In their first attempt to break into the golf apparel business, Alex Holderness and John Bourne suffered through an initial run of shirt designs that can best be described as laughable. Working with a cut-and-sew shop in Brooklyn, New York with a fabric vendor they barely knew, the first small batch of shirts failed the test for colorfastness and were prone to pilling. Looking back on it now, they can afford to chuckle about it, if only a little.
The steady growth of their boutique brand, Holderness & Bourne might suggest some form of overnight success but the former Wall Street wunderkinds have defied both convention and long odds, not letting their complete lack of expertise in the industry get in the way of their principles and ambitions.
From the outset, Holderness & Bourne has been committed to making American-made apparel and accessories inspired by the traditions of the game. As a point of differentiation worth noting, every product of theirs is fabricated using best-in-class materials with a thoughtfulness that’s exceedingly rare even among more established brands with access to greater capital.
We could’ve just stayed on Wall Street and tried to build the best possible careers for ourselves in that way – it probably would’ve been easier. But we wanted to take a risk and start something new.
The very lean company of two currently straddles both coasts in the United States. Alex oversees production in California while John has his boot heels on the ground in New York City. As far as the management of the company is concerned, Alex spearheads the creative direction while his partner handles marketing and sales. In truth, their roles aren’t as neatly defined as I would suggest, with no shortage of entry-level grunt work that gets divvied up between them. John has described the experience of running a start-up in an unfamiliar industry akin to being enrolled in a masterclass, but with an even more grueling curriculum.
“Neither of us had a background in apparel, garment manufacturing or even brand marketing,” remembers Alex. “So we felt our most important first step to entering the industry was to learn it all and to get our hands real dirty with all aspects before we would even consider bringing someone else onto the team to help us do it. We had to find manufacturing partners, vendors and mills that would work with us and teach us as we went along.”
To date, Holderness & Bourne has released two collections that have been well-received. Their latest iteration for Spring 2016 expands the scale of their offerings within the classic sartorial style that the brand is known for. Three new shirts grace the collection, along with a new set of bags and accessories made from durable and stylish duck canvas. I especially like the new Chapman shirt. It’s more of a lifestyle piece that can handle the course or your next Sunday brunch. It’s made from a soft cotton-blend pique and incorporates a distinctive English cutaway collar. John says it pays homage to the vintage Lacoste polos that he used to wear, but with fabric that will keep you cooler.
Yet the shirt that best reflects the brand’s aesthetic is the Macdonald (now in its third iteration), a traditionally-inspired polo with a younger, more tailored fit. It’s made from a super lightweight poly-piquet fabric interwoven with a micro-piquet knit that reduces the shine that identifies most performance-friendly golf shirts off the rack. It also features a stand-up collar that the co-founders continually obsessed over and refined during prototyping.
“We were trying to figure out how to get structure in a collar while still giving it a lot of movement to achieve that nice, natural roll,” says John. “So what we focused on was not just the shape of the collar, but the different interfacings that we’re using in the collar band. We also put a stay in the collar, but while most brands are putting them down the front to prevent curling, it also hinders that natural roll. Our collars blend that roll with the crispness you want by using a diagonal stay that is sown in.”
The inspiration behind the shirt’s name is none other than C.B. Macdonald, the legendary course designer who contributed greatly to the game’s growth in America at the turn of the 20th century. After spending his formative years growing up in Chicago, Illinois, Macdonald studied abroad at St. Andrews University. It was there that he fell in love with links golf, learning the game from Old Tom Morris.
Upon his arrival back home, Macdonald wasted little time showcasing his talent. As a player of reasonable skill, he became the country’s first Amateur champion in 1895. He also became one of the founding members of the USGA and a staunch advocate for upholding the traditions of the sport as defined by golf’s foremost governing body, the Royal & Ancient. All of this, of course, was overshadowed by his acclaim as a golf course architect. Of the many tracks he gave birth to, none have been held in higher regard than National Golf Links of America. Never the bashful sort, Macdonald declared it second to none at the time of its groundbreaking.
Far from being an idyllic stretch of centuries-old links land that required little shaping, the 250 acre tract of land between the Bullhead and Peconic Bay was nothing more than a swamp entangled with bushes and infested by insects. In his memoir, Scotland’s Gift, Macdonald wrote, “there were many who thought my idea a pipe dream, and even some of my best friends felt I was throwing away my time and my friends’ affections and money by trying to build an ideal golf course.”
Undeterred, Macdonald assembled a group of 70 investors and spent more than two years building National Golf Links of America at a total cost of $177,000 (about $2.5 million in today’s dollars). Over the years, the course has been host to two Walker Cups and has remained largely unaltered which speaks to Macdonald’s genius as a course designer.
We’re very particular about we’re making in terms of how we want these products to look and perform
His pioneering attitude has had a huge influence on Holderness & Bourne. John says, “he and others like him were innovators in their own right and went about creating this new dynamic in the states. I think it’s because of that entrepreneurial spirit that we’ve managed to identify with people who don’t mind taking some risks to create something, whether it’s a golf course from a swamp or a governing body for a game that was desperate for a set of rules.”
For John, in particular, the connection to Macdonald goes back to childhood. He grew up in Oyster Bay, an affluent hamlet on the North Shore of Long Island and has fond memories of playing the Macdonald-designed Creek Club in Locust Valley. After attending Brown University, John met Alex at Yale’s School of Management. The pair practically wore out the golf course at Yale (yet another Macdonald gem) when not studying for their MBAs.
Alex himself attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before meeting his partner. The fourth-generation Tar Heel grew up in Greensboro where his family encouraged him to play a ton of golf in and around the Southern Pines region or golf country as Alex calls it. “There were just so many unbelievably good golfers on the junior scene,” he recalls. “I would show up and shoot 77 and feel proud, that is until I would miss the cut by ten or something like that.”
Both partners had burgeoning careers in finance, and their ascent seemed evident.
John provided financial and strategic consulting services at a Fortune 500 company while Alex belonged to the investment banking division at Goldman Sachs. The idea to work for themselves and be the maker of things went from a recurring conversation to a plan of action they hatched at the historic Old Town Bar in Union Square. Six months later they quit pushing paper.
“We could’ve just stayed on Wall Street and tried to build the best possible careers for ourselves in that way – it probably would’ve been easier,” says John. “But what we wanted to do instead was take a risk and start something new, and have some values and ethics associated with what we were doing. And so I think that proves that we’re not just some blue-blood elitists because if we were, we’d still be on Wall Street.”
The genesis of Holderness & Bourne began back at Yale, the period in which Alex and John grew their friendship on and off the course. As avid golfers who admired how golfers like Ben Hogan, Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi dressed and carried themselves on and off the course in the 50s and 60s, they were determined to honor the fashion of that era, while giving it a fresh lift in the form of exceptional tailoring and modern performance. And it was equally important to them that they craft those products to the highest standard here in America.
“We’re very particular about we’re making in terms of how we want these products to look and perform,” says Alex. “We have a lot of pride in our Made in America angle in the fact that we are sourcing fabric here and helping to keep our mills running by investing in them instead of placing orders in overseas markets. If can’t do it this way, we might as well not do it at all.”
When I mentioned a statistic that fewer than a handful of American golf brands make their goods at home, Alex and John weren’t the least bit surprised. It’s symbolic of a much larger problem that began with textile and apparel companies shifting their production overseas some time ago to take advantage of cheaper labor along with reduced manufacturing costs. More recent reports suggest that the playing field is starting to level out with U.S. businesses beginning to rethink their supply chains. The good news is that change is happening, it’s just not happening rapidly.
“It’s not just that the human capital that you need to build has disappeared, it’s the machines that we have here are antiquated,” says John. “And the only reason for that is due to companies deciding to move all that production in the name of cost savings overseas. And they’ve been able to because not a single customer is willing to give a damn about the ethical standards about the things they are putting on their back everyday. So whatever we can do to shine a little bit of light on that without seeming like we’re patting ourselves on the back too much is both helpful to our brand and to the manufacturing sector in America.”
Thus far, Holderness & Bourne have stuck to their principles and have been rewarded for it. Their sell-through rate is just north of 90 percent which means they have very little excess inventory on hand. The advantage of being able to work face-to-face with their vendors allows them to source fabric and materials in small batches. They also work tirelessly to keep overhead low so that they can put more money into their products without cutting into their margins.
The direct-to-consumer channel accounts for almost half their sales. They also distribute their products through third-party outlets like BogeyBox, an online clothing service for golfers, and through a list of green grass partners that include Winged Foot, Pebble Beach and Somerset Hills. Already this year, green grass orders from both new and pre-existing accounts are surpassing last year’s demand.
“The feedback we received indicated that the shirts were a huge hit with the younger members and even some of the older members who preferred a more tailored fit. And now our partners are wondering when we will have layers to go along with these great pieces,” says Alex. “So with our green grass clients, we’ve been hustling to do more for them to emphasize the brand experience. But we want to manage that growth carefully as we learn.”
Having had an opportunity to spend a little bit of time around them, I can tell you that Holderness & Bourne are in no rush to expand haphazardly. Being able to understand the complexities of the marketplace is something I’m sure they picked up as financial analysts. Patience, meanwhile, is something borne out of playing the game.
“The most important thing to our success thus far is our willingness to get up every morning with an optimistic attitude and do the necessary hustle to get things done,” says John. “Because like golf, there’s more failure and demoralization than there is glory. But those few sparks of glory in entrepreneurship are so worth it. It’s like a perfectly struck 3-iron from 210 yards that trundles up five feet to the pin – you get those every now and again.”
Originally published on Minor House.