Monday, Sep. 29, 2008

Maine Attraction

Portland, Maine (pop. 64,249), rises from salty Casco Bay to the tip of Munjoy Hill, which looks like an Edward Hopper landscape. This is the proud home of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the 1880s architecture of John Calvin Stevens, and after almost 400 years, it's still one of the busiest ports in the country.

It's not a fashionable town. Described by pierced and dreadlocked locals as "one big college campus," it's a remote place where there's not enough of any one tribe to sway the tastes of the others. Punks and New Agers and college jocks dance at the same few clubs. Downtown, the odd man wearing a suit stands out among those wearing work boots and shorts.

But just down Preble Street, past the methadone clinic and the day-care center, a menswear cult is being spawned. Alex Carleton, 38, founder of the four-year-old label Rogues Gallery, has set up a thriving business, proving that fashion truly knows no boundaries. Who needs New York or Paris when there's Maine?

"Land and sea, the running tides, tall timbers — a brand must be place-driven," Carleton says from his office at his workshop in a former coffee-bean warehouse. A Massachusetts native who stands 6 ft. (1.8 m) tall and has the outdoorsy good looks of one of Longfellow's heroes, he brings his love of the region's history to the label. Sailcloth outerwear, bulky sweaters and T shirts with clever graphics — a favorite of fans from Portland to Tokyo — are essential to Rogues' masculine style. Recent inspirations include the region's picturesque Monhegan Island and the real people and places of coastal Maine. The collections have a nostalgic, Eastern seaboard feel. "You could say I am a nautical, vintage, retro, New England thrift-store designer," Carleton says. "This is a New England brand."

The public is buying it. Rogues' first real order, from MAP in Provincetown, Mass., was for fewer than 50 graphic T shirts; hundreds were sold in three months. ("People were leaving the beach to buy his T shirts when they heard I got a shipment in," says Pauline Fisher, the boutique's owner.) Soon stores like Barneys and even the über-trendy Colette in Paris were calling. Rogues Gallery has sold more than 10,000 T shirts since then. Carleton took on two silent partners in 2007, and now nearly 225 styles — including jackets, trousers and outerwear — are manufactured in four countries, warehoused in Portland and shipped to 89 accounts in the U.S., Europe, Australia and Japan. This year the company launched a shopping site and opened its first brick-and-mortar store in Portland's revived Old Port district.

Despite any appearances to the contrary, Carleton's success is no accident. The entrepreneur has impressive credentials and extensive experience in the fashion industry, including senior merchandising positions at Ralph Lauren and L.L. Bean and a stint at Abercrombie & Fitch, where he oversaw the rebranding of a $100 million underwear line.

A yearning for New England made him drop his burgeoning career for the unknown. "I needed to get farther out," Carleton says, recalling a pivotal point in his career. "I was in this meeting in Columbus, Ohio, under these fluorescent lights, with lawn mowers blowing on the perfect corporate lawn. At the time, I was doing a lot of concept boards with boats and beautiful backwoods images — pastoral and bucolic and folksy. I realized that rather than speaking to a lifestyle, I wanted to live it."

In 1999 he left New York for Maine, which reminded him of the predeveloped Cape Cod of his childhood. "I lived the Jamie Wyeth lifestyle," he says. "I painted houses and did furniture restoration." While he took a day job designing kids- and menswear for L.L. Bean, the setting had inspired a creative explosion. "I was making things on paper and canvas. Collages, images of Maine history, ephemera and painting," Carleton says. He started selling recycled printed T shirts at a coffee shop and realized he needed a name. "I found a rogues-gallery site while Web-surfing for research. It was like today's perp book." Five years later, in 2004, he designed his first complete collection.

Storytelling plays a major part in Carleton's strategy. "I think of Rogues as a serial novel, a soap opera," he says. He identifies with Tim Burton and considers Steven Spielberg an inspiration. "Jaws comes from Creature from the Black Lagoon on some level. It's research, story, product," Carleton says. "We want to tell a narrative. It's my obligation to keep the story line moving. There is a cliff hanger to creating an audience, starting a following. That's why the graphics were strong from the get-go." A battle flag, a yacht cannon, a Yankee clipper and the word salem were among the designer's earliest T shirt graphics, reflecting his fascination with military history. ("I could write a thesis about it," the Sarah Lawrence dropout says.) Often the nostalgic theme is contrasted with pop-culture references, which are directed toward a client base that is 20 to 50 years old. "How do we give the feeling of an outdoor music festival to a boat tote?" Carleton suggests as a typical design dilemma. The resulting acid-sprayed bag has sold 4,000 pieces to date.

Carleton's years at Polo Ralph Lauren, in which he worked on the megabrand's retail look, have proved essential to his success. "Working at Polo is Branding 101, merchandising as storytelling," Carleton says. But he intends to alter the model. "For so many brands, the method is to be predictable. We allow ourselves to think more imaginatively. The brand's personality is multifaceted. It can contradict itself."

For spring, the designer became lost in the story of Kon-Tiki, the raft sailed by Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl from South America to Polynesia in 1947. This time, Rogues' T shirts are silk-screened with raft implements and palm fronds. A linen military jacket, an overdyed print shirt and canvas pants with a sailmaker's topstitch evoke what Heyerdahl might have worn if he set sail today. Carleton even reworked the classic Sperry Top-Siders into color-blocked high-tops. "It's those choices, contradictions, things which don't seem to fit together neatly that customers want," he says.

Carleton's company seems poised for slow but steady growth. The 200-sq.-ft. (18.6 sq m) Portland store, part college rec room, part tavern, is a model for future stores he plans to open in similarly untapped and less costly markets, like Baltimore and Providence, R.I. Home products, fragrances and women's wear are also on the boards for the future. "I imagine a steady development of the Rogues narrative," he says.

While Carleton maintains strong ties to New York — this spring he launched Never Sleep, a line for Urban Outfitters, which will sell for less than Rogues' $95-to-$500 price range, and Rogues Gallery recently opened a New York office — working in Maine is vital to the designer. "I think of the history of the coastal communities of New England and how all of this international booty was imported and exported through those ports. How it was total eclecticism — but all processed by Yankee hands," Carleton says.

His 16-person team agrees. "We're not against New York. We're pro Maine," says Jay Carroll, the designer's right-hand man. "We're celebrating our region. We do it here. I think that's cool." Daniel Pepice, Rogues' first employee, says, "We could all go to New York and get great jobs. But here we can invent and not just follow."

Besides, Carleton says, "we talk more about skiing than we do about fashion."