By Lori H. Burke
Vineyard Vines’ popular whimsical ties, including ones with a Lafayette theme, are now available in retail stores across the nation including Greenwich, Conn., Birmingham, Ala., Short Hills, N.J., Plano, Texas, Washington, D.C., Boston, and more. By year’s end, Ian Murray ’97 and his brother, Shep, who founded the multimillion-dollar brand, expect to have 28 stores open nationwide.
“We’ve had fun building these stores and they are doing fantastic,” says Ian. “We’ve continued to grow and expand when the world has been shying away from that. We attribute our success to our product and our service—we strive to treat our customers the way we want to be treated ourselves.”
It all started July 4, 1998, when Ian and Shep declared their independence from the 9-to-5 grind, quitting their Madison Avenue jobs to sell their own ultra-prepped-out line of ties, originally designed for Martha’s Vineyard featuring ocean and sailing motifs. Their unconventional business plan: “Let’s make cool ties for other guys to wear!”
Fourteen years later, the Vineyard Vines enterprise based in Stamford, Conn., which was launched from the back of a jeep in Martha’s Vineyard, offers a full range of apparel and accessories for men, women, and children.
“For the first seven or eight years, we were selling direct through our catalog and website and as a wholesaler to the best specialty stores in the country,” says Ian. “As a market test, we partnered with valued wholesale accounts to launch our first few stores. Once they were a success, we brought them back in house and started rolling out other stores on our own.”
“Without a doubt, I could not have done what I’ve done at Vineyard Vines without the support of my friends from Lafayette,” says Ian, an English graduate. “When we were getting started, I would call my friends all the time—they would help us with trade shows and make deliveries. Whatever the task was, they were always ambassadors for us. And they still are. There’s something special about the bond that people from Lafayette share.”
Mike Gaumer ’97, who attended Lafayette from 1993-95 and graduated from the College of Charleston, dropped everything to help Ian while Shep was on his honeymoon. After joining the Vineyard Vines team, Mike never left. He now serves as president.
Among the company’s other 370 employees are Cristin McGuinn ’05, a government and law graduate who works in licensing; Suzanne Dommerich Ranta ’05, an anthropology & sociology and French graduate who is business analysis manager; and Jesse Straus ’10, an economics and business graduate who is a marketing specialist.
The Murray brothers patterned the stores after the foundation of their success—their catalog.
“Our first catalogs—because we didn’t have the funds to hire models—featured friends and interesting people wearing our clothes who shared their stories,” says Ian. Recent catalogs continue to share the stories of customers, family, and friends—creating a picture book of the Vineyard Vines community.
“We thought the retail concept could really bring our catalog to life. Customers would walk into our stores and see all the things that the brand is known for—photographs of our friends, mementos of our customers. It’s a very relaxed, fun atmosphere.”
Walking into a store is like walking into a “mini vacation.” Walls are covered with pictures and autographed memorabilia. The checkout counter is a transom of a sport fishing boat, built by the Murrays’ favorite boat-building company. And customers are welcomed as treasured friends.
Ian lives the company mantra, “every day should feel this good.” He says, “I absolutely love what I do. For me, there’s still no difference between a Tuesday and a Saturday. I’m always working, and I’m always having fun.”
Ian enjoys his continuing relationship with Lafayette, through his employees and friends as well as a company partnership to create custom products for the College. “I love Lafayette; it’s like another home to me. And to have our products there makes it feel even more like home.”
Ian, who played in a band during his Lafayette years, released his first solo album, Waiting for the Wind, four years ago. He serves on the boards of Brunswick School, Greenwich, and Greenwich Point Conservancy, Old Greenwich.
The company has been featured on many TV programs, including “60 Minutes” on CBS, “Today Show” on NBC, “Morning News” and “Business Weekly” on ABC, “Cold Pizza” on ESPN2, “CNN Financial News,” and “Morning Call” on CNBC.
Notable people who have worn the company’s ties include President George W. Bush, President George H.W. Bush, President Bill Clinton, Sen. John Kerry, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.