— Part 1 of 2 —
The Hardwick brand and the Hardwick reputation for unsurpassed American-made quality clothes has helped the company to thrive while producing the finest in suits, pants …
— Part 1 of 2 —
The Hardwick brand and the Hardwick reputation for unsurpassed American-made quality clothes has helped the company to thrive while producing the finest in suits, pants and jackets for men and women.
The challenge for a company that started in 1880, now the oldest privately held apparel manufacturer in America, is in marketing — making more people aware of a company whose product is in a league all its own. The best way to get a global society to appreciate fine clothing is to hire a person who appreciates fine clothing— one whose expertise is in marketing.
Enter Chris Fleming — a man who worked for American fashion designer Ralph Lauren, best known for the Ralph Lauren Corporation, a global multibillion-dollar enterprise.
Fleming, who has his finger on the pulse of the latest fashions and trends in the clothing industry, is more than a fan of fashion, he is devoted to his craft. His professional life is about what is vogue. His ability to promote his passion for fashion as Hardwick Clothes’ new vice president of marketing may be key to the company raising awareness about its superiority in modern apparel and excellence in making American fashion great again.
Fleming started at Hardwick in April, after having worked in menswear for Kenneth Cole, womenswear for Ann Taylor and doing consulting work in New York City.
He admits, “I had been struggling to find a professional home that would allow me to employ the skills I developed at Ralph Lauren, in using marketing, imagery, content, storytelling, but also analysis and strategy to connect with customers, build their affinity for the brand, and drive business growth.
“I know part of what has helped me find success in the professional realm is my deep personal interest in not only the merchandising aspect of fashion, but also how things like style, storytelling and compelling imagery can draw people of disparate backgrounds together. That moves me on a personal level, and I try to create that kind of moving experience when telling the story of our brand and the garments we create.”
Although he has enjoyed marketing roles for brands with a sports and lifestyle history like Puma and Earth Shoes, Fleming said his longest and most impactful experience was with Ralph Lauren, where he helped run the Factory Stores’ marketing from 2008 to 2013.
“I grew up loving Polo and everything about Ralph Lauren and doing much of our back-to-school shopping at the outlets,” he said. “I loved everything Ralph did at Polo from the cologne to the rugby shirts to the hats to anything with a Polo Bear on it to the ads themselves. What amazed me about him then, and still does today, is how many different types of people wear his product, and wear it in different ways, yet he doesn’t pander to any one type of them.
“From the preppiest country club kids to the most committed inner city hip-hop heads, to the most precious and artisanal of Brooklyn hipsters, to celebrities owning the red carpet on Oscar night — the brand he created and the product his teams designed connect with so many different types of people on so many different levels — all because of the dream a little Jewish kid from the Bronx, N.Y., cooked up in his head.
“It was especially sweet for me because my father-in-law, who also made his career in retail, was actually a VP of marketing at Bloomingdales when Ralph first launched his signature wide ties. He helped Ralph get Polo up and running from a marketing sense. Matter of fact, my wife, whose name is Lauren, received her first gift as a baby from Ralph himself. My in-laws still see Ralph from time to time in New York City, where they make their home, and he remembers Gordon fondly. Its nice for him, but it’s astounding to me.”
When asked about his current job at Hardwick’s, Fleming said, “My job is to take the incredible story that is Hardwick’s history, pass it through the prism of the impeccable product we work to create today, and share it with a world that largely doesn’t know about us yet. As someone with my background, son of a 37-year employee of an American business icon, grandson of factory and shipyard workers, trained at the hip of the creator of the greatest Fashion Retail story ever told in Ralph Lauren, I am excited to tackle the challenges associated with this and help bring ‘Made in America’ fashion back to the forefront.
“To put it simply, my job as VP of marketing is to develop and nurture the relationship our brand has with the customer by creating a compelling, engaging, moving customer experience at all touch points. So whether it is through our website, capturing the photos of our product and the models we show wearing it, or the email outreach and the copy that tells the story of the product, or social media, which gives our customers a chance to see who we are beyond what we are selling — to see what we are made of, our Cleveland roots, our Southern DNA, our American pride — to the layout and wording on our hangtags and the flag iconography we proudly employ as America’s oldest and longest-running men’s tailored clothing manufacturer.”
Fleming admits he had been struggling to find a professional home that would allow him the opportunity to employ the skills he developed at Ralph Lauren in using imagery, content, storytelling, analysis and strategy to connect with customers, build their affinity for the brand and drive business growth.
As he noted, “some brands are more an exercise in art instead of commerce.”
“I was looking for a role that allowed me to do both — to balance the art of building a brand with the science of helping grow the business,” he said. “Frankly I had long felt, even in my days at Ralph Lauren, that a real ‘Made in America’ story was missing in fashion retail.
“Given the current climate of profit above all, I felt like there was definitely opportunity for a brand who wasn’t focused purely on slaying Wall Street projections as much as it was creating quality garments, right here in America, that were both timely and timeless, that provided great value not only to the customer, but helped breathe life into the American economy on a local, meaningful level. Lo and behold, my wife and I were visiting friends in D.C. for the weekend. I get a call from a ‘headhunter’ who had an interesting Made in America opportunity somewhere in the South. His message was just cryptic enough that I felt compelled to at least find out what he was talking about.
“Fast forward a couple months, a trip to Cafe Roma for dinner, a couple of delayed connectors into and out of Chattanooga’s airport, and here I am — alternating my days looking ahead to the next season’s product releases and back into history to unearth the Hardwick story.”
“I like the fact that this little company has persevered for more than 135 years, almost purely on its commitment to remaining American made. I love that fact, actually. That fact alone would probably have been enough to get me here. But the other undeniable element that pleases me most is that in addition to that simple statement — “Made in America, since 1880” — the product is, quite literally, world class.
“I have worn Ralph Lauren Purple Label, I was gifted an Armani suit years ago when I got my first promotion, Oxxford [Clothes], Paul Stuart — you name it. I put on our 660 hopsack blazer during my interview and it was like wearing water. The garments are incredible! The work that our people do rivals that of the finest garment makers anywhere else in the world. And I can leave my desk, and walk back onto the factory floor and see them making that magic right in front of my eyes, right there in Cleveland, Tenn! It’s amazing!
“It’s a big responsibility to share this story, but I beam with pride when I talk about it. I believe it is my duty to help represent the hard work, diligence and pride that our factory workers — American workers — take in what they do, and what they make. It’s special. It really is.”
Part of what makes Fleming a special individual is his family roots and his treasured relationship with his wife, which he discusses in the conclusion of his interview in the Wednesday People section.
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