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Mike Toth and the art of branding

Mike Toth at his South Boston office.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Mike Toth at his South Boston office.

In the 1980s, a company called Popular Club Plan hired a young marketer named Mike Toth to remake the stolid image of its men’s and women’s clothing line. For three weeks, Toth worked 12 hours a day with the company’s owner crafting a new identity and name for the catalog business.

It was a time of buttoned-down, pressed clothes, and Toth shook things up. “We roughed it all up and let the wrinkles and the dirt add to the patina and real nature of the clothing,” he says.

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Now they needed a name. “What about Crew?” Toth suggested. He loved the quick, hard sound of the name and what it connoted: a sport that “was aspirational in an Ivy League, Oxford, Thames-y kind of way.” The company owner added the initial J. because he was a fan of J. Press clothing.

J.Crew took off, and so did Mike Toth’s career.

Thirty years later, Toth + Co. is a top lifestyle branding company that has created marketing strategies for dozens of companies, including Tommy Hilfiger, Wrangler, Coach, Nautica, and L.L. Bean, making them household names.

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It used to be that “branding” involved cattle and hot iron. Today, of course, everything — and everyone — seems to have a brand. No one knows this like Toth.

Now 62, he works out of a sunny 7,500-square-foot loft in South Boston with exposed brick walls and a staff of 35 that includes his kids’ former soccer coach, who runs the project management team, and his former house painter, who is creative director and cofounder of the company’s film division.

‘The show’s title, “US,” comes from me and them. The uncelebrated people who live in small towns everywhere, and my love of their unheard stories of hope and optimism.’

MIKE TOTH, on his photography exhibit US. American Stories 
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“I grew the company with people I cared about,” Toth says. “And people who are smarter and more talented than me.”

At the center of it all is Toth himself, who has longish graying hair and on a recent day is wearing gray L.L. Bean Signature pants, a sub-brand he launched to appeal to younger consumers who considered the company’s duds stodgy.

Toth’s own white shirt is custom-made and in the lower-left corner are tiny embroidered initials of the people who inspire him. His wife’s initials are the first, followed by those of Winslow Homer; St. Anthony, “the patron saint of lost causes;” Walt Disney; JFK; Huckleberry Finn; Norman Rockwell; and others, including Lee Roy Jordan of the Dallas Cowboys.

As a boy growing up in Texas, Toth’s first love was football. He was a high school quarterback in San Antonio, and went on football scholarship to the local Trinity University. After flunking out, he transferred to Holy Cross, since his grandfather was from Worcester.

At Holy Cross, the only classes Toth excelled in were art and painting. But he met a classmate who was “smart, beautiful, and rich.” Susan Currie grew up in Hyannis Port, attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and transferred to Holy Cross to be closer to her father after he had a heart attack. After college, the couple got engaged on the Left Bank in Paris.

After the success of J.Crew, Ralph Lauren hired Toth to create a story line for his collections. Toth’s work with Ralph Lauren, including creating the Chaps brand, was his “graduate school education.” Then Toth heard that Tommy Hilfiger was looking for a new branding identity. Toth didn’t have an appointment and after sitting all day in the office while other candidates came and left, he was finally allowed to see a low-level assistant. He got the account.

“All Tommy wanted was to be the next Ralph Lauren,” says Toth. “If Ralph was a more European style, Tommy is the all-American version.” When Toth started working with the company in 1993, Tommy Hilfiger was at $80 million in revenues. When Toth left eight years later, it was at $1.5 billion.

What did a kid from Texas know about the fickle world of fashion? He was small town, didn’t eat in a restaurant until the eighth grade. (“I got an omelet.”)

But his mother ran a small clothing shop and would put on fashion shows at the high school. “I used to go to them so I could see the girls,” he says with a wry smile.

Toth doesn’t speak in the traditional sense but uses what you could call his own multi-platform strategy: gestures, a note pad with a red Sharpie, e-mail, and lip-reading, often translated by his son Zack, who is the company’s director of business development.

At lunchtime, Toth pops open a can of liquid nutrition and feeds it by syringe into a tube in his stomach, not missing a beat in an interview. That’s how this gourmand — who still cooks dinner every night for his family in their Concord home — takes his meals.

It was 2003 when he felt a lump on his neck. He was 51 and had never smoked a cigarette. Dr. Daniel Deschler, director of the division of head and neck surgery at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, diagnosed and treated Toth for tonsil and tongue cancer with chemotherapy and radiation.

Three years later, Toth returned, complaining of a hoarse voice. This time, it was cancer of the larynx, which would have to be removed. Before the surgery, Toth flew to Rome, thinking he might never be able to eat real food again, and had dinner at his favorite restaurant.

After the surgery, because the cancer was so aggressive, he again underwent radiation and chemotherapy.

Since then, because of side effects that include scarring of the throat and infections, Toth has had near-fatal bouts of bleeding. “The last seven or eight years, he’s had close calls, including one several months ago,” says Deschler.

Doctor and patient have become close over the years. Toth puts it simply: “He saved my life three times.”

The admiration is mutual. “Mike is a brilliant, creative guy who has persevered beyond the limitations with which his cancer treatments have left him,” Deschler says.

The two will come together on Sunday for a happier occasion: The opening of Toth’s photography exhibit whose accompanying book of photos will benefit Deschler’s work at MEEI (www.masseyeandear.org/USAmericanStories).

Toth has never fancied himself a photographer but has worked with some of the best. Over the years, he’d pack his wife and four kids into the car, along with his Hasselblad and Contax cameras, driving the back roads into small towns throughout the country.

It is these images, not the ad campaigns he’s worked on with superstar models and actors, that will make up the show, which is called “US. American Stories’’ (www.usthestories.com). The show is curated by his daughter, Kezia.

The photos are of ordinary folks at state fairs in Maine, NASCAR races in New Hampshire, rodeos and Indian reservations in the West, and places in between not found on any map.

“The show’s title, “US,” comes from me and them,” says Toth. “The uncelebrated people who live in small towns everywhere, and my love of their unheard stories of hope and optimism.”

The photos will be on exhibit from Sunday to March 28 at C&J Katz Studio, an interior architecture and design firm at 60 K Street in South Boston, but because it is a working studio viewing is by appointment only.

Cheryl and Jeffrey Katz have worked with Toth on various projects and knew about his personal cache of thousands of photographs. “At first, he was very hesitant about the exhibit,” says Cheryl Katz, whose firm has worked with all of Barbara Lynch’s restaurants. “But we did some gentle arm-twisting and once he went into his archives and saw how much work he had, he agreed. We so respect the courage he’s shown throughout his illnesses, that we want to celebrate him.” The exhibit is expected to travel around the country.

After his surgery, Toth wondered who in the world would hire a voiceless creative director. He needn’t have worried. Since then, his company has worked for Johnston & Murphy footware, Timex, Fisher-Price, Playskool, Macy’s, Chico’s, and many others. His recent campaign for Keds features Taylor Swift in an appeal to girls and women ages 10 to 24.

Toth may have lost his voice, but not his sense of humor. His answer to his own question about why hire a voiceless guy? “I’m a better listener now,” he says. “And I never had anything important to say, anyway.”

Bella English can be reached at is Isobel.english@globe.com.
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