Southern gentleman. English rake. Paul Trible is the consummate man about town. Designer and co-founder of Richmond-based Ledbury, Trible draws on his transatlantic roots to make the ultimate refined-yet-modern shirt. Read about how that happens after the jump.

Gear Patrol: Five things you can’t live without.

Paul Trible: Family, friends, good music, travel, shirts.

GP: You’ve had a tempestuous relationship with finance. Tell me a bit about it.

PT: Absolutely. It’s been an interesting one. Originally when I graduated from university, I almost went to law school, but ended up not doing that last second when I got involved with a non-profit called Operation Smile. Later I went to business school and got involved with some finance work through that. Anyways, I graduated from business school literally the day before Lehman brothers went down. So we were all a little bit panicked, and the job I had in finance disappeared very quickly, as it did for about 20,000 other people who were in London. At that point, the finance career evaporated in front of me, at least for the time being. But that gave me a chance to say, “What’s next?” and that’s how we ended up stumbling upon the shirt business.

GP: And the Financial Times?

PT: It was great! We were very lucky to be seen by the Financial Times right as we were getting the business off the ground. They liked the story because we were going into finance, but ended up getting out and getting involved with shirt making. So they profiled us on what they call a Business Diary story, which they come out with each week. The week before us it was the president of one of the largest banks in England, and the week after us it was Alibaba, which is one of the largest private companies in China. And for some reason a shirt maker in Virginia was chosen. So it was great – the day it came out, I ran out to grocery store in Richmond to pick it up. That was during the first year of the business, when we were really struggling to put food on table. So I got my coffee and I got my paper, and when I opened it up, there we were next to a story about the collapse of the Euro. There was a full, pretty robust column about Ledbury.

I got up to the cash register and tried to use my debit card, but it was denied and my credit card was already maxed out. So I had to put back the coffee and take just the paper – that’s the harsh reality of financial sacrifices you make, starting a small business. But an entertaining story…

Before we started the business… I was interviewing at the time, but I basically stopped one day and went to the guy who was making my shirts, Robert Emmett, who was the last guy to design and make his own collection on Jermyn St. Anyways, I walked into his office, told him my story, about how I wanted to become a shirt maker and run my own business, and he looked at me like I was crazy.

GP: We’ve heard you like to watch Morning Joe also, and recently got a shout out on the show.

PT: Ya, I watch the show on MSNBC in the morning before going in to work, and as it turns out, they’ve become fans of our shirts. I turned it on last week and [Joe Scarborough] was talking about the 2008 financial crisis and wearing a Red Parker Gingham. It’s sort of ironic, because the 2008 financial crisis is really what ended up taking us down the path to shirt making.

So our relationship to finance is definitely an interesting one. In 2007, in business school, everyone was really trying to head in that direction. But really, the crisis ended up being a blessing for us in a way. It gave us the opportunity to say to our selves, “What do we want to do with our lives?” I was sitting with my business partner in a pub in London, and we said, “If we could do anything in the world, what would it be?” I think the first one would probably be music, but without musical talent I had to check that off the list, and the second was getting into clothes – shirt making in particular. And that led to starting Ledbury.

GP: What kind of music are you into?

PT: Oh it’s a wide range for sure. This last week on Thursday I saw a great reggae band play, then went to a Dixieland-style rock band afterwards. I listen to a lot of bluegrass, being from Virginia. And then a lot of new music that has been coming out in the last five years as well.

GP: You left the finance industry itself, but it seems like your customer is still that guy who wants to look sharp but not prudish. The modern man who might be in an industry like finance – somewhere where he has to look presentable, but also feel good. Do you design with that guy in mind?

PT: We’re very focused on fit and quality, which are the main two mantras in the business. I think we have a very classic style, but we try to update that with things like fit, color, maybe a little bit of pattern. We try to make really great classic menswear that men can wear in really any setting they find themselves in. What we’re also trying to do is on the quality side, you know, using Italian fabrics, using mother of pearl buttons… all within that accessible price point. We want people who wear traditional menswear to be able to pick up Ledbury shirt and wear that as well.

So there’s not really a particular guy in mind, but it’s just what most guys are looking for, you know, shirts that feel great, that look great, and are going to last a long time. We try to present that in a modern way.

GP: How did you decide on the name Ledbury?

PT: It came pretty easily, actually. After the financial market collapsed and we decided what we wanted to be doing, both Paul and I were living in the same part of London. We would meet at this pub on Ledbury road during the day and essentially try and figure out our next plan. One thing we got really excited about was the idea of the ‘great American shirtmaker’ who focused on fit and quality. My business partner is from New Orleans, but we’d always come back to living in London, where we had access to Savile Row and Jermyn Street. We had trouble finding a shirt that represented a certain quality – it was either big box retail or a small specialty men’s store, where it was too expensive or there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on fit.

Before we started the business… I was interviewing at the time, but I basically stopped one day and went to the guy who was making my shirts, Robert Emmett, who was the last guy to design and make his own collection on Jermyn St. Anyways, I walked into his office, told him my story, about how I wanted to become a shirt maker and run my own business, and he looked at me like I was crazy.

But it turned out that we lived in the same area of London, and went to the same local pub. So we ended up meeting for a drink at the pub, and met three Sundays in a row, and he finally said, yes, you can come learn the business with me. He offered me a sort of internship or apprenticeship. I spent 9 months learning the design business, and decided that this is what I want to do. I loved learning the textiles and cuts and what went into making a great shirt. Then I went to my business partner Paul Watson and said, “Would you like to come on as the operational and business side of it?” So what we would do is work with this tailor during the day, and at night, sit at the back of the pub and put together plans to figure out how we were going to turn this funny little idea into a business.

So the name Ledbury started out as a place marker but over time it took on the ethos of the company and became our name.

We’re pretty obsessed with fabrics and the role they play in making a great shirt. We use Italian-woven fabrics. We’re focused on what fabrics are right in what setting. You know, for our summer collection – we’re down in Virginia where it gets to be 100 degrees – you need to put on a summer shirt made of really breezy fabric.

GP: So there were never other ideas on the table?

PT: Well, there were a few. You know, both our names are Paul, so maybe there was something we could do with that. Or should it be something that talked more about where we’re from and our background? But really, once we said Ledbury, it had so much personal value to it, and so many memories of the early days, of getting this business off the ground, that it just felt right.

GP: Ok, so what’s with all the Pauls?

PT: [Laughs] As you know, Paul Watson is my business partner, but the fourth employee we brought on as a web developer is named Paul as well. It gets pretty confusing in the office.

In fact, when we moved back to Richmond from London, I was dating a girl with the same name as Paul Watson’s wife. It made dinner conversation nearly impossible – it was sort of like a bad Abbot & Costello skit. Lots of Pauls around the office, but it seems to be working out so far.

GP: How would you describe the aesthetic?

PT: For us, it’s all about quality and fit – that’s first and foremost, instead of a brand or a style. It’s about what makes the shirts different. As you’ve seen, we use less fabric in the waist than the torso and get a more tailored cut without having to go to a fully custom shirt. We’ve done some things with the collar that helps it stay standing. We’ve lowered second button, which is not revolutionary at all, but people seem to enjoy. We’re pretty obsessed with fabrics and the role they play in making a great shirt. We use Italian-woven fabrics. We’re focused on what fabrics are right in what setting. You know, for our summer collection – we’re down in Virginia where it gets to be 100 degrees – you need to put on a summer shirt made of really breezy fabric. I think from a style standpoint, it’s a bit of a mixture of us growing up in the South and then spending our time in England. It’s a very classic style – there is a tradition of personal style in the South, which is similar to that of England. People in Richmond dress very much like those in Surrey, but the difference is in the fit, and that’s where we come in.

GP: So Ledbury is infused with British roots and those from the south.

PT: Ya, I think it is. For spring this year we did some plaids that remind me of things my grandfather would wear at family reunions 15 or 20 years ago. We showed those right next to some big spread collars like you wear in England, in bolder gingham patterns. It’s really a mixture of two different styles – you have a casual southern aesthetic paired with a more formal, classic, tailored British look.

GP: Describe to us your studio and your creative process.

PT: For the studio, we’re based in a building in downtown Richmond that used to be an old tobacco warehouse and which was built in1866, right after the civil war. The front area is a show room, and the back is our design studio. The design process, for us, starts once or twice a year when we head over to Paris for a huge textile fair, and we’ll meet with our fabric suppliers and start selecting fabrics for the next 6 month period. We’ll bring those back here and start going through swatch cards, after which we really start the shirt sampling process. For the next year, we’ll sample about 100 shirts, and out of that, possibly make 30. That process is really ongoing – we’re back and forth to factory, you know, the tailor here, and we’ll constantly be making alterations to the cuffs, collars, some of the patterns and a bit to the cut. If you look at the design studio where I’m sitting right now, we’ve got every single fabric that we’re sampling between now and the end of spring 2012 plastered all over a 15-foot brick wall. It’s constantly in motion, and we’re constantly making new things.

GP: How hands-on do you get, working with the tailor?

PT: It’s really hands on. I make every decision, as far as every fabric we use, every cut, and every change. The stuff that we’re designing and the fabrics we’re using reflect our personal needs and personal style. For example, we recently made a tuxedo shirt, and a lot of the detail behind that came from the fact that I was invited to 12 weddings through the course of this year. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a tuxedo shirt that we really liked, so we made alterations to the traditional tux. We also made a moleskin hunting shirt last year. That came from me being down on the farm where I grew up, and wanting a hunting shirt for fall. So every part of our design, whether it’s the inspiration or really getting in there and deciding the exact fabric and cut, is really hands on.

GP: Do you have one standard Ledbury fit, or does it change each season?

PT: We do. We have a set core of about 20 shirts that people are responding well to. For each of those, we have two fits – the classic, which will really fit a man of any shape or size. And then we have our slim cut, which is obviously more tailored. As far as our sizing, we don’t do Small Medium Large, but focus on getting things by the centimeter and inch.

So I hope that what people really like is the fact that we’ve nailed their size, but offer some more creative stuff outside the core collection. People can take the risk and get a different shirt, whether it’s a moleskin or a cotton cashmere or a hunting shirt or a plaid, but they’re still going to get the great fit that they are used to.

We’re gearing up to do more in the way of shirts that get put out on a regular basis. In fact, between September and January of this year, we’re going to put out a new shirt each week. That’s going to be a small batch, which will give us a chance to do some more creative things. We’ll work with different fabrics or colors and really test things out, which will let people experience a different side of things than the core business shirt. For example, linen will be coming out at the end of the summer, then denim, flannel, and cotton cashmere later in the fall. We want to constantly be doing these things.

GP: Ledbury has rocketed upwards since it’s founding in 2009. Where do you see it going in the future? Is it those creative weekly installments, or will you expand into other types of menswear? What direction is Ledbury heading?

PT: Well our shirts will always be at the core of the business. Early on we decided that we really wanted to be specialists and not come out with a whole collection of clothes. We wanted to learn to do one thing really really well, and that’s what attracted us to shirts. With that being said, if we’re really focused on fit and quality, and that’s what people are responding to, there is some room to do other products in the menswear realm. Right now we’re looking at possibly doing blazers in the future, maybe knits, and of course ties. I think in the fourth quarter of this year we will be doing those…
Another thing we’re doing, which is coming out in the fall as well, is the Commonwealth Collection. What we’ve done is partnered with several local Virginia artisans to come out with collaborations on specialized products. We’re coming out with a belt, from a small belt maker who works on a horse farm out in Charlottesville. We’re going to come out with some great hair-on-hide cufflinks made in Lynchburg. There may be a bag here in the future as well. In the next two years we’re really going to come out with a broader range of menswear.

GP: You recently started a blog – are you going to use that as a vehicle to get these collaborations out there?

PT: A blog is a great way to have conversation with the people involved in the brand. It’s a way to communicate the brand lifestyle. So we will do more.

GP: You just put up a video on your site also. It’s rare to see a designer really describing what he’s all about in an articulate and passionate way. Are you going to be making more of those in the future, or was it a sort of founding mission statement?

PT: No, we’re definitely going to continue. We’re actually making one about the tuxedo shirt soon, and a lot of things with the small batch shirts. It’s great – what we’re seeing now in menswear, particularly online, is companies focusing on the craftsmanship and quality of their product. But once you have a great product, you have to go out there and tell people about it, and what makes these things different. As opposed to walking into a department store and showing off your stuff, now we have a vehicle to say “this is what makes my product different.”

Until now, we’ve focused on really getting the product right rather than the overall Ledbury brand presence. Now, using internet and video and social media, we want to educate the customers about what we’ve done.

GP: The tuxedo shirt, for example, is elegant and refined, but still fresh. It doesn’t feel like a stodgy tux shirt.

PT: The tuxedo shirt is a great example of seeing something and not being happy with it. We tweaked the classic design so that it remains traditional but has some different features. For me, I’m not a big fan of the bib. You know, later in the evening, I like to take the jacket off. If you’re at a good wedding, hopefully you’re on the dance floor, but when you take the jacket off and you have a bib it’s just not a very composed look. We used a beautiful royal twill fabric, which is dressier and ads a bit of rib to the shirt. So it’s formal without having the fluff of the bib. We used removable button bands, so you can use either studs or regular buttons. Another issue for me is that I don’t like wearing a cummerbund – I’d rather wear suspenders or nothing at all. On most tuxedo shirts, the waist button will stick out under the jacket. But for us, we hid it into the placket so you don’t see it. We also took off some of the top placket so the diagonal ribbing goes straight across. So it’s a clean, really comfortable and really light shirt, which solves a lot of the issues we saw with the classic tux shirt.

GP: Any interesting stories?

PT: So many. Well one – early on in the brand, over a year ago, we were toying with the idea of meeting some of the big fashion magazines. GQ was one of them, and it was actually pretty intimidating when we walked into the back area where they have all of the clothes and met with the tailoring editor. We showed her some of our shirts and explained what we were trying to do with the Ledbury line. She looked at the shirts and looked at us and said, “Ok, let me get this straight. You are just two normal guys, selling great, high-quality shirts to other normal guys.” We said, “Ya, that’s pretty much it,” and she said, “I love it!” It’s different than what’s going on in menswear, and it’s a pretty simple thing. It showed us that, especially at this time, it had a place.

It’s great that there’s been such a good response. It’s a pretty crazy time to get a luxury clothing brand off the ground, but people are buying one shirt then coming back in and buying a lot more. So we’ll continue to grow, to get the awareness out there and spread the word.

It’s all a roller coaster, but luckily, if you get a good core product that people are enjoying, you can build from there.

Be sure to check out Ledbury.com for a taste of the brand’s excellent shirts.