Wharton graduate Robert Tateossian can be rightly called the king of cufflinks, transforming men’s accessories from an outdated convention to a modern luxury personal brand. Incorporating funky elements like miniature watches, compasses and thermometers into his cufflinks, he imbues James Bond panache to any dress shirt.
As a banker at Merrill Lynch, he began selling cufflinks to Harrods in London, almost by happenstance, after a vacation in Thailand. He credits his international upbringing — being born in Kuwait to Armenian and Palestinian parents and raised in Rome, Italy — for his keen fashion sense.
He spoke with Arabic Knowledge at Wharton about how he created a successful luxury fashion brand, and the challenges that came along with pursuing a start-up in the competitive world of high-end retail.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You started your business in 1990 after working as an investment banker In New York City and the City of London. What experiences from the banking industry translated into creating a successful business in luxury fashion retail?
Robert Tateossian: One of the things you learn in banking is a strict sense of discipline. I think it was incredibly helpful when you start your business on your own and you don’t have to be at your business at a particular time. Having a very rigorous routine being instilled at a very early stage in my career helped me continue a Merrill Lynch way of working even when I started my business. Even in setting the targets and identifying the clients and reviewing the charts. You ask the questions, have you achieved the target or have you not and why not? There’s a certain methodology that goes with analyzing your business. And the [experience of] reading all the documentation and having done business deals gave me the financial and legal acumen I needed when I was developing my business.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What were some of your biggest challenges when you first started out in fashion coming from a financial background?
Tateossian: I’d say the uncertainty and dealing with rejection. You’re starting out with something you believe in but you just don’t know if it’ll be successful. I was focused on a niche — developing cufflinks. There was no certainty I was going to be successful. The second thing is you graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, you’re super confident, you went to an Ivy League, you go to Merrill Lynch, you have a big salary, you fly business class, you have a big office, you have a secretary. And you do things and things happen. You don’t have to deal with rejection. Whereas when you’re starting out with your business, you’re doing cold calls. People say we’re not interested or we don’t think it’s a good idea or no, we don’t need a new product line. I think dealing with rejection was something very fickle. You have to adopt a crocodile skin at the very early stages and once you adopt that, then it becomes easier to deal with the day-to-day negativism you might confront. But you have the positives you receive outweigh the negativism.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: So how long does that period of a start-up last?
Tateossian: Oh goodness me. Rejection — you get on a daily basis [laughing]. But I would say it was a good 10 solid years of uncertainty, of not knowing whether things would take off or not. You’re dealing with an industry that’s highly volatile. You’re dealing with products that are luxury products, not a basic necessity. You don’t need to buy a new pair of cufflinks or a new piece of jewellery. It’s a desire that you create. As your business develops and your overhead expands, you have that uncertainty on a daily basis. Yes, it was about ten years before I felt a lot more comfortable that this is really going the right way.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What advice would you give to other budding entrepreneurs?
Tateossian: I think there are a couple of things. But the most important thing is the perseverance factor in the sense you will face a lot of negativism and you will face a lot of rejection. You cannot let yourself get down. You have to charge up again and continue and really believe in what you’re planning to do.
I also believe if you’re going to start something, you need to have a point of difference from what’s out there. There’s no point in coming up with just another cufflink brand for the sake of doing cufflinks. You need to have something that’s unique and something that people will want. You have to really think, "What makes me special."
Lastly I think the reason I was successful doing what I do is because I concentrated on a niche. I didn’t try to tackle, for example, the entire jewellery business. I did something very specific, and my objective was to become the best cufflink maker in the world. From that, we developed into other areas. Initially when we started, we were doing cufflinks. It was just one item and doing millions of permutations. My advice would be to focus on something and become the best you can in that particular niche with a point of difference from everybody else. And make sure you persevere along the way. You’ve got to support it along the way with consistent service with your clients.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How did you develop your love of cufflinks?
Tateossian: As men, there are a few things that you can wear in terms of jewelry. You can wear a watch. I don’t like to wear rings because I find them too fiddly. Cufflinks are the only other way to reflect your mood and add a touch of color to what you’re wearing that particular day. I don’t wear a tie either.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Your cufflinks have some unique, funky, and practical elements to them. Some incorporate watches, thermometers and compasses. How did you come up with such innovative ideas for an accessory seemingly as traditional as cufflinks?
Tateossian: It’s a fun process. If you’re wearing fun cufflinks, people will notice them. If you’re sitting in a meeting, someone will invariably say, "Oh wow, these are cool." That would help break the ice at a formal meeting.
As far as constantly thinking of ideas, I always like gadgets and gizmos. I’m always thinking, "What can we do now that’s fun and reflects what’s going on in technology?" I’m always pushing my suppliers, asking, "How we can do a mobile phone [in a cufflink]?" Or an automatic slot machine or something like that. Well, the technology is not there yet because the movements are not small enough. I’m working with electronic parts suppliers to come up with things that are technologically advanced. Wristwatches, thermometers and compasses had components that were available in the size of cufflinks. That’s why we included those things. We’re constantly researching for new elements, fun things that are quirky and different. That’s what we’ve become known for.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How did you come up with the idea that cufflinks could also be fashion accessories, continuously updated in a wardrobe?
Tateossian: It was a very difficult process to convince a buyer of a department store or a boutique that cufflinks could be a fashion accessory, as well as an heirloom. If you walked into a department store 20 years ago, whether it was a Harrods, Harvey Nichols or Saks, there were probably six pairs of cufflinks on display. If you walked into a boutique, there might be only one pair of cufflinks if that. It was a very gradual process of talking to the buyers and explaining to them. Buyers were only thinking one way. While in a small case, you could have an assortment of cufflinks that would change with every season exactly like their assortment for ties. When a customer walks into the door and wants to update his wardrobe, there’s no reason why that salesperson can’t go that person and say this is the shirt, here is the tie, and here are the cufflinks that go with the tie. There’s no reason a customer can’t buy multiple cufflinks at the same time they’re buying multiple ties and multiple shirts.
It was an education process, first starting with buyers for the department stores, trickling down to the salesperson. Until today, we do training sessions in stores around the world for salespeople, telling them not to be afraid to sell multiple cufflinks, to think of cufflinks as a fashion accessory that changes with every season. We come up with two collections a year following the fashion cycle. We have over 100 new designs every season. Every season, just like clothing, we have a new collection. And it’s working.
I was just in Japan doing a trunk show. A Japanese guy was trying different cufflinks I put out in the case. We put out ten of them, and the next thing I know, he said, "Yes, OK, I’m buying all ten of them." The idea does work. The blue cufflink goes with a white shirt and a blue tie. The lilac one goes with a purple tie. The black one goes with a grey suit. The one with all the diamonds, you can wear with your tuxedo. You create a desire for a cufflink for each particular occasion. It takes a long time. And when it comes to heirlooms, you’ve got the valuable cufflinks, those made of gold, which get passed down. There’s no reason the funky or lower-priced ones shouldn’t get passed down as heirlooms as well.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Can you tell us the story of how you first started selling your collection?
Tateossian: It’s the classic story of a salesperson. You pack the collection in a suitcase. You find out who the retailers are in a particular city. You get on a plane. You call the stores and make an appointment. If you don’t get an appointment, you actually stop by with the collection and ask to see someone. That’s exactly what I did. I packed a collection, went to Tokyo. It was a friend of mine who was actually going there on business. My father was working in the airlines so I was able to fly first class for free. It was Pakistan International Airlines. I remember specifically, I had to go via Karachi to go to Tokyo. I didn’t have to pay for a hotel because my friend was there on business. I made all these appointments with stores and I came out of there at the end of the trip, with US$20,000 worth of orders for cufflinks.
I started doing the same thing with [other destinations like] New York. The good thing about cufflinks is you don’t need a lot of space. You can pack a couple hundred pairs in a small suitcase and get on a plane and start knocking on doors. That really helped me a great deal early on.
Aside from that, there are lots of trade shows that specialize in men’s accessories and menswear. We still do participate in a lot of those shows as well. There are buyers from international boutiques. There are shows in Florence, Cologne and New York. There’s about one show a month.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: I understand Harrods was your first customer?
Tateossian: Yes, they were. The first collection I sold to them was not a collection I had actually designed. They were cufflinks I purchased on a trip to Thailand. I saw these cufflinks and thought they liked very nice. I bought them and sold them to Harrods. They really liked them and they sold out quite quickly. The buyer called me up and asked, "Can I have some more?" My immediate reaction was one of complete panic because I didn’t have anything to show.
That’s when I contacted a master jeweler to help me with some goldsmithing. And that’s what kick-started the whole design process in the U.K. I was actually surprised at the time because I didn’t think the cufflinks would sell out in such a short period.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: So you were in banking at the time of your holiday and the buyer called you up?
Tateossian: Yes, it was actually three months later. While I was at Merrill Lynch, I went on vacation in Thailand. I visited a silversmithing factory and a silk weaving factory. That’s one of the things you do when you’re in Thailand. While I was at one of these factories, I bought a box of 100 pairs of cufflinks. They were super cheap, like a couple of dollars a cufflink. And I thought, these will pay for my trip. That’s kind of what happened. When I came back, I thought about whom could I sell these to. So I picked up the phone and called up the buyer. The buyer saw them and said "These look great, I’ll buy the whole lot." That’s really how it started. It was purely by accident. It was not premeditated at all. Immediately after, I thought maybe I could start doing something with this.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Harrods still remains one of your most loyal customers. What are some key points to keep in mind to retain client and customer loyalty?
Tateossian: You have to understand the customer inside out. Because the performance of your customer doesn’t really just depend on what the buyer wants. You’ve got different levels to deal with. You’ve got product and how it’s displayed on the shop floor. You’ve got salespeople. You’ve got to work with the customer and help them at all those levels.
The buyer might buy the collection and it might sell out, which is great. If it sells out too quickly, you’re not maximizing the potential of the brand within the store. You might be understocked.
You need to analyze the numbers of your clients at all times. So we receive reports from our customers on a regular basis. We look at the numbers on a weekly basis. We propose orders that have sold out. In a way, you have to take possession of the business as if it’s your own store. If something doesn’t sell, you have to actually let the buyer know you’ll take it back.
You have to show flexibility and understanding. And you have to help the buyer with the sales staff. Even though it’s not our store, we’ll go into the stores and do staff training. We’ll merchandize the products for our customers.
You never take the customer for granted. Because the minute you become despondent, that’s when things start crumbling. You have to build loyalty with your customers at all levels, starting from the salesperson to the CEO. Somewhere along the line, the buyer might be there for one year or 10 years. You have to establish good relationships all along the line so you’re not kicked out.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: I understand you speak several languages. Is that right?
Tateossian: Yes, just because I was moving around so much. In Rome, you speak Italian. We also went to the French schools. The problem with the Italian schools was they were always on strike. The American school at the time was well known for drugs. When I came to the U.S., I wanted to learn a foreign language and already spoke French and Italian so I decided to pick up German in high school. My parents also have an apartment in Spain and we used to go there for the summer. When I started working for Merrill Lynch, I was covering Portugal as one of my territories so that’s why I learned Portuguese. The language I really want to learn now is Japanese. I’ve been to Japan around 70 times so that’s the language I want to pick up next when I have the time. And of course, Arabic is my mother tongue.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: I read you used to escort your parents’ friends from Kuwait around Italian boutiques when you were going to school in Rome. You were also the translator for them. What did you learn from that experience?
Tateossian: It’s kind of unusual for a 10-year-old kid running around Gucci and Prada instead of playing at a playground. They were friends of my parents from Kuwait back in the early 70s, when Kuwait was still not very exposed. They barely spoke English, never mind Italian. My parents asked me to take them around and you do what your parents asked you to do. It also gave me exposure to fashion at a very young age. I don’t think many 10-year-olds were negotiating discounts at the Gucci store in Rome. And being Kuwaiti, they always wanted a discount for buying 10 pairs of shoes or whatever they wanted to buy. It was interesting. It gave me a very different perspective very early on. It definitely gave me an eye for fashion from a young age.