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How the Family Team Behind Orley Turned 5 Sweaters Into a Viable Business

And ladies, if you weren’t already, it’s time to start paying attention to this label.
Clockwise from left: Alex Orley, Matthew Orley, Samantha Orley. Photo: Christian Felber

Clockwise from left: Alex Orley, Matthew Orley, Samantha Orley. Photo: Christian Felber

Since launching in fall 2012, Orley -- a New York menswear label helmed by brothers Alex and Matthew Orley and Matthew’s wife Samantha -- has, in no short order, won over Bergdorf’s, the CFDA, Vogue and us. Their colorful, quirky, slightly retro designs -- crafted from the most luxurious Italian yarns and Japanese fabrications -- have been a much appreciated bright spot on the heritage-soaked menswear landscape. In fact, our only bone to pick with the brand is that, as women, we aren’t able to wear more of it (plenty of girls still snap up the label’s sweaters in smalls and extra-smalls). But that’s about to change. Friday, Orley will debut its first-ever womenswear collection for fall 2015 at Lincoln Center. I was lucky enough to get a glimpse of the collection at the trio’s studio in the CFDA Incubator last week, and let me tell you, it’s good. Very good. It lives up to the already fully-developed men’s collection without being derivative. “It’s the same mentality as the men’s,” says Alex, who studied womenswear design at Parsons. “But definitely feminine.” Colorful twinsets coexist with gold knit pants and chunky neutral turtlenecks (the brand used the same factory as The Row for handknits.)

Ahead of their imminent womenswear debut, we sat down with all three of the Orleys and got the scoop on how they built their business, what their biggest lessons have been, and where they’re going next (with some playful brotherly ribbing in between). 

Okay, let’s start from the beginning. Why did you guys start Orley? How did you get to where you are now?

Alex Orley: Well, Matt and I are brothers. Matt and Sam are married. We had all been working for different companies in the fashion industry in different capacities and in 2011 we were all kind of tired of working for other people and we had been talking for a long time about doing something together so we decided to pool our collective talents and launch a knitwear line. And that was how we launched for fall 2012 with five sweaters that we sold out of Matt and Sam’s kitchen, in their walk up in the East Village. Our second collection of eight sweaters was picked up by Bergdorf Goodman and that sort of set us on a faster trajectory than we had originally anticipated. We launched a full menswear collection for spring 2014 and then in 2014 we were selected as finalists in the [CFDA/]Vogue Fashion Fund. And then through the Fashion Fund we were just doing the men's ready-to-wear, and they asked us if we were interested in doing women’s and we said it was something we always wanted to do but we just weren’t sure if the timing was right. And they were like, the timing is right. You guys really need to tackle this now.

Samantha Orley: We also have a large private sale business and sell a lot of the mens sweaters in smaller sizes to women. So we had a history of a women’s client, and knew there was interest.

How did you approach the women’s launch?

SO: Obviously, we’ve become really known for knitwear. That’s really the DNA of the brand so when we decided to launch women’s, we knew that we wanted to start it in the same way we did for men which was a capsule collection of knits. The women’s collection has about 15 pieces -- about 35 SKUs including accessories. It’s not a huge collection. But it’s a fully merchandised collection; not just sweaters.

You see so many brands that launch with a full collection and a zillion categories. You guys started really focused--only five sweaters. Why was it important to you to start small?

Matthew Orley: It was important to stand for something. And when you come out of the gate doing everything, you don’t have such a specific DNA. We needed to build that DNA so that the foundation of what we were building was very defined and very clear. And we’ve held to that as we’ve grown. We still have a core category and people really know us for something. I think if you come out of the gate with every category, it’s much harder to build that core.

AO: It was also economics. We didn’t have the resources to do everything, which I think in retrospect was a blessing. It really forced us to focus on being as aesthetically-defined and as high quality as possible in as small a collection. Because we knew we weren’t going to show 100 pieces, we needed to show the five best pieces possible.

SO: Also what’s different about knitwear versus wovens or other pieces, is you’re not just designing a silhouette and picking fabrics. It’s a 360 degree process: you’re designing the stitches, the entire fabrication. So there’s a lot more room for..

AO: Innovation.

SO: Uniqueness and innovation.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced since launch?

MO: I’d say every step that we make forward is a challenge in some regards: moving to our first office, expanding the line, expanding into women’s... every single thing we do to try and grow there are challenges. We’re tackling it as best we can.

SO: I definitely think when we started we were totally naive about it. Knowing all the things we know now in retrospect it’s like, oh I can’t believe we did it this way or that way.

MO: Or that we did it at all.

I’ve actually heard that from a lot of young designers -- that if they knew how much work it would be, they’re not sure they would have been able to start.

MO: You need that naivety to start.

So what were some of the things you did that in retrospect, you would have done differently.

MO: Our hang tags and our business cards were our two biggest expenses in our first collection--more than anything else in the collection.

AO: And I’m not going to say why…

No, do!

AO: Matthew insisted on having artisanal business cards. Each one was like a $100.

MO: Okay, the point is, those were our two biggest expenses in the first six months.

SO: Right. And since then, we’ve realized we can do things a lot more...

AO: Economically.

SO: It’s things like that, that it’s like ‘I can’t believe we did that this way.’ At the time, we didn’t see them as challenges but looking back, they actually were. I think the best part of growing, what’s helped us the most, has been talking to other designers, especially being in the Incubator, sharing resources and advice.

MO: The single most helpful thing that has gotten us here is the CFDA. Being brought into this community through the Incubator, through Fashion Fund, has completely accelerated our growth.

A look from Orley spring 2015. Photo: Chelsea Lauren/Getty Images

A look from Orley spring 2015. Photo: Chelsea Lauren/Getty Images

What has been the biggest difference in your business since coming into the CFDA fold?

AO: I think access to people who didn’t know about us before. People who are involved in the Incubator are invested in our business and our success.

SO: Yeah, the mentorship.

MO: And we were in the Incubator before we were actually in the Incubator. You do a whole year before you actually move in so we were part of the class of the Incubator since July 2013 and then it wasn’t announced for a full year after that. So you do programing that essentially prepares you for everything you get when you come in here. Essentially, we’ve been with the CFDA since the beginning. That first year was a lot of learning on our part, but they’ve really been with us since we started. And it’s allowed us to do a lot more than we probably could have otherwise.

How did you become involved with the CFDA?

SO: We were just encouraged to apply for the Incubator, by a few people, including friends who had been in the previous class.

MO: We had already developed relationships with people who had been mentors in the program. And we had been reaching out to them already, asking questions and advice. And they suggested we look at this program. It also helped that we were already in Bergdorf’s.

What was the biggest leap in terms of growing your business? Was it getting picked up by Bergdorf’s? Joining the Incubator?

AO: I think every season there’s been a leap. In our first season it was getting picked up by Union--Chris Gibbs definitely put us on the map. And he threw this big party for us and it was kind of our big launch. In our second season, it was Bergdorf’s [picking us up] and then it was United Arrows…

SO: Joining the Fashion Fund, doing our first runway show--that was a huge opener for us. It put us in this other category where we were constantly getting pulled for press, and getting a lot more coverage.

MO: I also think it’s so important to recognize those steps--whether they’re big or small--as your win in any given season. Because, especially when you’re chasing down these wholesale accounts and department stores, you’re being told ‘no’ 90 percent of the time. There are so many ‘no’s that you hear, you really have to recognize the wins.

AO: Celebrate the yes’s.

How do you guys deal with all the inevitable no’s?

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AO: What ‘no’s? Kidding. It’s a good support system in here though.

I can imagine. What’s it like to work with family?

SO: What’s nice about it is that we can be very honest with each other. We know that no matter what is said or done, we’re all coming from the same place and we’re all coming to work the next day.

MO: I will say that we’ve had our fair share of blowouts. We just hired our first employee and since then, the scale of the disagreements has been cut back significantly.

AO: That’s just because Matthew has someone else to boss around.

MO: I don’t think we’ve had nearly as big of fights.

SO: Yeah, we’ve had to be a bit more civil.

Did you ever have people warn you about going into business with each other?

AO: No one ever said going into business with family was a bad idea.

MO: We did have one guy tell us he would never invest in a husband-wife company.

SO: Because, I guess, there’s always the risk of splitting.

Let’s switch gears and talk about women’s. Was it a huge adjustment to design for the ladies?

AO: Well, I did women’s at Parsons. I’ve actually sort of had to scale back my natural tendencies in the men’s way more than in women’s. If I didn’t have to worry about sales at all, I would do some of the women’s styles for men’s.

What’s the mindset behind women’s? Who is your girl?

AO: Our guy is the guy who would shop his grandfather’s closet for funny old styles and for women’s, it’s the girl who is shopping her grandmother’s closet--finding vintage Pringle, vintage Oscar--and then wearing it with her own stuff. She’s feminine but in the way that our guy isn’t hyper-masculine. She’s book smart. Maybe not street smart though. It’s that juxtaposition of something old done in a new way.

What are you most excited about in the collection?

AO: The handknits. We do all our handknits in the same factory as The Row. And all the crochet is done by the same one that does Oscar de la Renta. The handknits have been getting a lot of love. And girls love the knit pants too. People have been going crazy for them.

Besides the very exciting women’s debut what else can we expect from your Fall 2015 show?

SO: Jason Rider is styling.

AO: And we’re moving the show from the Highline to Lincoln Center.

Is it going to be a show or a presentation?

AO: It’s a hybrid, the same format we did last season. We’re not seating people but the models will walk. And then they’ll just kind of hang out. So people can get up and touch the clothes. I think, for the knits, it’s important.

Is the fashion show more important for buyers or for press?

AO: Both. There’s always an uptick from buyers right after the show. I feel like the last two season right after the show we’ll get a bunch of inquiries in sales. But then it’s also a big press thing. Part of the reason it’s a hybrid bc you want people to be able to get up close and instagram it. And take photos and share that.

Does it actually affect sales?

AO: It depends.

MO: I think its going to be a very different thing with women’s press. I still think the way men read and the way men shop is very different. I am expecting to have a different experience with women’s.

SO: I feel like when women see something they’re so much more vocal about wanting that and buying it.

MO: There’s much more of a need.

AO: Yeah, like men don’t pre-order. Men want things that they can have right now. So for the show it’s good for press, good for buyers but it’s not driving client sales on it’s own. I think for women’s it will be different. All of these businesses [in the CFDA Incubator] have a big pre-order business.

SO: Women know, that if they see something they love, they’re still going to want it in six months.

AO: I don’t know what I want to have for dinner, so the idea of knowing what I would want in six months is just crazy to me.

Orley's showroom at the CFDA Incubator. Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

Orley's showroom at the CFDA Incubator. Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

I can totally relate. You guys have so many milestones under your belt already. But what’s next for the brand?

AO: We definitely want to grow the women's collection. This was kind of a toe in the water. But for Resort we’re already growing it and I think the idea is to get the women's to be as big as the men’s pretty quickly.

SO: We just recently launched our e-commerce. So we’re excited to see how that grows and how the women’s translates on ecomm too.

Would you ever do a brick-and-mortar store?

SO: That’s definitely in our five year plan

AO: That’s in our three year plan.

Why do you think brick and mortar is still important?

AO: I think at our price point, people want to get up close in real life. It’s so important. Our products are so tactile that to be able to touch them makes it that much more incentivizing to purchase.

SO: Even the people who are shopping our site when they're coming in person, they’re buying full outfits. You’re more inclined in person to buy the head to toe look.

AO: I also think it’s so important for a brand like ours to get the full scope of our world. I think we do that in our office. You come in here, it feels like our house and you want the consumer to have that same experience where they feel like they’re stepping into the Orley universe.

Cover Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images