Taking a New Tack
Nautica founder David Chu embarks on a more upscale fashion voyage
David Chu is hoisting his sail again. The founder of Nautica, a fashion brand that rivaled Ralph Lauren's Polo and Tommy Hilfiger for pre-eminence in the 1980s and 1990s, has a new company and line of menswear. The eponymous collection has just gone on sale at Saks's flagship Manhattan store, occupying privileged sixth-floor retail space nestled alongside the likes of Giorgio Armani and Ermenegildo Zegna.
This time around, though, Chu says he is offering the clothes he himself would like to wear and that reflect his own successful, global lifestyle. "I just turned 50, I travel a lot, I work out, my mind is active," he says. "It's a young mind and attitude, an aspirational lifestyle."
Translated, that means the elegant look of a pinstripe suit made of an Italian fabric that is pulled a little closer to the body than a traditional suit. It might be paired with a French-cuff cotton shirt, a lavender silk tie, all topped off with a pocket handkerchief. Or a cashmere blazer or leather sailing jacket atop a cotton corduroy shirt. Whatever the ensemble, it won't appeal to a mass-market wallet. Suits will fetch $1,000 to $2,000, shirts $185, and sweaters $400. "We're expecting our average sale to be about $3,500," says Steven Toia, vice president of sales.
"He's taken a very different approach to this from Nautica and at a much higher price point," says Robert Bryan, men's fashion director for the New York Times magazine, who viewed the spring collection at a faux photo shoot in Chu's Chelsea headquarters. "He's doing it in a fairly classic, elegant way."
Accidental designer. Chu backed into the fashion business. A student of architecture, he took a design class at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where his drawing skills caught the eye of a professor who suggested he try his hand at clothing. Starting out as a women's wear clothing designer, as he was trained, was hardly a popular choice for a prototypical Asian immigrant who might have been expected to become an engineer or a doctor. His family had emigrated from Taiwan to the United States in the 1960s and opened a restaurant. Though the entrepreneurial fire obviously burned bright in the younger Chu, he says, "I didn't want to work in a small Chinese restaurant."
Chu grew up in New York and Connecticut before deciding to return home to Taipei, where he started an export business with some friends. "A year and a half later, we had blown all the capital we had," Chu recalls. "I said, 'You know what, maybe I should go back to the United States.'"
His timing was propitious. After a stint working for a division of a large conglomerate, Chu began peddling some designs of jackets inspired by coats worn by sailors. They were a hit with Barneys and Bloomingdale's, and Nautica was born. The first year, the company's sales were $700,000, but a year later, those had more than tripled to $2.5 million. From there, the rise was meteoric. The rugged, casual designs proved popular, but the business needed capital, so Chu partnered with State-O-Maine, which made pajamas and other sleepwear. Nautica eventually became a $1 billion worldwide brand and was bought in 2003 by vf Corp., a huge apparel maker whose brands include Lee, Wrangler, and North Face. Chu, who reaped more than $100 million from the sale, remained as Nautica's CEO and creative head until severing his ties last summer.