Meet: Jeff Abrams
The founder of Rails tells WWB all about his background and plans for the label.
By Isabella Griffiths
23 December 2016
Isabella Griffiths: What inspired you to launch Rails?
Jeff Abrams: I grew up in Los Angeles immersed in the arts - painting, sculpture, photography, and a deep connection to the aesthetics of fashion. I was always thinking about how to express myself through a visual medium. But it was really in my young twenties living in Europe where I began to concept what would become the Rails collection – blending a sophisticated European aesthetic with the innate effortlessness of the Southern California lifestyle.
IG: How did it develop from selling a hat (can you expand on why a hat?) to such a full collection?
JA: I launched Rails with no experience in garment construction, but needed to start somewhere, so I simply sourced a black hat and embroidered a Rails logo on it. I went door-to-door to boutiques unannounced trying to sell the hats. Eventually, I got into the iconic Fred Segal, and quickly sold out. The buyers asked for more product, so I created a simple black hoodie in a soft double sided fabric, and garment washed it to create a vintage look and feel. From the beginning, I was focused on the fabric and hand feel. In the first couple months, we had our first celebrity sightings - Jessica Alba in the hat, and Matthew McConaughey in the hoodie.
At that point, I went back to the drawing board to focus on evolving the brand with an enduring wardrobe staple – shirting. I developed a unique rayon / Tencel fabric blend, and applied it to a category that was otherwise dominated by stiff cotton fabrications. Our fabric has a cashmere-like hand feel and drape that creates a feminine yet effortless silhouette. The luxe fabrication became the cornerstone of the brand, and we quickly gained a cult following and loyal customer base – it felt like Rails was filling a gap in the market.
Each season, I refined the creative direction and focused on versatile pieces in luxe fabrications. The idea was to build a collection that made you feel both relaxed and refined, rooted in classic shapes. We have since introduced new categories, including jersey and sweater knits, silks, denim, dresses, outerwear, as well as men’s and Little Rails.
IG: You don’t have a formal fashion background – how did you find launching and growing your own fashion business? What were the biggest challenges?
JA: What I lacked in industry experience, I made up through my vision and perseverance, and ultimately learned through trial and error. Like any start up endeavor, I had to wear many hats in the beginning: design, production, shipping, accounting, sales, marketing. It was at times an overwhelming task, but the early years helped define our direction and foster a grassroots company identity that we still carry today.
As a fast-growing company, time management was and still is one of the biggest challenges. There are many moving parts that require attention and coordination. I quickly realized that to be successful, I’d have to quickly transition between all functions of the business and make good decisions quickly, while never losing sight of your brand identity.
IG: How would you define the Rails style? And how has this evolved over the years?
JA: At its core, the Rails brand reflects our Los Angeles home base and an innate effortlessness synonymous with the Southern California lifestyle. I wanted to add an element of indulgence to casual shirting, to see our customer from day to night. Most notably, the collection has grown from a category focused line to a truly contemporary lifestyle brand, rooted in luxe fabrications and our relaxed yet refined aesthetic. Each group adds a depth to the collection in texture, color, and shape that can easily be merchandised back to our signature button downs for a complete look.
IG: Who is your target customer?
JA: Her finger is on the pulse of contemporary fashion, she's constantly on the go. She is travelled, cultured and aesthetically minded – interested in music, art and fashion obsessed! She's sophisticated, but also someone who's casual and relaxed. Rails lends itself to her lifestyle, as she can wear our brand in any situation without feeling over or underdressed. Rails core products are classic and transcendent, and we are lucky enough to have a diverse and loyal customer base.
IG: How did you manage to get so many celebrity customers? What do you think resonates with them?
JA: Celebrity culture has been an integral part of our business, partly by choice and partly by circumstance. I started Rails at a time when celebrity influence was becoming exponentially more visible. Not only tabloids, but reputable fashion publications began covering celebrity lives and style. Soon after came the emergence and popularity of bloggers and social media channels which gave us a global audience. But this celebrity following has been very organic. We have never paid anyone to wear our products or to promote our brand. They are wearing the collection because they genuinely love the products.
While it’s amazing to see influential celebrities in my brand, I now get more enjoyment from seeing more anonymous girls wear Rails in their everyday life. I was incredibly excited the first few times I spotted Rails on my travels abroad - it’s rewarding to see the Rails brand connecting with so many people across the globe.
IG: How much does LA, where you are based, influence the styling of the range, and how much does this add to the appeal to the brand for its international customers?
JA: The Los Angeles lifestyle innately informs Rails creative direction, especially as we’ve become an increasingly important creative center for contemporary fashion. Many globally recognized tastemakers, designers, celebrities, and influencers reside in LA, and have together helped establish LA as a creative capital alongside NY, London, Paris, Sydney, and Tokyo.
There’s an innate effortlessness to our aesthetic that is influenced by the laid back lifestyle, yet the sophistication of a metropolitan city. This dichotomy resonates with many markets, and reflects a new direction in the contemporary market.
IG: How many export markets are you represented in?
JA: We sell to over 1,000 retailers across 50 countries, via a network of 15 sales agencies and distributors, and 3 global logistics hubs – detailed below!
IG: How important is the UK for your international business?
JA: The UK is our largest volume European business, and continues to be a top global market, alongside Canada, Australia, France and Belgium. There are clear synergies between the US and UK, that have allowed us to seamlessly enter the market. It is extremely important from a brand awareness perspective, as London is truly a microcosm, where consumers are discovering Rails from across the globe.
We value our loyal indies such as Question Air, The Dressing Room, Jules B, The Cross, Cavells, Anna, Damsel, Feather & Stitch, who have supported our growth from the early days. We maintain close partnerships with majors and multiples including Harrods, Selfridges, Trilogy, Harvey Nichols, and Fenwick, and love executing creative projects such as our Harrods Holiday 2016 Pop Up and Selfridges PJ capsule.
IG: Do you feel the UK “gets” your brand?
JA: Absolutely! Rails resonates with the metropolitan London lifestyle, as well as the suburban, boutique customer. The UK fashion and PR industry is highly regarded, as the home base for numerous tastemakers and influencers, whom we are lucky enough to call fans – they have all contributed to our global brand awareness.
IG: What are your plans for the brand?
JA: We are happy with our stockist portfolio, and will focus on maximizing opportunities with current partners, yet always welcome new partnerships with retailers of the same calibre.
Our women’s sales have grown organically, as we’ve introduced new categories and expanded into a truly contemporary offering. There are untapped opportunities within our men’s and Little Rails categories.
We will continue to support and build our global retail network in existing markets, and explore new markets such as South America, the Middle East, and Asia. We are excited to work on creative projects, whether it be exclusive capsules or shop-in-shop opportunities.
IG: Do you operate on a wholesale level only, or do you also have own stores? If not, do you have plans to?
JA: Currently, a majority of our business is via the wholesale channel, through our global network of sales & PR partners. Our dedicated Rails ecommerce store, www.railsclothing.com, is becoming an increasingly important distribution platform, and brick & mortar Rails flagship stores are on the horizon.
IG: How many stockists do you currently have in the UK? How many more would you like to have?
JA: We currently sell to 68 retailers, and approximately 75-80 doors. We are always prospecting for new accounts, and will continue to build and nurture the business with existing partners.
IG: Where do you see the brand developing? What is your vision for the brand?
JA: Over the years, Rails has grown from a domestic, category-driven line to a contemporary, global lifestyle brand, but this would not have been possible without our amazing network of loyal consumers, retailers, sales and PR partners. We pride ourselves on building strong and long-lasting relationships along every stage of the business, and valuing our international markets as much as our domestic market.
With each season, we continue to evolve by elevating our fabrications, silhouettes and style sensibility, rooted in our signature relaxed yet refined aesthetic. While we initially made our mark in the shirting category, Rails’ USP is in fabric innovation. Each new category is developed with this brand ethos in mind – super soft, luxe fabrications that easily merchandise back to our core products. We are excited to further expand our denim, jersey and cashmere wool sweater knit capsules, and develop the men’s and children’s categories into complete collections.
We will continue to define our brand voice through strategic PR outreach, retail partnerships, capsule collections, and our first Rails flagship store.
IG: Are you looking to expand the collection in any way?
JA: Rails Spring 2017 collection embraces femininity, with effortless and refined silhouettes, reflecting our transition into a truly contemporary collection. We’ve introduce a silk capsule, luxe lightweight sweaters, printed jersey knits and sweatshirts, customizable denim, and dresses, all of which seamlessly pair back to our signature shirting.