Will Sharp started his clothing business in his mother’s Kensington, Md., basement in 2003. The sum of his first collection was five T-shirts and some hats. A few years later he moved to another basement—this one in the 19th Street office building owned by his father, who told him, “I want you to come to work every day, and I want you to look like you know what you’re doing.” Apparently Sharp did know, even though today he recalls being ambitious but clueless. “Ignorance is bliss sometimes. I was too stupid not to try hard, and it was a good thing. I believed in myself.”
He gave the infant design company the name Durkl because “it meant nothing. We could create what we wanted around it.” After his brother, Cole, graduated from the University of Virginia, Will brought him onboard, and they moved to a loft space on Capitol Hill, where they also began to design jeans and sweatshirts.
Then it was time to take a big leap of faith. “We poured all our money into going to our first trade show in San Diego,” says Will. “We walked out of there with 50 store orders, having no clue how in the hell we were ever going to do this but happy we had that problem.”
The Sharps dove into the learning process, figuring out how to get their clothing made in the US and China. They studied distribution from the ground up, seasons, marketing, and online selling. And in 2009 they moved again, this time to a funky but stylish artists’ studio/showroom/retail shop at 4th and Eye Streets, Northwest.
The space has been a comfortable home for Durkl as it has grown into an emerging global brand, but the brothers learned this year that the building will be torn down and they must move out soon after the first of the year. Will Sharp says they’re ready to move anyway; he likes the current retail operation, but there’s no foot traffic “other than hookers and addicts.” When he opens the new Durkl in February he wants it to be about the clothing and the space, and he wants people walking in the door. He’s looking at H Street, U Street, and the Dupont Circle area.
Sharp, who is 30 years old, is currently grossing close to $800,000 a year, with costs that cover production in Hong Kong, one employee, and his partners—his brother and Lucas Pierce, the sales director. The most impressive part? Sharp is entirely self-taught when it comes to clothing design (he studied European history at Washington & Lee). Even though he cuts his own patterns and he and his buddies are the fit models, he is the first to admit he’s “on a learning curve every day.”
So was he ever a fashion plate? “More of a nonconformist,” he says. The schools he attended were “super cookie-cutter. People wore the same style; it was almost a uniform. Nobody took risks. Nobody wanted to look different. I wanted to tell people it’s okay to.”
This idea informed Sharp’s brand construction. His ideal customer is “a kid who is up on the trends, into the scene, but at the same time unwilling to wear these ancient, institutional brands that have no meaning. Why would you buy your Oxford shirt from J.Crew or Gap? These are just big corporations who have stores in Georgetown. There’s no meaning behind it. We’re offering something with more relevance in the industry and DC.”
Durkl designs are urban preppy with an emphasis on color and casual comfort: logo T-shirts and hats; hoodies and jackets; dress shirts in solids, plaids, and stripes; and denim. Prices for the fall 2011 collection range from $33 caps to $130 jackets.
Sharp is proud to be a Washingtonian and to have created his company in the city. He tried Brooklyn for a few years and realized he wanted to be back in his hometown. “There are so many kids who pour into this town, create amazing art and music, and then leave. Nobody is from here. The thing is to get people to stay here.”
For now he’s here, while his 27-year-old brother finishes up his last year of business school at Wharton. Whether Cole will return to Durkl hasn’t been absolutely decided. But one gets the impression that the company has found its traction and plans to go big and then bigger, and the brothers have so far made good partners.
“We’ve got something here,” Sharp says. “It’s funny: You start out as this little T-shirt line in your mom’s basement, and then you’re going through four seasons and producing in China. It’s crazy, but there’s a method to our madness.”