Shep and Ian Murray sat in a pair of white Adirondack chairs on the front stone patio of Vineyard Vines in Edgartown. Both were barefoot. A pair of Crocs, blue for Shep, gray for Ian, sat next to the chairs. They wore khaki shorts and blue-accented shirts, a polo for Shep, untucked button-down for Ian. They looked like any other pair of brothers on the Island in August, out to enjoy a beautiful summer day. Except that Ian was wearing the future — a sample shirt from the Vineyard Vines spring 2014 line.
“My wife calls this my summer office,” said Shep.
The Vineyard Vines flagship store wouldn’t open for another 45 minutes. People still paused on their way down Water street, the occasional glimmer of recognition in their eyes as they passed the Murrays. Sometimes they stopped.
Are you the owners?
We are, they said, almost in tandem, but not quite.
We love your stuff.
The people smiled and walked away, but not before one woman took a photo of the Murrays.
Inside the Water street store the register area is designed to look like the stern of a boat; navigational charts adorn the ceiling. But the first thing you see when you walk in is a display of ties. Pink ties, green ties, red ties, yellow ties, blue ties, all with the distinct repeating doodles that have been the hallmark of Vineyard Vines since the first silk ties were sold 15 years ago, out of an old
Jeep parked on South Beach. There were only four designs then. Today, there are more than 100 designs, not including those featuring logos of Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and the National Football League. The product line now includes polos, shorts, pants, sweaters, dresses and T-shirts emblazoned with a smiling whale.
Presidential candidates from both sides of the aisle have worn custom ties designed by Vineyard Vines, and the brand was named the official style of the Kentucky Derby in 2011. There are 35 retail stores across the country, from Charlotte, N.C., to Key Largo, Fla. with a 36th set to open in The Woodlands, Tex. The company employs 125 people in its corporate offices in Stamford, Conn., and over 500 in the stores. The Murrays still drive their old Jeeps.
The brothers had very few plans in 1998 other than to get out of the corporate world. Shep was 27 and Ian 23; they had taken jobs in Manhattan after graduating from college and quickly came to the realization that desk jobs were not for them.
What was for them was the summer lifestyle on the Vineyard, full of fishing and boating and memories; Shep’s cat is named Chappy. The Murrays, who grew up in Connecticut and still live there in the off-season, have come to the Vineyard every summer of their lives. Their late parents Stanley and Nancy were travel writers. Stanley’s wood carvings inspired the smiling whale logo.
“Our parents were the ones who really taught us about the Vineyard,” said Ian, who is now 38. “[The Island] is the place that we love more than any other in the world,” he said. The goal of Vineyard Vines is to embody the relaxed life that so many enjoy during Vineyard summers.
The initial concept was to “take your relaxed state of mind with you whenever a tie is necessary,” said Shep, now 42. “‘Why don’t we help people dress for the way they want to live?’” They were inspired by other grassroots companies, like Nantucket Nectars, which took a simple product and made it special.
“We were at our desks in New York thinking, here are these guys [Tom First and Tom Scott], they’re in their old boat in the harbor, and they’re selling juice!” Ian said. “I mean, it sounded awesome.”
The Murrays quit their respective jobs on the same day within 10 minutes of each other. Using $7,000 in cash advances from their credit cards, they funded the start-up themselves. The Fourth of July weekend was coming up on Martha’s Vineyard, and it was time to sell some ties.
They have partnered with numerous retailers, including Murray’s Toggery on Nantucket (no relation) and Puritan Clothing on Cape Cod to sell their products, but have never had any capital investors and remain a privately-held company.
“When we started this thing, we had nothing to lose,” Ian said. “We didn’t have families, we didn’t have a lot of responsibilities, we just went for it.” Today, the brothers are married with children. The younger Murrays occasionally offer design input; most recently, they kickstarted a line of neon ties.
“We had no real grand plans,” said Ian.
“The worst thing we could do was go get another job,” Shep said.
More people passed on the street.
Hey guys, love your stuff.
I’m sorry, I lost mine.
The man grinned.
Ian laughed. No refunds!
Part of the success of Vineyard Vines comes from the brothers themselves — approachable, dedicated to their vision and the products they sell, enthusiastic about their team. Every day brings something different, a new person to meet, a new place to visit. They both hoped to one day make enough money to give back to the community, and are longtime sponsors of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby and supporters of the Preservation Trust.
“I love the people, love the challenge, love designing the product, I love learning,” Shep said. “We’ve gone from zero to where we are today, and every single year you encounter a series of opportunities and challenges.”
“The number one thing I like about what we do is it doesn’t feel like work,” Ian said. “There’s no difference between Tuesday and Saturday.” They each pack a bag for work in the morning that contains a collared shirt and khaki pants (“I wear the same thing every day,” Shep said), a bathing suit, T-shirt, flip-flops and a Dopp kit.
“And my Nexium,” Ian said. “Because I like spicy food.”
“My phone charger, and Vitamin Water Zero for me,” said Shep. “That’s what we can live on.”
They bring their iPhones with them everywhere, to take photos of things that could inspire new clothing designs — from the grills of a hotel room radiator to the sailboat wallpaper in somebody’s bathroom.
On this particular Wednesday, the Vineyard Vines design team was on its way into the offices to go over material for next year’s catalogue. The current catalogue was inspired by the harbors of Maine and the boats that anchor there, and features spinnaker-striped dresses and shorts designed to mimic a boat’s colorful hull against the waterline.
“The thing is, we create a product that hopefully goes with the Vineyard lifestyle, but it’s really the people that make this place go,” Shep said of the employee culture. He pulled up an email he’d received from Edgartown employee Amy Coffey, thanking the brothers for taking the time to send out emails to everyone on staff.
For the first two years, Shep and Ian ran the company themselves, and then hired a college friend as their first employee.
“The early team, the first five or six people, they’re all still with us,” Ian said. “It’s really part of a family.”
But it’s not every company that actually is a family business.
“When Shep and I work together, because we’re brothers we just trust each other,” Ian said. “We don’t really have clearly-defined roles in the company but we cover for each other.” Neither will approve production of an item the other wouldn’t like, and they have an unspoken agreement on who is running the ship on any given day. That doesn’t mean they don’t have disagreements (“We definitely revert to being eight and four sometimes,” Shep said), but after 15 years, the partnership has grown stronger. The Murrays credit this not just to better business acumen but also shifting priorities. They started their own families even as they lost their parents at a relatively young age. Stanley and Nancy, the family anchors, died within two years of each other.
“It put things in perspective,” Ian said. “So we’d start fighting and then we’d realize, things don’t go on forever.”
An elderly man approached the store a few minutes before official opening time. Shep rose from the chair.
I’m going to let this guy in.
“Hello Dave!” Ian said to another man walking by. Shep opened the door for the first gentleman.
“I don’t like to turn customers away,” he explained, settling back in the Adirondack.
As is the case with nearly any business, part of Vineyard Vines’ success was a little bit of luck.
“When you look back at it, with ties there’s only one size,” Ian said. “Guys have lots of them in their closet . . . guys that wear ties every day have like 50 or 100 in their closet.”
“You can always use another tie,” he said. If they’d decided to invest in pants, things might be different.
You’re all my son talks about — when we’re here, we have to buy everything.
I have to ship it to him in March for his birthday.
In May, the flagship store in Edgartown moved from its original home in Nevin Square to the Water street location. For the brothers, the move was like coming home. The storefront was formerly The Fligors of Edgartown. Carol Fligor still lives upstairs, and it was Carol who bought the first wholesale batch of ties from the Murrays, back in the summer of 1998.
“Shep was in New York and I was up here, and I rode my bike to town with my dad, and — in this very door — I came in and I sold the first $1,800 of ties on consignment,” Ian said.
“You walked down to the pay phone,” Shep said, pointing a little way up the street.
“And I said, Shep, I don’t think we’re going to have to go back to work,” Ian recalled.