plans to remain "bullish on the future."
But regardless of where the business goes financially, Snyder's main objective remains the same.
"Reinventing those American classics," he says confidentally, "is really what my goal is."
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