When Crittenden Rawlings was president of Oxxford Clothes, he went to a Sotheby's auction and bought a suit that had belonged to the Duke of Windsor. The former Edward VIII may have been a lousy king, but he sure knew how to dress.
Rawlings studied that suit, which was handmade in 1939 by a tailor in Rome, hoping to discover techniques Oxxford could use. Alas, it didn't fit his company's power-suit image. Oxxford customers may run America, but they are not flashy dressers.
A few years later, after a brief and boring retirement, the Kentucky native studied the Duke's suit again. He loved the way it was made, and he thought other men would, too.
Rawlings also remembered a lesson from Ralph Lauren, whose tailored clothing division he used to run: "People in the industry would always say, 'Ralph, this will never work,' and he would say, 'Just watch me.'"
That was seven years ago. Rawlings, 71, now designs and manufactures his own Crittenden Clothes line using touches from the Duke's suit and his own taste, refined over a 52-year career in the high-end garment industry.
Crittenden Clothes are sold in more than 100 men's stores across the country, and in a small shop in Midway, where Rawlings and his wife, Judy, live above the store. Loyal customers include John Calipari, the University of Kentucky's sharp-dressing basketball coach.
Calipari said his Memphis haberdasher recommended Crittenden Clothes when he moved here, so he stopped in the shop. That was a suit, two jackets and several pairs of pants ago.
"He's got good stuff, and it's reasonably priced," Calipari said. "And he and his wife have done such a great job with that little shop. I'm always looking for clothes that lay on me well and have nice fabric. I'm going back to get a Derby outfit next year."
Rawlings has been thrilled with the patronage, especially since Calipari visited his shop again June 4 and mentioned it on Twitter.
"Within a few days, we had a lot of young guys walking in to see what it was all about," he said.
What he is trying to do with Crittenden Clothes, Rawlings said, is create traditional dress clothing that is a little more casual and comfortable. He wants to use the finest fabrics and hand-sewing where it is most noticeable — for example, working sleeve buttons, which usually are found on only the most expensive jackets.
"I wanted to do a product that had custom features at a more modest price," Rawlings said. Handmade suits cost $895, jackets go for $395 to $695 and pants cost $75 to $150.
Crittenden jackets are called "unconstructed" because, like the Duke's coat, they don't have shoulder padding or much internal material. Vents are on the side, European-style. Rather than full linings, Rawlings uses a construction method called French facing.
Here's how it works: Outer material is wrapped inside the front to provide enough stiffness. Only the sleeves are lined. Body seams are piped with silk. There is no other lining except two triangles of silk on the shoulders. The style makes jackets lighter and cooler.
"I think it's the future, particularly for sport coats," Rawlings said. "In my opinion, no one in the industry makes a jacket this nice for this price."
Rawlings said he searches mills in Italy, Scotland, Ireland, Japan and China for the finest woolens, linens, cottons and silks and interesting blends of them. His clothes are made in China and Japan, where he can get good hand-finishing and low labor costs.
Some Crittenden Clothes will soon be made in a Tennessee factory. Rawlings hopes to find a Kentucky manufacturer for some items. "I would love to be able to say some of our products are made in Kentucky," he said.
Rawlings was born on a farm near Lebanon. Judy Rawlings is from Eastern Kentucky, although they met in Chicago when she was a United Airlines flight attendant. Their three grown daughters live in Los Angeles and Connecticut.
When Rawlings graduated from high school in 1957, he got a summer job helping a family friend who was a traveling salesman of men's clothes. He liked the business so much, he never left.
Rawlings worked for Ivy League icon Norman Hilton and then the designer whose business Hilton helped launch, Ralph Lauren. He left there in 1995 to become Oxxford's president, a job he held for seven years.
Retirement at age 63 bored Rawlings, and he realized there could be a good business in making the kind of clothing he wanted to wear. "This is a small business," he said, "but it's perfect for my age."
Rawlings is especially proud that his clothes are attracting so many Kentucky customers. He designed a signature blazer for Keeneland, which is sold through the racetrack's gift shop.
"I always had a great love for Kentucky," Rawlings said, even after decades in New York and Chicago. "I always knew I was going to come back."