As anyone who’s known me for more than a few years knows, I used to be an entrepreneur. I came up with Facebook before the world’s social network existed: the network of friends you’d have built on the second iteration of TheFence.com would have formed networks of interconnected “fences,” and the question wouldn’t have been “how many Facebook friends do you have?” — it would have been “how long is your fence?” Unfortunately I ran out of money for that one.
A few years later I came up with Betcha.com — basically an Ebay for bets. As I’ve detailed in this space at length, I ran out of luck on that one (or, more accurately, I never had any). Someday, someone’s going to get very rich when they launch their rip-off of Betcha.com. Maybe not Mark Zuckerberg rich, but they’ll have more than a few yachts to water ski behind.
As a guy who almost made it, I find it too painful to follow the entrepreneur/start-up scene these days. And while I don’t root against the little guy, I don’t care enough to root for him, either. That’s called envy.
Recently, however, I discovered a company that captured my attention, my affinity and, ultimately, my business. The company is called Alial Fital and, until a link to its website ended up in my Facebook margin, I’d never heard of it. AF makes polo shirts. Not just ordinary polo shirts. With designs that called to mind both Saville Row and Magnolia Lane, AF polos were the coolest polos I’d ever seen.. And when I saw that PGA Tour player Bo Van Pelt was wearing them on Tour — well, I had to take a closer look.
I’m a guy who’s into golf, style and golf style (1I2I3), so I was quite intrigued. And the more I read the more I liked. AF was founded by — and is apparently run by — Gibran Hamdan, a thirty-something dude who bounced around both the NFL and CFL in an earlier life. I don’t know Mr. Hamdan, who sounds like a bit of a renaissance man, but suffice it to say he was doing a lot I liked. On the product side, AF was producing polos unlike the world had ever seen. Their unique contrasting collars and plackets — gingham checked, striped and the like — made them quite distinctive, not easy for a polo shirt. AF was zigging while the big boys were zagging: whereas the Nikes (more) and Pumas of the world were (and still are) producing lowest-common-denominator pieces that look like they belong in a Central American outlet mall (example), AF was producing seriously stylish pieces that would fly off the rack in the Nordstrom men’s department. And AF was getting rave reviews in the blogosphere (1I2) — not an insignificant matter given that one of the bloggers was Mike McAllister, a golf clothing writer for whom I have great respect.
As much as I was impressed by the AF product, I liked the company’s presentation even more. Whereas many start-up companies represent themselves as being bigger than they are, AF seemed to embrace its smallness. Take a look at the AF blog and it’s hard to imagine the company is much more than a handful of guys in a Minneapolis office. I appreciated its transparency and honesty: like me, they agree with the ol’ saying that you should never pretend to be something you’re not. Its website was better than Playboy for a clothes horse like me — the lookbook at the bottom of this page being its centerfold proxy. Most importantly, AF is doing all this with a sense of humility. Unlike, say, the guy at Iliac Golf, a company I want to like but just can’t, AF’s website and Facebook posts are light on references to “I,” something I very much like in people and companies.
Despite my affinity I could not pull the trigger. Most polos were listed at $85, quite a dig into a not-very-deep pocket. ($85 is a lot better than $245, which is what Iliac is asking for one of its limited editions shirts.) And every time I had enough spirits in me to pull the trigger, the shirt I wanted was unavailable in my size — the always elusive “Large.” That was understandable given that AF only produces one hundred shirts of each style, but that didn’t make it any less frustrating.
Last week, however, AF introduced some new polos and I finally pulled the trigger. On four shirts.
When Santa Claus — er, the mailman — finally arrived, I wasn’t disappointed.
My shirts arrived in a box that looked like it was made of alligator skin. Accompanying my shirts was a hand-written thank you note from Mr. Hamdan himself. Even better than the packaging where the shirts themselves. “Very dope” is about the right phrase. To paraphrase Mr. McAllister, AF’s microfiber shirts are an outstanding combination of feel, craftsmanship, style, technology and innovation. Suffice it to say that when I wear these polos out I’ll have the nicest shirt in the place, whether that’s a country club grill room, airplane cabin or backyard barbecue. And because the side splits are detailed to match the collars, they’ll look good either tucked or untucked. These AF’s will immediately go into my starting lineup — and with 150+ polos in my closet (including 40+ from Greenspan Cup and 30+ Tiger rapidly-aging Tiger shirts [more]), that’s no small achievement.
My guess is that AF will go a long way — if it wants to. The company seems to have the marketing element figured out: its Facebook/Twitters feeds are always outstanding, and the less-than-two-year-old company already provides shirts for pro athletes like Van Pelt, Larry Fitzgerald (NFL), Brandon Weeden (NFL) and Tristan Herbert (auto racing). (Van Pelt is wearing AF (tucked) on the PGA Tour: his U.S. Open polo narrowly edged the Eagle shirt from Quagmire’s Arnie line (see the first pic of me at Turnberry in this set) for Golf Shirt of the Year in the Jenkins household. Fitzgerald has designed a few shirts for AF: the Arizona Cardinal star is wearing AF (untucked) in Italy.) It’ll have to figure out its distribution — you can only get so rich selling individual polos online — but that’s an easy problem to solve. It’ll have to expand beyond polos –again, easy enough. It’ll have to figure out how to get its price points down — a tougher task if it continues to remain just a manufacturer and continues to do its manufacturing in the United States. And it will have to bridge the brand gap from style to lifestyle, something that apparel brands must do to make it big (most recently Travis Mathew). If its execution to date is any indication, that, too, will be a gap it has no problem bridging.
Regardless of what direction AF goes, I count myself as a new, loyal and enthusiastic customer. A bunch of good guys making outstanding, cutting edge products — well-made clothes for well-dressed men. It’s a vision I appreciate pursued by a company I can happily root for.
Next in my lineup — AF’s Ryder Cup sweetness. I’ve seen a sneak peak, and it did not disappoint.