“We’re entrepreneurs. We have crazy ideas,” says Robert Noe Jr. “We’re pretty unpredictable.”
He’s not exaggerating. Noe and his business partner, Peter Mugford, are both 24. While they were busy studying business and economics — Noe at University of Rhode Island and Mugford at Union College — these budding fashion entrepreneurs launched a company called Custom Universe that will reach $1 million in revenues this year. So perhaps their ideas are not so crazy after all.
It started with selling T-shirts in high school. By college they had branched into high-end athletic clothing while juggling a full load of classes and playing varsity sports. After graduation, they opened a store in Nantucket, and they have plans for a second in Boston in 2013.
At first glance, these two don’t exactly appear to be retail magnates. Noe, wearing a blue fleece pullover, looks like he’s ready to toss a football around the yard. Mugford looks like a young George Peppard circa “The Subterraneans” in his striped oxford and khakis.
“We’re good at looking at what’s missing, and trying to fill that niche,” says Mugford. “We took a lot of risks. I think our parents may have worried a bit.”
Those risks began during a brainstorming session in high school. The result was a line of college-targeted tees called Rack ’Em — so named because they focused on the very popular sport of college drinking. On the front of the shirts was the name of a college and a caricature of the school mascot playing beer pong.
They set their sights on Boston College students. Friends shook their heads and told them the idea would never work, but the shirts were a hit, and the pair — along with some of those naysaying friends — were soon walking the hallways at Boston College dorms with backpacks stuffed with the tees, selling door-to door and pulling in $300 to $400 a night.
In their sophomore year of college they had an offer to buy out their T-shirt business for $10,000. They readily accepted and moved on to filling what they viewed as another underserved niche — high-end jackets and sweatshirts, from the company Patagonia, embroidered with college logos. Despite the fact that these jackets were twice the price of others offered in campus bookstores, they were quickly selling out thanks to brand-crazed students. The jackets are now sold at 80 colleges around the country. Sportswear companies are now asking Noe and Mugford to partner with them.
That first year of business in 2009 saw revenues of $20,000, it took less than four years for them to bring that number to
$1 million. Their latest idea was opening a Nantucket store, called the Sail Loft, in 2011.
They found a location, signed a lease — again against a chorus of “It will never work” — and opened the store that June. The original concept was sailing and rowing gear. The shop was so popular that in 2012 they expanded to the second floor of the building and started offering men’s button-downs, khakis, T-shirts, sunglasses, and womenswear. It’s become an essential stop for Nantucket’s preppy set.
“We try to find brands that are unique,” says Mugford. “Things you don’t see in Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s.”
After a failed attempt at launching a retail website, the two will try again in January 2013 (in the meantime you can find information on the store at www.sailloftnantucket.com ). And it’s no surprise to hear that Mugford and Noe are already dreaming up their next venture.
“We’ve thought about coming up with our own clothing brand,” Noe says. “Don’t you think it makes sense?”Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.