The Hot Designer Who Hates Fashion: VK Nagrani Triumphs His Own Way
Vivek Nagrani, famous for his socks (George H. W. Bush is a fan), is expanding into men's suits—his empire based in an Upper East Side “batcave,” and on a scorching mistrust of fashion.
WHO is Vivek Nagrani? He is the founder and designer of New York-based luxury menswear brand VK Nagrani, who has recently expanded his fashion empire from socks and underwear to making suits, jackets and shirts. But that question is more easily answered by who he is not.
Nagrani, 42, is not one of those designers wrapped up in self-importance. He isn’t a fashionista whose charmless cool extends to the point their personality seems frozen and he certainly doesn’t believe everything within his immediate circle is amazing. He is fashion’s unlikeliest outlier.
VK Nagrani applies a modern twist to traditional menswear and this is exemplified by his studio ‘The Lodge’, a townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that he dubs an “exercise in civilized living.”
Nagrani adores Batman, and The Lodge resembles a batcave inhabited by Bruce Wayne’s elder brother were he to forego fighting crime and showcase sartorial collections and cultural artefacts from the past.
In an industry where clothes maketh the man and image faketh the reality, Nagrani says what he sees, potentially making him a natural on TV. He’s never been one to court publicity relying on word-of-mouth and referrals but during my time at The Lodge, I heard that Mark Zuckerberg buys his black cotton hoodies and that The Mark Hotel, located a few stone’s away from The Lodge, is gifting Anna Wintour one of his $3,200 pashmina robes for next year’s Met Ball.
Nagrani started out selling socks with designs ranging from a shirt on Magnum, P.I. to Winston Churchill. He derived enormous satisfaction from some customers choosing to base the rest of their wardrobe around his socks.
He rose above the fray, “by begging and proving constantly. I would fly to different cities to be in their store for a weekend to sell my product.”
One early customer was President George H. W. Bush: “He’s a huge fan. Just over ten years ago he got a couple of pairs for Christmas. He was so impressed by the socks that he invited me through my client to come and visit him. I got a chance to see this man in his office and present him with these socks. I took all these conservative socks and a handful of wild ones. He grabbed all the wild ones.” He visited President Bush in Houston earlier this year.
Nagrani’s success over the counter has been achieved under the radar: “I expected that years later after all of this they would trust me but that didn’t happen,” he says of the fashion community. “I can’t depend on them for my own destiny. I have to go out there and I’ll recalibrate everything, reassess what I’m doing and then change it.”
These ambitions include setting up his own retail outposts. A store in Manhattan is planned for late next year. He won’t be expanding alone: “Each store will be totally different as a partnership with someone so they allow themselves to be expressed and get a new ingredient that changes the flavor.”
The visitor to The Lodge is greeted by the sight of antique 19th century library card catalogs from Harvard, which house the company’s hosiery, and wooden columns from a century-old New Jersey prison. There’s a framed display of Nagrani’s father-in-law’s credit cards from the 1960s and a vintage pinball machine but there’s also a whisky bar, a DJ booth, and a viewing balcony.
It’s a far cry from when he started out making socks 15 years ago. Born in Pune, near Bombay in India, Nagrani moved to California as a child. He graduated into fashion after quitting medical school, has never worked at a fashion house and obtained a degree from USC in business administration.
Despite the increasing success of his business (sales were up 128% last year), Nagrani still seems to revel in the role of outsider. “I have a very disruptive personality for the industry,” he says. “They have to like me yet they don’t want to like me. It’s the one thing I’m noticing now. Before I was the underdog, slowly growing so people were rooting me on. But now as we’re starting to transform, they don’t want to root you on anymore. They now want to see your demise.”
Why? “Because they feel either I’ve grown too fast or I’ve done too many things. Two and a half years ago this was just a sock, underwear and a lounge kind of company. I’ve now created a shirt program, a clothing concept and products that have all been received by the consumer. The retailer? Not so much. But you can’t keep brown down—I’m going to keep coming!”
Certainly his clothes support this notion of impending takeover. The shirts are comfortable and elaborate and the suits feel relaxed yet durable. Nagrani says blurring boundaries is critical to his ethos.
He doesn’t believe in seasons: “Portions of the collection are seasonal-driven but the majority is for the year-round time of today. Seasons don’t exist anymore. It was freezing for the last few days but today is hot. Why are we still operating the way things used to be?”
Like many successful tailors, his attention to detail is exquisite. VK Nagrani’s pajamas are reinforced with T-shirt linen to alleviate awkward dampness and their underwear contains a red kissmark inside it (“It’s not just a kissmark. We went through fifteen different designs of kissmark to pick the right one.”)
His philosophy is Everything to Someone rather than Something for Everyone. “You get multiple use of everything- that’s how we created an efficient wardrobe,” he says. “I’ve worn our hoodie with a shirt and tie.”
Nagrani stresses he’s not intimidated when he steps outside The Lodge into menswear boutiques. “I want to puke every time I walk down Madison Avenue,” he exclaims. “What is different? It’s as if they’ve all decided we as an industry should just be the same but we keep talking about the individual. ‘Let’s all conform to the same thing, let’s build our stores the same way, let’s decorate our mannequins the same.’ If you change the names on half these stores, I wouldn’t know the difference. There’s the same security guard in a black suit standing outside who’s not even wearing the suit of the designer brand!”
How does he see himself within planet fashion? Occupying another galaxy, it transpires: “I’m on the front porch and I’m never allowed through the front door because I don’t fit in. They’ve had to accept me because my product sells and the consumer demands it but they don’t really want to accept it. Those on the porch having a cigarette may get to know me. People in the industry inside the party will never know who I am because I’m never walking through the front door.”
Doesn’t he have any friends in fashion? “I do but I think most of them are f***tards!” (A week before when we first met he gave me a tour of his collection and pointed out a smartphone pocket in a jacket, observing that his competitors now have them and that “I ought to stop hanging out with these f***nuts because they take my ideas!”)
Ask most designers for their mentors and out will gush a waterfall of names. Not Nagrani: “Nobody. I didn’t know a soul. I just started. There are some now that would love to say they’re my mentors but no.”
Nagrani venerates tradition but does much of his business online as well as in department stores such as Mitchells. “This is the world we live in,” he says when I ask whether mens fashion will get more distinctive. “It’s like a big garbage can of idiots. What do we do? Hopefully we make it for that one or two people that understand and are ready to enjoy something. It validates my work and it makes me feel good. I’m not looking to be the next big-name designer. I’m looking to be a purist and my goal is not the financial success of the business but the impact the business will have.”
The temptation to regard this as lip service is countered by his Elevate Life, Eliminate Waste project which employs single mothers in Peru—which, together with Italy, is where his factories are based—to make dolls.
This gives Nagrani greater satisfaction than to have Esquire last year crown his socks “the best in the world”. “When they said that it was wonderful to be recognized especially by a guy like [Esquire Editor] David Granger but that is momentarily exciting,” he says. “The real excitement is a woman in Peru putting their kid through school and not worrying where their next meal is coming from. That is where my heart is.”
The Lodge, designed in collaboration with Hecho, the design firm that built The Box nightclub, doubles up as a popular event space. Nagrani hosts quarterly parties but his exacting standards extend to the social circuit: “I’ve been to a million fashion parties. They’re boring as hell. They’re so superficial, there’s no fun. One of the best parties was at Halloween when Atlantic Records had their party here. It was the first time I really felt like Jay Gatsby. I was dressed as Dracula and nobody knew who I was.”
You won’t find Nagrani at Fashion Week either. “I don’t have fashion shows—I find those to be a complete waste of time,” he says. “It’s a pissing contest. If a product is beautiful, why do you need all that pomp and circumstance? It’s to make people believe there’s more to it than the substance. It’s like flambéing a piece of shit. Bring me something great on a plate with value. Stop with all the shit and focus on the purity of something.”
Too many designers, Nagrani reckons, stop thinking like entrepreneurs and lose touch with their customers. “The consumer is what helps me do what I do. I want to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs and Richard Branson to me is a guy who you could probably speak to as opposed to Karl Lagerfeld who is on this pedestal that we as people with such small minds have elevated [them to]. The problem then is these people get so elevated they start to believe they’re some great divine intervention. You’re a f***ing idiot!”
He cites the career of an erstwhile friend the film director M. Night Shyamalan. “The night he sold The Sixth Sense to Disney, we were all together for dinner in LA,” Nagrani recalls. “Being of Indian background and in America, our generation was looked at to own a 7-Eleven or a gas station or be a doctor. Night was the first one to really break out and make a movie at that level but what happened afterwards? The movies were subpar at best when he had set the bar so high. He got stuck into that trap of ‘produce another one’ because of the greed of society and producers at movie studios wanting him to commercialize.”
It’s the same with fashion, Nagrani notes. “People are misled a lot of times. I don’t think people have the ability to think on their own. It’s why there’s been the rise of big brands. They need to feel like they belong to something and are unable to think for themselves. I couldn’t imagine Cary Grant going into a store and wanting to buy the hottest brand.”
Nagrani eschews both rebellion and conformity. “It’s hard to stay within the status quo but be at the edge of the status quo. You can go through life in a more civilized way and you’re not going to get too crazy but you stay at the edge of the status quo as opposed to trying to fall off it and then you’re just some lunatic.”
Does he feel he’s succeeded despite the fashion industry, not because of it? “Yes. I could have been much more successful had I given in but I never gave in. To me it’s not just a monetary success but the belief in sticking true to what you believe in.”
When I joke that I’ll remind him of this when his partnership with Neiman Marcus is announced in five years, the reply is revealing: “We kicked them out here a couple of times already… You start working with a Neiman Marcus, they’re going to control your existence. When you’re going to go into that situation with Neiman Marcus, what are you doing? You’re doing it for the money. My desire for money is not so high.”
He’s warming to his theme. “The Neimans people, the Saks people, the Nordstrom people…they’re driven by bottom line. So how as a purist can you really sit at the table with them? You have two totally different philosophies. If I was a whore then we’d be having more common factors like, ‘Hey let me pull my pants down and you give me money.’ But I’m not a whore. It’s going to be hard to convince me with big orders. To me that’s not really sexy. But if they told me, 'We’ll collaborate with you and we’ll build it on a national level based on elevating the human existence,' I’d be interested.”
Surely he compromises as much as we all have to. “Of course but it’s a balance. Would I like to tell half the people I work with to go jump off a cliff? Yes. At the same time you have to tolerate the nuances and swallow your pride because you’re focused on the bigger picture. I’m not focused on this moment with this customer or this retailer. I’m consumed by what I’m here to really do.”
What he’s done in recent years is showcase his lifestyle brand in high-end specialty stores throughout America. Sales keep rising though a recent collaboration with Dallas designer Stanley Korshak ended in tears. “We did a deal with the store, one of my favorites until now. I’d spent all this money to build this concept in their store and they’re telling me to take it out, we don’t like it… It was a real kick in the face.”
Nagrani possesses revolutionary retail ambitions. “No-one is going to retail like we are,” he says. “We are going to change the whole thing. The consumer’s experience will is first and foremost on the list.”
He’s also developing a new fabric called batskin, a rubberized gummy-like substance. “I’m building a wool jacket using the batskin over the shoulder as a hood so you won’t need an umbrella. It’s a technical aspect of my Bruce Wayne-Batman concept of these alter egos that co-exist within this one individual.”
Ah yes, Batman. “Bruce Wayne is a fictional character who dealt with an incredible hardship—his parents getting killed--but he chose to elevate his life, instead of becoming the victim, to fight crime and promote good,” Nagrani says. “He was not taking but giving with the Wayne Foundation. Watching the movie and the series connected to me. I love the character of James Bond but he is a civil servant answering to M. Bruce Wayne is a man of the manor—he’s a true essence of the American aristocrat.”
So, in his unique way, is Vivek Nagrani, an outsider in The Lodge edging to the forefront of men’s fashion.