“This is the most nerve-wracking part,” Todd Snyder whispers. The menswear designer is at his showroom in New York’s Garment District—a handsome space with dove-gray walls, an industrial wood table, and shelves stacked with hefty art books—while a buyer from Barneys Japan looks at Snyder’s upcoming collection, deciding what, if anything, his store will carry next season. So far, only a few pieces hang on the “yes” rack.
Although he’s trying to look relaxed, Snyder is keeping a close eye on the proceedings. Typically, designers don’t help sell their collection; they’re too emotionally invested, too busy, or too concerned with appearing either way. But Barneys is an important store, and he’d like it to have a more robust offering than the graphic tees the buyer, a hip-looking man named Mitsuo Nakahashi, has shown interest in so far. Two employees are there guiding Nakahashi through the collection, but Snyder interrupts with suggestions, pulling a button-up shirt and a pair of utility shorts and placing them on the rack himself. “Is this everything? It feels like we’re really short,” he says, looking for a white polo shirt with blue-tipped sleeves that appears to have gone missing. Slowly, the rack begins to fill up. “You have to slow them down and show them things,” the designer explains later. “It’s easy for everyone to skim, but you have to be a merchant.”
Lately, Snyder has been very good at selling himself and his eponymous brand, becoming one of American retail’s few promising stories. American Eagle Outfitters acquired the label last year for $11 million in cash and stock, which Snyder has already used, in part, to hire a director of merchandising for his first permanent brick-and-mortar location in the U.S., a 4,500-square-foot store near Manhattan’s Flatiron District, which is set to open this month. It’s a flag in the ground at a time when older companies are struggling to keep theirs flying high. Sales are faltering at Ralph Lauren; Calvin Klein dismissed its design team earlier this year to make way for a new creative director, Raf Simons; and Donna Karan stepped down as chief executive officer of her label last year. “It’s a new generation,” Snyder acknowledges. “It’s shifted.”
Snyder’s generation has different ideas about what it means to run a fashion label. Gone are the days of personality-driven megabrands with a core fashion business and spinoffs into a million licenses for products such as sunglasses, perfumes, and underwear. In 2016 you need a less hubristic mission, and it seems as if Snyder’s is to sell you a perfectly proportioned field jacket. In a fashion universe where drop-crotch pants and $400 sneakers are everywhere, something as simple as that might just cut through the noise.
Snyder, 48, has wanted to be a designer for as long as he’s known it’s a thing you could be. “I read Ralph [Lauren]’s book in the ’80s,” he says. “When I discovered that you could be a fashion designer, I thought, Holy shit, that’s cool!” By the time he started his namesake label in 2011, Snyder had 20 years of experience working for big brands such as Ralph Lauren, the Gap, and J.Crew, where he was director of menswear. It was his sensibility behind the Ludlow suit, which brought tailoring to the masses, and along with J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler, he opened the Liquor Store, a concept-driven, multibrand boutique in Tribeca, which has cast a long shadow over the men’s retail landscape. Anytime you enter a clothing shop filled with dark wood furniture, antiqued accents, and filament lightbulbs, you have Snyder to thank.
Whereas some designers produce a pair of ironically pleated, wide-legged trousers to channel the zeitgeist, Snyder’s aesthetic begins with the slim-cut suit: its classic style, its precise tailoring, its easy elegance. He likes designing suits and outerwear most because they’re technically difficult but so rewarding when done right. He’s less trend-driven than Club Monaco or J.Crew but more approachable than, say, Ermenegildo Zegna. A native Iowan, Snyder approaches design with some humility, characterized by sophisticated basics such as slimmed-down cargo pants in dark wool ($278) and an officer coat made from double-faced camel hair, with big black buttons ($898). Save for a few shearling pieces, outerwear mostly comes in at less than $1,000, and he’s introducing a $595 suit this fall. “I want to sell product,” he says. “I don’t want to be boring, but at the same time I don’t want to shock the customer. There’s a segment of the population that doesn’t want to buy from Men’s Wearhouse but doesn’t want to pay $400 for a shirt—that’s insane.”
Snyder’s label found immediate support in the fashion industry. He’s been named one of GQ’s Best New Menswear Designers in America, nominated for Menswear Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and a finalist in the prestigious CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund competition. More important, stores wanted to carry the line. “It resonated with me from the very start,” says Kevin Harter, vice president for men’s fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s. “I actually thought there was a need for those basics and something designed for ... I don’t want to say the ‘real’ guy. For the guy that appreciated fashion but doesn’t need to make a huge statement about it. He has his pulse on how guys want to look. He’s definitely the Next Big Thing.” Snyder’s line also resonated for Chad Kessler, American Eagle’s global brand president. “I was immediately struck by his taste level and his updated, modern take of American style,” he says. “He launched at a time when there was a renewed interest in American sportswear, and Todd was a real standout.”
In addition to the Todd Snyder label, American Eagle acquired Tailgate, a casual T-shirt line Snyder began with his brother in 1997. “We literally started it in my dad’s basement,” Snyder recalls. The idea was to do a brand oriented to high school and college students—American Eagle’s core constituency—that made use of the fine fabrics and construction techniques he was then learning at Ralph Lauren. Although the line did well, it didn’t do well enough for Snyder to support himself, so he left the business for his brother to manage at home. For American Eagle, though, it was a huge boon. “We wanted to see if we could leverage jeans and T-shirts with the AE customer, and leverage not only his own line but his design expertise across the AE business,” Kessler says. Snyder himself has been advising the company and acting as a sounding board, helping with merchandising and marketing. He introduced American Eagle to the agency that released the brand’s latest ad, which featured social media influencers and the inspirational hashtag #WeAllCan. (“I can create my future … #WeAllCan.”)
Snyder’s next big push is the Manhattan flagship. “You can’t open up a store in New York City just to open one up,” he says. “It’s going to be a different experience. I want to make it so that guys will want to come and hang out.” He’s going for a slightly cleaner aesthetic than that of the Liquor Store, whose once trend-defining richness now feels passé. That said, there will be an in-house tailor, a barbershop, and a bar. The space will house Snyder’s line, plus items from his collaborations with Champion, Cole Haan, and Timex, to name a few, and complementary brands such as Red Wing boots and Drake’s ties.
So far, he’s managed to retain a certain Midwestern charm—“I’m still kinda the same guy from Iowa. I’m still just working hard”—but a bit of the weary city boy peeks through from time to time. “You have a gut feeling about something selling, and it’s just a guess,” he says. “You do your best work, and then you hope it sells. When it does, it’s exciting. It makes you feel OK.”