Taking a New Tack
Nautica founder David Chu embarks on a more upscale fashion voyage
Then, as he tells it, "I played golf for eight, nine days," before deciding it felt too much like work. Next stop: Italy, where he hooked up with old contacts in the apparel game and began working on the new collection.
Chu's success has not gone unnoticed outside the clubby world of New York fashion. He was honored in May by the Asia Society for his success as an Asian-American entrepreneur.
Hands-on boss. Chu has gathered a small handful of trusted associates at his dc Designs International offices and is financing the venture himself. He is keenly involved in all aspects of the operation. "I remember the early days of Nautica, when I started in 1983." But as the company grew, Chu found himself distanced from the hands-on operation. "I missed the early part. Some of the drawings you really can't delegate to somebody else."
But he credits working within a large corporation for making him a more disciplined businessman, and he thinks this time around he can expand the business even more quickly. "I didn't learn business, I didn't study business, but after a couple of years of experience I learned the business. Design is not just drawing beautiful pictures."
He is scouring the globe for suppliers, drawing on the relationships he built up while at Nautica. "This is a start-up, but it doesn't feel like a start-up. After 20 years, I think I can do it a little faster," he says. "I am coming in with a little more of a rifle approach."
Ironically, Chu says, Nautica was not really about sailing per se. "When I was in college, I used to go down to the islands a lot. I loved the blue sea, being on a boat and the ocean; it's about freedom."
He brushes off questions about how big his new venture will become, although he is already working on the spring 2007 collection and traveling to set up distribution networks and arrangements with textile and fabric suppliers. For now, Chu is focusing solely on menswear, but he was trained as a ladies' clothing designer and he acknowledges, "I think eventually I will go there."
It's the connections he made while running Nautica that have served him well this time, earning him coveted floor space inside Saks that is normally reserved for a proven draw. But the chain's executives don't think they've made a rash decision to give Chu 1,300 square feet of the most expensive retail space in America. "David's a great designer," gushes Saks Chairman Fred Wilson, who had stopped by to check on how preparations are going. "We're very pleased."
Oh, and about that architecture training? Well, he's putting it to good use. He's working with his brother, who is an architect, to refurbish a six-story, 19,000-square-foot Manhattan brownstone, a few blocks from his current office. The building will be a showcase for his fashions as well as home to a custom tailoring shop. He bought the townhouse and is restoring it to its original condition. "I think what's driving me is the stimulation. It's not about the destination; it's about the journey."
The same might be said of sailing.
AT A GLANCE
Clothing designer David Chu , founder of the highly successful Nautica brand, has launched a new menswear line.
Who: Chu, 50, an immigrant from Taiwan, started as an architecture student but moved into fashion. His designs of jackets inspired by sailors' coats led to the creation of Nautica.
How: The designer, who pocketed over $100 million from the sale of Nautica, is bankrolling the fledgling venture and working on it with a handful of close associates.
How much: In Chu's upscale new line, suits start at about $1,000, a shirt goes for $185, and a sweater will set you back $400.