Design '07 (Fashion): Haute flyers

Duckie Brown has hit the big time. Now what?

Steven Cox likes the dramatic pause. He’s perched on his couch, a thoughtful look on his moon-shaped face. A pattern for a suit jacket lies on the mod coffee table in front of him; fabric swatches are everywhere. Sketches of the fall 2008 collection are tacked on a wall opposite him. Cox’s partner, Toronto-born Daniel Silver, sits nearby in an armchair. “It was an incredible honour,” Cox says, in his lilting English accent. “We got the phone call from the executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Daniel was like, ‘Who are the other nominees?’ And the executive director said: ‘Calvin and Ralph.’ It was just incredible. I mean, the CFDA — it’s the Oscars of fashion!”

Cox and Silver are the duo behind avant-garde menswear design firm Duckie Brown. Earlier this year, the New York–based firm was nominated as best menswear designers in the U.S. for 2007. Their only competition — the Calvin and Ralph Cox is referring to — were Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. Now, Cox and Silver didn’t win. Ralph did. But Calvin and Ralph represent billion-dollar companies. Duckie Brown’s sales were US$500,000 in 2006. (According to Silver, sales have increased 10% a season since the firm started operations, in 2001.)

Duckie Brown is one Canadian, one Brit, a dog, a few interns and enough creativity to dress Jude Law, Jake Gyllenhaal and Matt Damon. Anyone, in fact, with the cash and cachet to pull off one of their limited-edition, several-thousand-dollars-a-pop creations. “We like to think of our brand as ‘gently eccentric,’” says Cox. “And this,” he says, gesturing around the room, “is our offices. When you go and interview Ralph or Calvin, you’re not going to get the dog coming out of the bathroom.”

Cox studied fashion at Liverpool University in his native England, and moved to New York at the age of 23. Silver took theatre at the University of Toronto, then moved to New York. He worked as a glove designer, a daytime television producer, and as an assistant to Hollywood heavyweight Mike Nichols before meeting Cox. (The two are also life partners.) Together, they’ve forged a design firm that, over 13 collections, has exploded the limits of men’s fashion in North America. From their first show, which featured shocking pink trousers with deliberately dropped crotches, to today’s offerings of peony-splashed silk shirts and sunshine-yellow coats, Duckie Brown has aimed to completely redefine menswear — while charging upward of US$6,000 a coat.

“Most men in America are still wearing double-pleated khaki trousers and a polo shirt,” says Silver, fiddling with a hat. “Most men think, in order for a jacket to fit, the arm has to come to the first knuckle of the thumb. It cannot be any longer, shorter or tighter, and it’s got to be in navy, gray, or black. That,” he tosses the hat onto the floor in a gesture of contempt, “is what we are dealing with.” Silver and Cox have set themselves the task of changing “that.” The company got its start the day after Sept. 11, 2001. “Steven said, ‘It’s not the right time. The world’s falling apart,’ Silver recalls. “I said, ‘Steven, it’s never going to be the right time.’ So we went for it.”

It wasn’t until the fourth collection that Duckie Brown brought its line to the runway. “We showed in February of 2003,” Silver recalls. “Ten looks. It was fun.” The first store to carry the line was Maxfield in L.A.; high-end retailers Harrods in England and Barneys in New York followed shortly after.

Jay Bell is the senior buyer for Barneys menswear department. He first picked up Duckie Brown in 2004. “I liked the line’s twisted sense of humour,” he says, “paired with expert tailoring.” Taking Duckie Brown proved surprisingly commercially sound, with consistently high sell-throughs.

Building a design firm that targets the very top of the market takes a certain amount of elbow grease. “We do everything here,” says Cox. Their magic formula combines Cox’s design talent with Silver’s entrepreneurial savvy. By calling in favours, paying models in clothes and getting sponsorships, Silver keeps the cost of a show at roughly US$100,000 a season. “We do no marketing,” says Silver, “and we have no debt.” He values the firm at US$15 million. “Making the clothes is our biggest expense,” says Cox. Hand-tailoring a whole collection from fabrics that go for between US$10 and US$90 a metre can cost upward of US$25,000. Producing such expensive and exquisitely tailored clothes means keeping items to limited quantities, which, in turn, ensures Duckie Brown is always in demand.

As columnist Tim Blanks notes, Duckie Brown’s signature wildness has matured in recent collections.To some extent, the mad prints and over-the top cuts (picture a white shirt whose bottom hem is dropped to the floor) have given way to beautifully tailored suits and jackets — with a few twists. “It’s easy to shock. It is easy to show a polka dot jacket and striped trousers,” says Cox. “Now, we are doing that in a subtler, more subversive way — say, a pinstriped suit in grey, paired with a very dark purple Crombie overcoat.”

Such restraint is strategic. Silver says he’d welcome the chance to do what is known in the industry as a diversion line — a cheap chic line for a mass-market retailer. Duckie Brown is currently in discussions with JCPenney on that very topic. Silver says Duckie Brown is also open to being bought out by an investor. He cites Anne Chappelle’s purchase of a majority stake in Belgian designer Ann Demeulemeester’s firm BVBA “32,” in 2005. Chappelle encouraged Demeulemeester to grow her retail presence, and open the eponymously named Ann D store in Tokyo. Her sales reportedly jumped 60% in her first year with Chappelle as a majority investor.

Ironically, Cox and Silver’s most recent collection is inspired by the very blandness they profess to loathe: American sportswear. Done by Duckie Brown, however, the all-American look takes on highly unusual proportions: slouched khakis, oversized vests. Their next collection continues to breathe new life into American classics. “We even did a cargo pant,” says Cox. “But we did it tight, with rounded pockets at the hips, in nylon. And we called it the cargo trouser. I hate the word ‘pant.’”

Of course, they also want to make lots of money, says Silver. “But I’m not interested in being a billionaire. Whatever we end up doing, the commitment to creativity has to come first.”