Just peep at the resume of Navier Clothing L.L.C, and you will realize that this is no ordinary guild. Since David Ratchford, Matthew Bryant, Lee Driskell, and Kuyler Gresham started Navier at the age of 16, they have been steady in their pursuit as the preeminent couture in Atlanta, no scratch that, the world.
Thus far, Navier’s fashion soirees have included the likes of Keyshia Cole, Melissa Ford, and Michael Knight of Project Runway, among others. However, the group gives the countenance of an upstart who just began their journey a month ago.
“I am actually proud of the moves that we have made so far,” said Ratchford, who serves as the CEO of Navier. “But we have so much further to go.”
When the question of how many black-owned, clothing companies owned by a group of millennial college-educated chums is asked, the answer is often shorter than the question. Navier has forged a foundation of support with its sophisticated, intricate designs inspired by the synergy of its founders. Fabric is directly imported from Italy, UK, Spain, China to the manufacturers of Navier. Cashmeres, duffel coats, and other high-end merchandise are their niche.
All hailing from metro Atlanta (minus newcomer Randall Little), Navier initially felt as if their success would come from the middle market demographic, targeting consumers with middle class income and common tastes.
But according to Driskell, the Chief Financial Officer for Navier, the group realized that the key to their success is to build a brand, not a clothing line. There is a difference, he insists.
“When we first started, we focused on urban gear because that was the trend in metro Atlanta at the time,” said the CFO of Navier. “Baggy jeans, jerseys, and designer t-shirts were in then. But as we started expanding and reading and learning, we knew we had to make a brand that lasted a lifetime.”
In essence, Navier decided to scrap the original plan of marketing towards the urban crowd and go for the gusto: an upper class affluent and multi-cultured demographic who care more about style and texture and fabric than name and trend. This is considered risky business for any clothing firm, much less a group of neophytes itching to make their mark in a fickle industry. But Navier is undaunted.
“We started to understand that we waned our clothes to not be in your average mom-and-pop store, so we had to figure out how to make a brand a lifestyle,” Driskell continued. “We want to make Navier a household name.”
A typical day for Navier appears quite disheveled, to say the least. They might wake up at 10 a.m., talk once and not talk again until 10 p.m. at night. For the moment, they are decentralized, having to operate in different locations to complete their tasks. Though their schools are close – Lee and Randall attended Morehouse College, while David, Kuyler, and Matthew attend Clark Atlanta University – their schedules are quite dissimilar.
So how does a group function in this manner? Through cohesion and trust in each other to get the job done.
“We don’t have much dissension within the group,” said Kuyler Gresham, one of the four founders and creative director of Navier. “We have all known each other so long, we have trust in each other to complete our tasks by the appropriate deadline.”
It all started in 2001 when a fashion show at Tri-Cities High School in East Point sparked a conversation between Bryant and Ratchford. While sitting in a room late at night, Bryant – who is now the chief operating officer of Navier – brought the idea of a clothing line to David, who responded with incredulity.
“I was like ‘bullcrap’, ” said David. “Then about an hour later, I said ‘we might as well’.”
The two began making their own clothes in high school, sowing on t-shirts. Driskell and Gresham were brought on board – they were all childhood acquaintances – and the foursome commenced designing their ascension to the top of the fashion industry. By the time the four graduated from high school in 2003, a blueprint was established: to infiltrate the urban market. But a group-confessed mea culpa in 2004 changed that.
By this time, the quadrilateral became a pentagon, as Randall Little was added to further the company’s mission. As sophomores, the company launched its first official fashion show, Project Cuff Link on September 24, 2004. This event included a Maybach at the entrance of Forbes Arena (Morehouse College), a performance by then-burgeoning R&B talent Keyshia Cole, and an appearance on stage by model/actress Melyssa Ford.
The burden of booking flights, making sure the doormen does their job, driving the stars around the city, and paying for the event fell on the group. An ambitious project from the beginning, Navier realized that they had spread themselves too thin and didn’t know as much about their clothes as they thought. For many outsiders this event seemed like a success, but for Navier, they viewed it as an unqualified failure. They viewed the “catastrophe” as an eye opener.
“Man, that was terrible,” said Gresham. “We were disorganized, we really didn’t know what we were doing. That was definitely a moment when we had to examine some things and go back to the drawing board.”
Added Ratchford: “If it wasn’t for that catastrophe, we would not be talking to you today. People thought that because of the Maybach and Melyssa Ford that we were there. But a lot of people didn’t see what we saw. We were sophomores in college and we just didn’t understand our product well enough. ”
Recovering from the setback
Over three years have elapsed since the Project Cuff Link meltdown, and Navier has undergone a massive shift in focus. Instead of focusing on the endorsement of celebrities and entertainment, Navier is focused establishing its place into the homes of the affluent. Targeting that market, Ratchford says, doesn’t require the endorsements of celebrities and entertainers Rather than pitch to boutiques and mom and pop stores, Nordstrom – plus stores of that ilk – and direct sales is the focus.
One would think that endeavoring into a high-risk industry, at a young age nonetheless, would require a mentor or a helping hand along the way. But Navier insists that that has not been the case for them.
“We have pretty much done things by trial-and-error,” said Ratchford. “I actually think a mentor might have stunted our growth, because we wouldn’t have been so confident. You know, it is what it is. We learn as we go.”
Through it all, the group has managed to steer clear of the scope creep that plagues many organizations in all facets of life. Groups rarely last, because of the many personalities that inhabit it. Navier is out to reverse that trend.
“We are in tune. How many group of five can you say is in tune?” Drikell rhetorically asks. “We have never had any training, no mentors, none of us specialized in any clothing manufacturing. But we know what looks good when we see it and we are focused.”
Such temerity is palpable when looking at the path of Navier, who promises big things for consumers in the near future, even if 95% of their peers can’t afford their clothing.
“We don’t expect that to be a hindrance,” Ratchford states without batting an eye. “We have full confidence in the quality of our clothing. People who shop for quality and who have the money are only concerned with quality.”
At that moment, perhaps sensing that the writer was unconvinced, Ratchford references his brown cashmere coat and the fact that there is no logo on the coat whatsoever. In fact, the average person would not have known that it was Ralph Lauren had Ratchford had not taken his coat off. To the consumer laity, it looked like a nice brown coat. Nothing extraordinary. But try telling that to a fashion maven. The price of the coat: $2,000.
They just might be on to something.