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Introducing Racked National's newest feature, The Breakfast Club, wherein we convince all sorts of people in the fashion industry to eat breakfast with us and, totally beknownst to them, we plonk a tape recorder in the middle of the table while they eat.
Today's Breakfast Club victim is James Jurney, co-founder with his wife, Gwen, of Seize sur Vingt—a luxury shirt and suiting company based in New York—and Troglodyte Homunculus—Seize sur Vingt's more casual sibling collection.
The company has worked with Thomas Keller's Per Se and French Laundry restaurants, The Mercer Hotel, and the West Wing. Celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith, Jake Gyllenhal, and Pharrell have all worn Seize sur Vingt.
Jurney: Gwen and I were just dating at the time, we weren't even married. You know how, when you're dating, your first vacation's kind of a big deal? So we took a week vacation down in the Carribean and it was really magical—it was, like, wow, we really got along. We had a blast.Seize Sur Vingt's Greene Street store
She and I had come up with this idea a year before, that we were going to import clothing as an extracurricular project. Originally, we were going to import some shirts from Paris that a friend of mine had actually brought back from his honeymoon. We didn't have a plan, we saw these shirts, and basically they were checked shirts back when people weren't doing checked shirts.
It was that early early-mid-90s, kind of grunge phase.
Right then was also when the whole casual Friday was becoming a big deal. I was in banking at the time and myself, like everyone, had a hard time breaking out from the standard blue shirt routine. It was, like, khakis and a blue shirt. At that time, that was also the Blockbuster uniform—I kept saying that everybody's wearing their Blockbuster uniform. The office on a Friday would be this ridiculous array of khakis and blue shirts. And then, in the summer the dorks would bring out their golf shirts and their polo shirts.
We thought there was this opportunity to start doing these fun, elegant checks. What was missing was the elegance of the patterns in a dress shirt. And, of course it's a very common thing in Europe.
So this shirt thing came up that summer and we decided we were going to look at this place in Paris, so that was our second vacation.
We'd been dating, by this time, almost a year. In the run up to it, I got myself all wrapped up and decided that I was going to ask her to marry me. In Paris.
So the day before we left, I decided this. Then, the day we were leaving, on my way out the door from work, I ran into this little jewelry store to get this token ring—because I knew she would want to be involved in a real ring—and I had it in my briefcase, and we flew over on the overnight flight, I think we had some delays and ended up not really getting into Paris until late the next day, and we hadn't slept.
So we sit down at Les Deux Magots over in St. Germain, we're having wine, and I couldn't hold back. It was still the first night, and we hadn't even gone to see the place or anything and I got down on one knee. She spilled her wine everywhere, it was a big scene, people were clapping, it was real sweet.
So, needless to say, that worked. And the next day, we go over to that place—we didn't even have a formal meeting or anything—and, what we had seen was already an edited selection of three shirts our friend had brought back, so we get over there and the full selection, we didn't like. Some of the stuff was really awful.
We kind of were talking, how would we do it differently. So she started doing that, going around New York's fashion district doing research.
Even then, I wasn't sure about my life, I didn't know that I would quit my job. We were still thinking that maybe she would do the clothing company and I would stay in banking to help pay for it. And then, right after we got married, the company I was working for at that moment kind of had a blow-up in Hong Kong and they shut down the New York office, and they were going to transfer everybody.
So it was kind of crazy luck—one month after the wedding, to get this opportunity to leave. So we decided to go all out. A month later, we signed a lease on Elizabeth Street and we opened in June.Select shirts from Seize Sur Vingt's spring 2010 collection
Looking back on that period, our whole apartment was filled, floor to ceiling with boxes of shirts we'd just had made. We were making them in Pennsylvania at that time—the fabric was coming from Italy, but the sewing was in Pennsylvania. We did it all through meeting people and networking—we'd meet somebody who sells fabric and we'd say, who do you send your fabric to, and go back and forth.
We moved from there—there are too many stories about all that.
We actually had a shipment of fabric go out to California, that was going to be made in a Californian factory. While our fabric was arriving, the factory was going out of business. So we had this emergency crazy session trying to get the fabric out of the factory before it was going to be padlocked—that would have been, like, a complete business-killer. It was crazy.
Luckily there's a service called Rag Time. It's basically a shipping service, they picked it up and trucked it over back to New York.
We were lucky to have a few good relationships building in Italy at the time and we were introduced to a great factory in northern Italy, and it just kind of steamrolled from there. I wish I could say that it steamrolled in such a great way and we were some huge company now, but obviously the economy got tough and it wasn't that easy.
It took a while to get to that point—we were about five years into our business before we were doing all that and then we moved suit-making over to Italy.
We love the Lake Como area—my screensaver on my desktop is actually an aerial photo that includes part of the Versace mansion. Years ago, there used to be the greatest shows in Cernobbio—they would have this trade show called Shirt Avenue and they also had a Tie Boulevard as part of the Shirt Avenue trade show. But we used to go to it because it was very focused on the shirt business—people who make shirting for fabric are very specialized, that's all they do. The best mills are in Italy and a lot of them are based out of Northern Italy.
Seize sur Vingt means sixteen over twenty. It's kind of random because we made up the name when we were thinking about importing that shirt line. We thought we were going to have things made in France—we thought that for two weeks and we were investigating having things made in Paris. There was a period in New York, the world—it was like this weird time, American fashion was into this Anglophone thing. And everybody had to have this English-sounding name, and it was all very fake. It's funny, like a Mr. Potato Head thing—where you take all these British names, pick two and put them together and come up with a company name. So we wanted to do kind of a non-British thing.
Neither one of us went to French school, but we knew that school system was graded on a scale of 20. A 16 was a very good grade—so a lot of people, in that system, that was the score you would go for.
I guess it was a good decision, everyone seems to like it.
It's so weird because we thought it was a little bit funny, but not that funny. It's sort of elegant, and it's a little off-putting. It's a little of everything. We wanted, also, to be a little hard to get.
We still believe this—that a really good, lasting company or brand requires the customer or client to feel like they did a little work to get to you. It's almost like dating—you don't want to be too easy to get. If you want to be in it for the long haul, you've got to be a little harder to get.
· Seize sur Vingt [Official Site]
· The Breakfast Club [Racked]