Opened in late 2010, Rhode Island’s WHARF has quickly established itself as one of the country’s better menswear shops. Founded by RI native Rob Babigian, the store operates under the belief that, “everyone should have access to the quality goods they want and the craftsmanship they demand.” To achieve this, WHARF carries a wide variety of brands, styles and price-points, so no matter what your budget, or taste, there’s a good chance they’ll have something you like. Along with their extensive stock, the store also offers an impressively accomplished in-house shirting collection. Designed by Babigian, and crafted in New England, the shirts nicely encapsulate all that WHARF stands for: good looks, quality construction, and a fair price. Not surprisingly, they’ve already garnered a loyal following amongst many of the menswear bloggerati.
Babigian recently took some time out to discuss shirts, heritage, and the store’s impending relocation. Here’s what he had to say.
Well Spent: Give us the WHARF origin story.
Babigian: I started WHARF after a long battle with myself about my life’s work – literally and figuratively. Since I graduated college 14 years ago, I have had some great experiences both professionally and personally. However, about two years ago, I reached a professional crossroads. People know a bit about my family’s business history now, and I was a part of that and I loved being a part of it. But I knew I wanted to do something that was mine and of which I could take complete ownership – no different really than what my dad did in 1982 when he started his seafood business. WHARF is just my interpretation of what a small business should be in today’s environment, crossed with my business and personal background.
It seems like a lot of heritage-inspired menswear stores have popped up in the last few years. What sets WHARF apart?
For one, I think the store is not as much “heritage-inspired” as it is built on a family’s (my family’s) heritage and experiences. I did not set out to make a store or brand that is built around other brands or products that harken back to yesteryear. Is it a part of the business? Yes, but that’s because a lot of well-designed and useful goods were created long ago and still hold up today. Sort of the old, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” mantra. I think what has happened for years until recently was the practice of disposable goods, fast fashion, whatever you want to call it was running rampant. It took a major recession for people to step back and say, “Holy crap! I’m broke and I can’t even buy a junk pair of jeans from Wal-Mart to replace these junk ones I destroyed. Oh wait, maybe I should never have bought junk in the first place.” I think what sets WHARF apart is that we take this notion that the utility of the thing is more important than the thing itself. It does not have to be cool or the newest, trendy or most expensive thing. That it functions the way it should and can stand the test of time is what makes it cool and of great intrinsic value. Ironically, those are the things that seem to be cool now (again).
Tell us about your in-house shirting range. Why’d you decide to launch with branded shirts? How has the collection been received?
Opening the shop, I always wanted to have a private-label component. It’s always been the goal to make products like those I use or have used and continue to use – whether a shirt, a bag, or whatever. I did not set out to make a specific product in the beginning. I just wanted to make quality products that suit my lifestyle and stay true to the brand. Discovering the factory in Fall River was a serendipitous event that occurred just as the shop was finally taking a tangible form. The factory owner, a gentleman named Bob Kidder, and I quickly found a common ground in the direction we were taking our respective companies. It has led to a very meaningful and productive relationship. I think that comes through in the product. But I guess because it was an unexpected development, the success of it is overwhelming to me every day. Even if I never sold a single shirt, I would have been happy because I made something I love and wear constantly. That others enjoy it as well – even come back for it – is really an amazing testament to the quality and hard work that goes into the shirts.
Any plans to expand the in-house line? If yes, will the pieces also be made in the US?
There are always more ideas being batted around and at various stages of development. The shirts continue to expand in scope and refinement, but other items, like the Marine Canvas Duffels we make here in RI, or short runs of ties from a factory in Brooklyn, have already come up. And while the goal would be to always produce in the US, I would entertain manufacturing abroad if the circumstances (e.g., labor practices, environmental concerns) were acceptable and the product superior or unavailable here. There will be more of a robust offering of products over time, but I am definitely approaching each project within its natural evolution. Some stuff has been in the works from day one, other stuff maybe just in the past few weeks. I have been careful to let everything with the shop bear fruit in its own time, whether it is a product or the new store location or bringing a new brand on board – not forcing the issue has become a mantra around here.
On the WHARF site, there seems to be an even split between original content and product. Why? Was that always the plan?
Wow, I am glad you think so! I tend to get very anxious about the content side because I never feel like there is enough of it. Yes it is intentional to produce posts / content because I always felt like that was a piece missing from many stores or websites. Sure, a whole world has been born from blogs covering style their creators love, but I never felt like any store or brand was having a dialogue. At least not trying to speak about their affinity for what they sell. A lot of them tell you what they sell or what they make, but few talk about why or what gets them amped about their products. Not to state the obvious, but before I was a store owner, I was a consumer. Obviously, I still am, though I have a very different approach to my consumerism now. However, one thing has always been true of me is that I tend to absorb lots of information from lots of outlets – whether electronic media, print or broadcast media, life experience, activities, etc. I see what so many talented people have created and I am just in awe. I never feel like anything I do can be THAT good. And I think that’s why in part I started the store – I get to play with other people’s genius. That’s really the content piece if you look at what is on the site. I take the products and people that grace the store and just try to show you why they are loved here. I think you do that better than most, certainly better than me, and it’s a lot to live up to as a store owner presenting a snippet of a collection or brand and explaining your interpretation of it to others. I try to let the products do the talking!
You’re currently in the process of moving into a new location. What precipitated the move? Are you planning an opening celebration?
Another serendipitous series of events. I did a pop-up store in the same Downcity area of Providence last December after another retail tenant in the area, Tyler Doran of Heir Antiques, came into my shop in Warwick. We hit it off and he was looking to put a spin on his great store for the holiday season. WHARF was the spin, and then it did well and everyone loved our complimentary styles and the goods I brought to downtown. It just fit so well there. It led to discussions with the management company that maintains many of the Downcity retail tenants to open a standalone WHARF in a vacant location when one became available. And here we are, a few short months later. It was always a goal to improve the store’s location from Warwick. It just happened faster than expected. And yes, there will be a party.
What would you say to someone who’s still on the fence about buying from WHARF?
Jump off! Go for it! As long as we have something you are looking for, and you believe we are sincere in trying to offer you the best quality items, regardless of your budget. Service is our priority and we offer free standard shipping and free returns on regular-priced merchandise, so you cannot lose to at least try us! And you will NOT be disappointed.
To see more, visit WHARF.