Robert Talbott Inc.
Robert Talbott Inc.
Incorporated: 1950 as Robert Talbott Tie Company
Sales: $50 million (2005 est.)
NAIC: 315993 Men’s and Boys’ Neckwear Manufacturing; Men’s and Boys’ Cut and Sew Shirt (Except Work Shirt) Manufacturing; 315232 Women’s and Girls’ Cut and Sew Blouse and Shirt Manufacturing; 315239 Women’s and Girls’ Cut and Sew Other Outerwear Manufacturing
Headquartered in Monterey, California, Robert Talbott Inc. is best known for its line of expensive men’s handmade silk neckwear, including limited edition, hand-signed Seven Fold neckties made from a single sheet of silk without resorting to an inner lining or ironing; the Estate line of neckties, featuring individually woven tipping, external slipstitch, and a handwoven loop label; and the Best of Class collection of relatively less-expensive neckties. Other Talbott menswear lines added over the years include high-quality sport, dress, and formal shirts; a sportswear collection of shirts, sweaters, and knits; formal wear; shearling leather jackets; and such accessories as bow ties, vests, pocket squares, cuff links, and belts. The company also offers the Audrey Talbott line of women’s shirts, sweaters, handbags, scarves, and belts. Talbott products are sold at upscale department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom, specialty menswear stores, and four company-owned stores in Carmel and Pebble Beach, California; Dallas, Texas; and New York City. Also part of the company is Talbott Vineyards, based in Carmel Valley, California, and known for its pricey pinot noirs and Chardonnay. Talbott is owned by Robert S. Talbott, son of the company’s founders: Robert F. Talbott and his wife Audrey.
WORLD WAR II BRINGS FOUNDERS TOGETHER
Robert F. Talbott, Sr., was born in Grenfell, Iowa, in 1905. After receiving a degree from Grenfell College he continued his education at Harvard Business School, earning an M.B.A. in 1931. After working in a number of positions around the country he settled in New York City in 1939 and began working his way up through the ranks at Bankers Security Life Insurance Co. Like many people, his life would take a detour after the United States entered World War II in 1941, and he took a job in the government. During the war he was contacted by the wife of a friend whose B-17 bomber had been shot down. Desperate to receive confirmation of his death, she asked Talbott to use his contacts in the military. He was able to inform her that indeed her husband had perished. A relationship was then forged out of this tragedy, leading to the marriage of Robert and Audrey Talbott in June 1945 in New York City. Fifteen years his junior, she was born Audrey Sharpe in Boston. She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and worked in New York as a model and a buyer for Cleveland-based Halle Brothers.
After their marriage, Robert and Audrey Talbott began to raise a family in Connecticut, first a daughter named Heather, then a son, Robert, Jr. It was an idyllic life for this upper-middle-class family. Robert continued to further his career at Bankers Security, becoming an executive vice-president, while Audrey raised the children and handcrafted silk neckties for her husband, occasionally producing them for friends as well at Christmas time. However, once again Robert and Audrey Talbott were visited by tragedy. In 1950 three-year-old Heather died of a brain tumor, and the couple was so devastated they were no longer able to bear life in Connecticut. Robert quit his job, they packed a Ford station wagon, and traveled to the other side of the country to the seaside town of Carmel, California, the site of the couple’s honeymoon, to begin life afresh with their two-year-old son.
The Talbotts decided to start their own business, taking advantage of Audrey’s ability to design appealing silk ties. For their target market they chose fashion-conscious, well-heeled men, willing and able to pay a premium price for exquisitely handcrafted silk neckwear. It was a narrow niche in deed, but a profitable one. A spare room in their home was set aside as a workshop, where Audrey began to design and sew bow ties, their only product for the first three years. Once a week Robert packed her output into the back of the station wagon and charmed haberdashery owners up and down the West Coast into carrying the ties, which retailed for $3.50 at a time when bow ties generally cost $2.50. Nevertheless, the ties found enough of a market to allow the Talbotts to expand the operations to a two-car garage adjacent to their home and begin hiring the wives of fishermen to sew the ties. Audrey began to travel the world in pursuit of the finest silks and colors that would make her neckwear distinctive. For the most part, however, she preferred to remain in the background and have her husband serve as the public face of the company, which also took his name, the Robert Talbott Tie Company.
FIRST SHOP OPENS: 1953
After three years, Talbott added a second product, four-in-hands, or long neckties. In 1958 the business was established enough that under Audrey’s direction the couple opened the first Robert Talbott shop in Carmel on Ocean Avenue. A decade passed before a second shop was opened in Pebble Beach in 1968. While the company had cultivated a following for handcrafted neckwear, it struggled to grow because very few men were willing to pay high prices for a tie. That would change in the late 1960s when designer Ralph Lauren created a sensation by combining unusual fabrics with five-inch-wide neckties, rather than the standard three inches. He charged a high price for his Polo branded neckwear, and in the process broke down price resistance for other high-end tie makers like Talbott.
After nearly 20 years of effort, Talbott finally reached the $1 million mark in annual sales in 1969. However, after Ralph Lauren changed the playing field, Talbott doubled that amount to $2 million just four years later. In the meantime, the company moved into a new 60,000-square-foot facility in Monterey, California, in 1972. Steady growth continued over the course of the decade, and by the start of the 1980s Talbott found itself at a crossroads: demand for its ties outstripped the capacity to produce them by hand. Rather than automate production and jeopardize the company’s reputation for craftsmanship, the Talbotts decided to limit both production and the quantity of each season’s output that retailers received. At the same time they sought to boost production by hiring more skilled personnel and adding incentives for the number of pieces workers turned out without defect.
The same tone set by Robert Talbott in 1950 continues to guide the company today. “If you want to be number one in your industry, you must set the pace, you must create the finest product, and you must be number one in serving your customers. You must also be number one in your ability to create a loyal and motivated group of employees.”
While Talbott was not willing to compromise on handmade production, it eagerly embraced technology to improve the business in other areas. Accounting and management information was computerized in the early 1980s. The state-of-the-art, German-made Pederson die cutting machine was added to the operation in the mid-1980s to cut interlinings with a precision that was impossible to achieve through hand cutting. Moreover, the machine could adjust to the six different widths the company offered in its ties. Talbott also used technology to affix the embossed Robert Talbott logo to silk shells by use of a tipping device. Then, in the late 1980s, the company began tracking inventory, production, compensation, and other factors using bar-coded tags scanned by light wands.
Introducing new technology to a workforce inherently opposed to it did not come without a struggle, however. A machine that had been developed to sew the closure at the back of a necktie, which greatly shortened the finishing process without compromising quality, was installed on the production floor, but almost every day the machine needed to be repaired. Finally one of the company’s longtime seamstresses was discovered to have been taking a ball-peen hammer to the machine after-hours.
Aside from introducing new technology, Talbott added new product lines. In 1980 the “Best of Class” neckware collection was launched. Then, in 1986, Talbot introduced its seven-fold necktie. According to the trade publication Bobbin, “The seven fold name stems from its architecture. Instead of a separate lining, the silk is carefully hand folded into itself seven different times. At strategic folds, the narrowing, single piece of silk fabric, once nearly the size of a woman’s blouse, is slip stitched and hand sewn. When finished, the several overlaid silk folds will create an all-silk, self-lining.” About 50 years earlier all of the finest European neckwear relied on this process, but it was simply too time-consuming and expensive and was dropped. Talbott revived the practice, hiring Lydia Grayson, more than 70 years old, who had been making seven-folds since the late 1920s, to assemble a small production team. Because Talbott products were able to command a retail price starting at around $135, seven-folds became profitable once again.
Talbott also became involved in wine making in the 1980s. The Talbotts had always made wine a part of their evening meals, and on buying trips to Europe over the years, they took time out to visit some of the best French and Italian vineyards. It was not surprising that their son, Robb, who often accompanied them, would also develop an affection for wine. After receiving a degree in fine art from Colorado College, Robb began working for the family business in 1972 and developed a piece of property high above the Carmel Valley floor, which would eventually take the name Diamond T Estate. Here in 1982 he and his father planted grapes on a 24-acre plot and began designing a winery the family company would build in Carmel Valley. The commitment to the highest standards of quality in the making of ties was carried over to Talbott Vineyards. The first vintage was produced in 1983, and Robb oversaw the new business.
AUDREY TALBOTT HEADS COMPANY: 1986
In June 1986 Robert Talbott died at the age of 80. Because Robb was focused on the young vineyard, Audrey replaced her husband as chief executive officer. “When I lost my husband,” she told the fashion industry’s Daily News Record, “I was left with the choice of taking over, or disposing of the business, and there was no way I could do that.” Like her husband she was committed to the company controlling its own destiny as much as possible, and so she continued to refuse to license the Robert Talbott name. Despite being shy and more than willing to working in the background for 36 years, she stepped forward to further the company’s growth.
- Robert Talbott Tie Company founded by Robert and Audrey Talbott.
- First Shop opens in Carmel, California.
- Pebble Beach, California, shop opens.
- Robert Talbott Vineyards founded.
- Robert Talbott dies.
- Shirts introduced.
- New York City showcase store opens.
- Audrey Talbott women’s line launched.
- Founder Audrey Talbott dies.
In the late 1980s Talbott expanded beyond neckwear and introduced its line of shirts. The first task was to develop what it considered the world’s finest shirt. While hashing out the fabric decisions and all design details, the company also scouted for shirt companies capable of producing the item to Talbott’s high level of quality. It settled on Lucerne Shirt Company, a Houston, Texas-based company that made shirts for upscale department stores such as Bergdorf Goodman and Nordstrom. In 1989 Talbott bought the company. Only when all the pieces were in place did Talbott even begin to consider what might be the retail prices for the line. In the end, prices ranged from $75 to $300 for the company’s top-of-the-line shirt. With manufacturing being done in Houston, Robert Talbott handmade shirts hit the market in 1990. The Euro-inspired Studio Shirt collection was then introduced followed by the 1991 launch of formal shirts. The Lucerne manufacturing operations were later moved to the California facility, where the company could better oversee quality control.
The addition of shirts proved to be a wise move because neckwear production peaked in 1992. The additional line also helped Talbott fill the shelves of its new 650-square-foot store in New York City, a long-held dream of the Talbotts. The shop opened in June 1992 at 680 Madison Avenue in Manhattan. In addition to bringing in retail sales, it was intended to serve as a showcase in the all-important New York market and spur wholesale sales as well.
With demand rising for Robert Talbott—labeled shirts and neckwear, the company grew desperate for more storage space. To meet that need a new 15,000-square-foot warehouse opened next to the main facility in Monterey in November 1994, replacing a leased warehouse in Seaside, California. Some of that extra space would be used to accommodate a new sport shirt line, originally labeled Omaggio by Robert Talbott. An old Italian word, Omaggio suggested a gift fit for a king. The company also sold ties made in Italy under the Omaggio label, but after about five years the Omaggio name was phased out.
Another line of sport shirts was developed in the late 1990s and unveiled in 2000 under the Estate by Robert Talbott label. The line also offered the company’s first sweaters. In 2002 the company branched into women’s wear, launching the Audrey Talbott line of women’s shirts and shearling outerwear, which proved highly successful. During the early years of the new century, the company also added men’s belts and cufflinks, and scarves, sweaters, belts, and handbags for women. Another retail outlet was added to carry the company’s expanded offerings, opening in Dallas, Texas.
Audrey Talbott, known simply as Mrs. T to friends and employees, died in September 2004 at the age of 85 after more than half a century of involvement with Talbott. Although her son, Robb, became the company’s sole shareholder, he did not assume the chief executive officer position. In his mid-50s he was content to run Robert Talbott Vineyards and turn over the day-to-day responsibilities of the apparel company to someone else. He took his time in restructuring his management team, and finally in July 2006 named longtime board member Jerome Politzer as the company’s new CEO. Politzer in turn hired Richard Cohen, a seasoned executive with Zenga and St. John Knits, to serve as a consultant. A rebranding effort was then developed, set to be unveiled with the spring 2008 launch of a car- and golf-inspired lifestyle sportswear collection. The new goal was to appeal to a younger customer, 35 to 55 years of age, instead of the 40- to 65-year-old executive or professional that had been the core market for well over 50 years.
Robert Talbott Vineyards.
Brioni; Ciro Paone S.p.A.; Ermenegildo Zegna Holditalia S.p.A.
Askin, Ellen, “Audrey Talbott; She Turned a Home-Sewn Bow-Tie Operations into a $35 Million Accessories Empire,” Daily News Record, December 31, 2001, p. 80.
_____, “Lady of the House,” Daily News Record, July 9, 2001, p. 24.
_____, “Remembering Audrey Talbott,” Daily News Record, September 13, 2004, p. 1.
Edwards, Owen, “Bow Tech,” Forbes, June 3, 1996, p. 54.
Gellers, Stan, “A Taste of Wine,” Daily News Record, February 12, 2007, p. 74.
Haddix, Dar, “Talbott: The Pursuit of Luxury,” UPI Perspectives, December 2, 2004.
Palmieri, Jean E., “Talbott’s Hands-On Style,” Daily News Record, May 31, 2004, p. 16.
“Robert F. Talbott,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 19, 1986, p. 33.
Stinson, Andy, “Talbott Ties Up Its Market,” Bobbin, December 1991, p. 85.
"Robert Talbott Inc.." International Directory of Company Histories. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/robert-talbott-inc
"Robert Talbott Inc.." International Directory of Company Histories. . Retrieved January 23, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/robert-talbott-inc
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