Ever notice how when you ask a truly stylish gentleman where he acquired a particular garment or accessory, the answer is always, “I got a guy?” Well, VK Nagrani is that guy.
The founder of his eponymous brand started off making luxury socks, including a pair that costs $1,000 (with no refund if you get a hole in them). Since then, he has expanded into a full menswear collection that he sells out of a townhouse on New York’s Upper East Side located around the corner from the tony Carlyle Hotel. The space has more of a clubhouse vibe than a store. There are vintage Chesterfield sofas, repurposed library drawers, and of course, whiskey. His clientele includes one-percenters who think nothing of paying $300,000 to Rolls Royce for a custom paint job on a car that already costs well over $1 million and an architect who designs homes for Saudi royals. “We don’t have aspirational customers. We have the guy they aspire to be,” says Nagrani.
And those guys don’t talk. Nagrani’s problem is that his customers will receive a compliment on one of his pieces, but then won’t divulge where they got it, shrugging it off with the “I got a guy” line. Nagrani’s clientele is at such a level that he charges a 10% fee for using an Amex Black Card, what he calls “a dick charge,” to keep anyone’s ego from getting too big. “They all whip it out and we’re like, ‘You know there’s a fine for this?’ Just give me that normal card,” Nagrani says.
That attitude is a big part of the appeal of both Nagrani and his garments. Nagrani isn’t afraid to call bullshit on a lot of aspects of the fashion business that don’t actually benefit the wearer of those fashions. “The consumer is not a walking billboard for us, we are in servitude to that man,” he says. “We need to provide some sort of service beyond ‘Here’s a garment for you.’ Who gives a shit? You can buy a garment anywhere from Wal-Mart to JCPenney to Bergdorf Goodman. What is that garment going to do for me?”
Nagrani believes that it’s all about the simple classics, executed to perfection. “What we’ve created is the engine, whereas most men’s closets are a bunch of spare parts,” says Nagrani. “He wanted a windowpane jacket. Where the fuck is he going to wear a windowpane jacket? Now he’s confused. What shirt do I wear with that? Stripes, checks? He lost his sensibility, but it is so easy to be perfectly dressed without having to think. We had a beautiful woman in here one night and she said she preferred a navy suit and a white shirt and great shoes. That’s it. Why do we complicate it?”
Uncomplicated doesn’t man un-fun. The same wit and attitude that Nagrani displays in person are also visible in his collections, but it’s done in a more subtle and clever way. Instead of being in your face, it’s a wink, a nod. A “ladies of the night” scarf features an image of a pin-up model. The graphic is only visible when the scarf is completely unfurled, and no one passing a wearer on the street would ever be the wiser. These are details designed for the owner to enjoy personally, not to show off. The underwear, done in exquisite pima cotton, features a print of a lipstick kiss mark right over your manhood. But since it’s on the inside it doesn’t veer into vulgar. Nagrani tells the story of one customer who didn’t even notice it was there, but kept receiving a knowing smirk whenever he picked up his laundry until the woman who worked there let him in on the secret.
Nagrani’s grandfather was in retail in India, and he was always drawn to the clothes his grandfather sold. His father was a doctor, which led Nagrani to enroll in an accelerated med school program, but he quickly realized that was not for him and decided to start a sock business. “Imagine telling your buddies and family that you’re going to make some socks after your father spends a ton of money on college. It’s like, ‘What do you mean, socks? It doesn’t even make sense.’ But it made all the sense in the world to me.”
This was about 15 years ago when the options available to men were pretty much blue, black, and grey and there weren’t new sock brands popping up weekly. Nagrani went with socks because he wanted to start from the ground up. “If you look back in time, the man’s color and fabrication of the stocking defined the social status. Black hid flaws. The white silk that Louis XIV would wear, you couldn’t hide the flaws. It was only available to the rich and aristocratic class,” Nagrani says. “That’s how men separate from the rest. It’s the thing that allowed you to express a little bit or personality without being an idiot.”
Nagrani also designs socks as a conversation starter and, in turn, a relationship builder. When two men in identical navy suits meet, they don’t have a good sense of each other. But when they sit down and cross their legs and reveal their socks, they instantly form an opinion of the other based on those socks and can engage each other on more familiar terms.
Creating an interesting talking point is part of what pushed Nagrani to create those famous $1,000 socks. It was also a way to express his view of the world. The socks are made from vicuña, a descendant of the camel that is native to Peru. The Peruvian government mandates that the animal can only be shorn once every three years, and can cost more per kilo than heroin. So why not make some socks out of it? That’s what Nagrani thought in 2008, right around the time the world financial market was crumbling. “[By making these socks] I’m saying, this is bullshit. The world is not falling apart.” He sold out all 24 pairs he made within four weeks. The kicker? To Nagrani’s knowledge no one has ever worn the socks, opting instead to treat them as collector’s items.
That might be a tough thing for a lot of men to wrap their heads around. The idea of purchasing a sock of all things simply to appreciate its craftsmanship and heritage doesn’t make sense to most guys, which is just fine with Nagrani.
“The stuff we’re doing is defying the norm, but that’s because we only cater to one particular guy. If you’re that guy, you get it.”