Preppy Label with Humble Beginning Passes 10-year Mark
Photo from www.smathersandbranson.com.
Most of us are familiar with accounts of legendary tech brands that got their start in a two-car garage or a cramped college dorm room, but no one industry has a monopoly on success stories rooted in humble beginnings. Recently, Epic Mens had the chance to correspond with Peter Smathers Carter and Austin Branson, founders of Smathers & Branson®, a needlepoint menswear accessories manufacturer whose journey began on the Bowdoin College campus and moved from there to the Branson family’s basement and then on to the villages of Vietnam before eventually landing Smathers & Branson products in more than 1,000 retail outlets and online sites. Flagged by Bloomberg TV as one of the “Three Preppiest Labels,” Smathers & Branson, the which is based in Bethesda manufactures and sells a full line of needlepoint men’s fashion accessories to an upscale international clientele. Although originally focused solely on handcrafted needlepoint belts and later key fobs, the line has continued to grow steadily and now includes hats, flasks, wallets, cufflinks, polo shirts, sandals and more. Smathers & and Branson Belts, Smathers & and Branson Key Fobs and Smathers & and Branson Hats are a few of the Smathers & Branson products that Epic Mens is proud to be able to offer to our fashion savvy clientele.
The story of how the two friends became interested in needlepoint men’s fashion accessories is firmly embedded in the company’s fashion folklore. Both men were given handstitched belts while in college: Austin’s embellished with martini-sipping elephants and Peter’s with sailboats and islands. But Austin came away with more. The girlfriend whose gift helped launch the now-thriving Smathers & Branson brand eventually became his wife. And the slightly tipsy elephants became part of the story as well, inspiring several other popular menswear fashion designs.
Smathers & Branson officially opened its doors in 2004. During the early years, while living and working out of the Branson’s basement, the two young entrepreneurs had to put up with their fair share of good-natured ribbing about getting “real jobs.” In reality, though, both families were supportive, even providing much-appreciated business advice when requested. The goal from the start was always to make the belts more available, attractive and affordable. Their greatest challenge, both men agree, was in locating and training skilled artisans. That search led them to rural Vietnam where they established a cottage industry that quickly grew from 100 people in a single village to thousands across dozens of villages. The joint effort was a great success, providing local communities with desirable incomes and a flexible work schedule that revolved around the annual rice harvest, while also providing Smathers & Branson with an exceptional, handcrafted men’s fashion accessory not readily available elsewhere.
Over the years, Smathers & Branson’s ties to Vietnam have deepened. The partners gratefully acknowledge that the steadily growing business has allowed them to offer their artisans continuous employment, which in turn has “brought stability to the lives of many of the stitchers.” Photos of the artisans and their families posted on the company website chronicle the company’s history and attest to the positive impact it’s had on everyone – founders and artisans alike.
Today, consumer demand for Smathers & Branson menswear fashion accessories is strong and the company’s network of highly skilled stitchers helps the manufacturer meet its targets by delivering consistently high quality products in a timely fashion. Every piece is entirely stitched and finished by hand. The designs, which are aptly described in the Smathers & Branson’s tagline as “whimsical sophistication,” run the gamut from sports to animals to holidays to patriotic symbols. And through their licensing agreements, Smathers & Branson is also able to offer products featuring the logos of many of the nation’s best universities and colleges, Major League Baseball® and National Hockey League® teams, and fraternities and sororities. A quick count reveals almost 20 different menswear design themes, in addition to those affiliated with particular organizations. If you’re wondering which design tops the best-seller list, we’ve got the answer – it’s the American flag.
Peter and Austin told us they draw inspiration for Smathers & Branson designs from their own hobbies and interests, which include golf, fishing and nautical living. However, they also credit their team of gifted in-house menswear designers who give customers something new to look forward to each year by introducing surprising and unexpected fashion color combinations and motifs. Peter’s favorite designs are the geometric and surcingle patterns, while Austin’s favorite is a custom, one-of-a-kind Life Belt® depicting the ten things he values most. We wholeheartedly agree with his assessment that it’s “very cool when your apparel can tell a story about your life.”
Another “very cool” aspect of the Smathers & Branson shopping experience is the rustic wooden box with the hand-burned logo they use to package each Smathers & Branson belt. When we asked how they came up with the idea, we were told they had actually decided on the box design before even seeing the finished belt samples. “We always thought cigar boxes were great packaging and hoped to emulate one for our belt packaging,” the two recounted. “Packaging is an important part of our branding and our wooden belt boxes have a following all their own. We are always excited to hear that people have held onto their boxes for years and are always a little surprised to hear what people keep in them!”
Being able to meet with customers face-to-face is a core part of the Smathers & Branson’s success story. Traveling to boutique menswear shows around the country, Peter and Austin have been able to talk directly with Smathers & Branson customers, soliciting feedback on Smathers & Branson menswear products and designs. “We have always had a very close relationship with our customers and pride ourselves on collaborating with them to have the best products possible,” they explain. “Our content is just a natural extension of that. We strive to make products that we know our customers will love so that instead of feeling like we are trying to sell a product, it is more like a friend referring another friend to a product they will like.”
From the inviting, relaxed look and feel of the Smathers & Branson company website and blog, It’s it’s a pretty good bet that these two are great friend material. By their own admission, when they’re not working or spending time with their families, they’re likely to be taking in a ball game or bowling with the rest of the staff or even squeezing in a round of golf. After all, it’s easier to sell others on the idea of whimsy and fun if you routinely make time for it yourself.