At first listen, you might think that Todd Snyder — Iowa’s most successful clothing designer — only speaks in soundbites.
“Halston came from Des Moines.”
“I’ve always known that I can outwork anybody. I learned that from being from Iowa.”
“Work hard and be nice.”
Upon googling every interview Snyder’s given over the last three years, you might find that you’re right.
Maybe the flaw was in the questions, but, of the quotes transcribed from my conversation with Snyder during the grand opening of Iowa City’s Tailgate Clothing Co., almost all of said quotes could be found, nearly verbatim, in write-ups featured in periodicals as varied as the Des Moines Register, the Daily Iowan, GQ, Esquire, Women’s Wear Daily and an Iowa State alumni newsletter. The ubiquity of Snyder’s responses create a problem when trying to convey more about his work than what’s already been declaimed.
Let’s start with the basics. Todd Snyder is kind of a big deal.
If you’re unfamiliar with fashion, the acronym CFDA might not mean anything to you, so a brief primer. The mission of the Council of Fashion Designers of America is “to strengthen the influence and success of American designers in the global economy.” Even being nominated for the CFDA Awards — the highest honor a designer can win — or being a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund — a highly coveted prize for emerging designers that bestows $300,000 and priceless industry mentorship — is a major honor. You might recognize a few of the names on the CFDA board of directors: Diane von Fürstenberg, Michael Kors, Vera Wang, Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren.
Just two years after his eponymous clothing line debuted, Snyder — whose name likely draws a blank for many Iowa natives and transplants — was a finalist for the 2013 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and was nominated for the Swarovski Award for Menswear. Like I said, kind of a big deal. And yet, Tailgate is a long-time side project that might finally bring Snyder’s work the local attention it deserves.
It’s July 17, and the grand opening of Tailgate Clothing Co. is in full swing. The Champions and Moens and Jetts of Iowa City are all present, along with plenty of people whose faces I don’t recognize.
Folks are here for the open bar, for the browsing, for the chance to mingle with a pair of local sons made good and/or maybe even for the appearances of Chuck Long and Dan Gable.
Eventually I am introduced to Nate Kaeding, former UI and NFL football player and current owner of Short’s Burger and Shine. He eventually introduces me to Snyder, the man with whom he has partnered to bring Tailgate Clothing Co. to downtown Iowa City.
“As you well know,” Snyder says, “designers typically have ateliers, even if they don’t acknowledge them.”
An atelier is a workshop where a designer or a brand — like a von Fürstenburg or a Kors, a Banana Republic or an Ann Taylor — has scores of designers working to help an aesthetic vision become reality. After majoring in textile and clothing design at Iowa State and working as a tailor’s assistant at Badowers in Des Moines, Snyder relocated to New York City and got his start working in ateliers for the Gap, J. Crew and Ralph Lauren, before returning to the first two brands as Director of Menswear and Senior Vice President of Menswear, respectively.
One can see the connection between the brands present on Snyder’s resume: Ralph Lauren, J. Crew and the Gap all embody a sort of timeless, well-tailored aesthetic that’s often stereotyped as “country club WASP,” but that has much broader 21st-century appeal. Snyder’s eponymous line takes that aesthetic and refines it in ways that feel more contemporary, luxurious and urbane, thus occupying a much different space on the accessible-to-aspirational continuum than his work with the aforementioned mass market brands. According to the brand’s own Twitter account, one Daniel Radcliffe — yes, that Daniel Radcliffe — was spotted wearing a Todd Snyder suit on his Aug. 5 appearance on NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers.
You can’t even buy Todd Snyder clothes in Iowa City. You either have to drive to Badowers or to Nordstrom in Chicago. Enter Tailgate Clothing Co., of which the Iowa City location is its first brick and mortar.
“We wanted to bring an Iowa pride” into the venture, Snyder says, “I’m proud of being an Iowan. I really wanted to go to school here, but there’s no fashion [major],” he says when I ask why he chose Iowa City over Ames for the store’s location. Iowa City has its own personality, he says, because the area gets people not only from all over Iowa, but also from all over the country.
Though Snyder says he’d always dreamed of opening a Tailgate store in Iowa City, he didn’t think it would happen and credits Kaeding with calling him two years ago to float the idea. It’s “a great way to launch a store,” Snyder says of having Kaeding’s know-how behind the venture.
For Kaeding, the partnership and central location were a no-brainer. “It’s nice to have a higher-brow level of sportswear in the downtown area,” Kaeding says, “He designs the t-shirts himself, they’re form-fitting and made of nice fabric.”
Kaeding’s right. The t-shirts — manufactured, per Snyder, in El Salvador, India, the Dominican Republic and Canada — are really fucking soft.
“Great fit, wash and color [and a shirt that] doesn’t shrink” are what distinguishes a Tailgate t-shirt, Snyder says, from ones available at other downtown purveyors of UI-branded sportswear. Noting that they’re all printed in Ankeny, Iowa, Snyder says, “We make t-shirts for the Gap, and they have extremely high standards.”
Though skeptical when initially entering the store — perhaps because, as Snyder later says, “Most women don’t like graphic tees” — there’s no arguing with its aesthetic, which has the same old-timey-hipster-nostalgia vibe that Short’s and Clinton Street Social Club evoke. With its exposed brick, vintage sporting goods and huge black and white photographs of UI athletes of yesteryear, Tailgate has a fervently Iowan, yet deliberately cosmopolitan, point-of-view that seems to strike a balance between college town sports culture and damn good sartorial taste.
And that makes sense when you consider how Tailgate started. “I wanted something to wear when I came back to town,” Snyder says. The combination of his 20 years of design knowledge and his deep-rootedness in Iowan culture is emblematic of the store’s IC-to-NYC creative pipeline, which is apparent in the careful curation of products that Tailgate carries. The barware is from New York’s Cocktail Kingdom (“practical and elegant, yet durable enough for daily use”), the sports equipment from New Jersey’s Leather Head Gloves (“old world craftsmanship and meticulous attention to detail”) and the charmingly kitschy temporary tattoos from Brooklyn-based Tattly (“designed by professional artists who get a cut of every sale”).
Of Tailgate Clothing Co., Snyder says that it has “an old aesthetic that’s reinterpreted in a modern way [because] it’s important for things to evolve.” This design philosophy seems to form the foundation of his entire body of work, across brands and price points, and whether his name is on the label or not.
As someone who’s lived in Iowa City for five years without ever going to a single sports spectacle, Tailgate makes me want to buy some sort of UI-branded “graphic tee.” It helps that shirts repping University of Iowa athletics are stocked side-by-side shirts promoting non-UI, Iowa City institutions like Prairie Lights bookstore, John’s Grocery, the Old Capitol City Roller Girls and The Mill.
At the end of talking with Snyder, he moves to the next interviewer and my date to the grand opening adds her two cents. “He only speaks in soundbites,” she says, “Did you even buy that white male bootstrap shit?” And part of my brain wanted to say, “No, no fucking way,” but the other part couldn’t find any fault with the advice Snyder says he gives to any young designer looking to get into fashion: “Work hard and be nice.”
When you think about it, really, does it get much more timeless and simple than that?