Robert James: The 15 Year Story of Overnight Success
Before I moved from NYC to Dallas last month, I had to stop into a boutique men’s clothing store in the Lower East Side called Robert James. The designer is a friendly guy by the same name who you can always find in the store helping customers and joking around with the staff. Pretty cool, right?
I met him maybe 6 months ago whilst trolling the streets of the LES one weekend, and after a bit realized that he went to undergrad at Ohio State (I went to Iowa). If you’re not from the Midwest you might not understand this, but we can almost smell it on each other. And when we find other people born and raised there, especially in a city like NYC, you have a bond that you both recognize outwardly. But I digress…
On that last day, I finally asked him to tell me his story of how he got started and how he became successful (people wear his clothes at the Academy Awards for goodness sakes).
He told me how he used to design mechanical systems and thought he could do the same for clothes (this was 15 years ago). He had a few ideas for t-shirt designs, got some blank tees, and screen printed a few designs he drew on them (this was after some research of how to do it, of course).
Once he finally got them made, he loaded ‘em up into the trunk of his beat down old car and drove to the local watering hole, thinking he was going to make a bunch of money. He set up shop outside and sold t-shirts for $10 a pop.
He waited hours and not one person cared enough to even take him seriously. He was packing up and ready to give up when he heard a guy calling at him. Robert turned around, the guy actually wanted to buy one. So the stranger gave Robert a $20 and Robert gave him his $10 in change.
That night, Robert went home and was pissed. He felt like a complete failure, both as a designer and as a businessman. Not only did no one care, but instead of getting rich, he lost money on it too. Robert made himself two promises that night.
First, he said he was going to really go after this and put in the time necessary to give it a real shot.
Second, he gave himself 10 years to have “a store of his own”. He told me that he gave himself a long enough time period that the small failures he was sure to experience along the way wouldn’t mean much when compared to the vastly longer goal at hand.
Fast forward to him cutting, sewing, bleeding, stitching, learning, failing, bleeding, sewing, selling, bleeding, and working for another designer and he still hadn’t opened his own store.
He was 25 years old when he made himself that promise, which meant he had until the end of his 35th year of life to make it happen. It was January of that year, and his 35th birthday was a few short months away.
He felt like he wasn’t going to make it. But there was a glimmer of hope still left. A small room of his current store was vacant and he asked the owner if he could sell his own wares from there. He agreed, thankfully.
After about six months of doing that and generating moderate sales, he find a smallish storefront in the LES. He got some financing and opened his first store a few months into his 35th year, goal achieved! And boy did it take all ten of those years.
Cut to a few years after that, moving to a new, larger storefront available across the street, and he’s been selling his designs from there for a few years now. He’s expanded his line, which now includes shoes, hats, shirts, pants, suits, etc and would be considered by most anyone as a success. But it took a decade.
So how did he do it? Very simple, he made a promise to himself using three, very small and simple words, but that when put together carry a nearly infinite weight:
Never. Give. Up.