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Robert James Designer / How a small town boy became designer

Posted on May 10 2020

I was born in Michigan and raised in a provincial home in Ohio.  At a young age, I began to work with my hands.  I spent countless hours in the garage building and rebuilding my BMX bikes and later motorcycles.  To afford these hobbies I would learn how to work hard to self fund these efforts.  It would also help me develop my love of design.  Pouring over BMX books and magazines to find the latest colors and styles of bikes I also focused on the jerseys and fashion that went along with it.   As I grew a bit older I needed to find a way to fit out and be an individual in a culture that valued boys that wear blue and go to business school,   As a Preacher's kid that lacked the money and conventional levers of my peers to relate to and attract love and attention.,  I looked to my clothing to help get that attention and to break the homogeny of the box small-town boys were put in.   I found ways to be what I wanted most,  to be different, to be an individual in a sea of sameness.  I would learn how to self fund these efforts through hard work and I began to buy my own clothes and be the author of my own appearance. 

While school came hard for me I found a home in drafting and graphic arts.  I began to draw and illustrate by hand but most importantly on the computer.  I took those skills to Columbus where I enrolled in Mechanical Engineering.  But that lacked the creativity and self-expression I craved.  It was early in my college career that I took a job in shop managed by one on my personal hero's Kevin Van Order who is still a staple in the fashion world of Columbus Ohio.  He taught me the art of the sale,  how to keep the store looking fresh as well as how to lead a team with hard work and humor.   But most of all he taught me there was a job that was perfect for me to combine my love of people and design. 

It was not long after working with Kevin that I began to dream of becoming a designer.  I felt I had a point of view that was needed in men's and kids wear markets.   By blending and repackaging fashion notes in a way that they would be palatable for men and boys like me.  Boys that didn't want to look like basic blue oxford boys but still wanted to look sharp and cool and well put together.  Fashion that has a masculine and yet modern feel with classic items influenced by Mods & 60's Rock and Roll with a sprinkle of Americana.  With BRJ I combine elegance with toughness to make the finest in Life / Stage / Workwear.  Cool enough for fashion books and made with the quality and style that has real staying power and value.

When I was about 19 years old I got my start in fashion by designing and selling graphic tee shirts.   I was taken in by a great firm called T-shirts to the Rescue.  They taught me the process and allowed me to take the shop over on the weekends to prints tees for my first lines.  I still use the skill I learned in those first graphic collections, I love to surround my collections with fun graphics to tell a story and at times take a stand.  There is a long history in using graphic tees to make a statement such as the original hand-decorated protest tee's of the 1960 - 70's as well as the simple symbolic imagery of 1990 early 2000s.  It was not long after I had made those first collections and had begun driving them around to find venues to sell them that I decided that to truly be a force in fashion would take a serious commitment schooling and a lot of hard work.  I decided when I was 22 that I would put in that time and work and open a real brand and store at age 35.  That brand is By Robert James Opened only a few weeks after my 35th birthday. 

After moving to NYC to attend FIT for Menswear design and finish my Bachelor's in Textiles & Product development I was given an opportunity to work with a local design house to make my first small collection for my senior project at FIT.   While I found sewing daunting I found working with experts to bring my vision to light exhilarating.  I learned by working on motorcycles that there were parts of the process best left to the experts and while the vision for the outcome was in my head I needed to employ and inspire others to realize that vision.  This set the groundwork for my working with the experts in the Garment Center to bring By Robert James to life.   Having grown up in a small manufacturing town it became a passion for me to design and manufacture locally.   By that time I had spent 7 years making apparel for the mass market and had flown all over the world and seen first hand the inequalities visited on the people making those products.  I also saw how much time and effort was lost trying to keep even a large firm's vision intact over distant communications and cultural disconnects.  I was determined to make the highest quality product supported by great design and for me, that meant working hands-on with locally made NYC  Manufacturing.  Now in our 12th year, our shirts are still being made by the same two amazing girls that have made our shirts since the beginning.  This small scale and topnotch manufacturing ensure the highest quality and deliver a high level of consistency that my customers can trust time after time.  They can also take pride in continuing a New York Made Tradition that makes our clothes special beyond their limited number.  

I want to personally thank you for your interest in By Robert James, It has been a labor of love between my designs and the people that wear them.  Without my amazing customers, I would be nothing.

Thank you one and all for making my dream to be a designer come true.

Robert James



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