“Connecting the intrinsic DNA of a brand to the market opportunities of the future” is how Simon Graj describes the mission of Graj & Gustavsen, the company he founded more than 30 years ago. “We’re known for taking legacy brands (Brooks Brothers, Harley Davidson, Hurley, Timberland, Kohls’ private labels) and positioning them for the future. I feel grateful that we’re involved in so many exciting projects at a time that offers more opportunity than ever.”
Graj speaks about the unprecedented pace of change in our industry, accelerated of course by the pandemic. His bottom line on what retailers and brands need to do: create trust in an era of mistrust. “The mistrust these days is rampant: of the government, of big corporations. A market that was all about conspicuous consumption is no longer that. People are realizing that they don’t need as much stuff. We want product that’s life-enhancing rather than status-enhancing.”
The other big change, maintains Graj, is smaller local brands challenging the corporate giants: microbreweries outselling Budweiser; Harry’s outselling Gillette. And herein lies the opportunity: creative companies with vision and risk-tolerance can easily rise to the top. Of course, it helps if the brand has a mission beyond simply selling stuff. And it helps if there’s some authenticity to the mission.
Which is where G&G branding comes in. Recent projects include creating mission statements, marketing, advertising, partnerships, and licensing for a diverse group of brands.
Graj arrived in America at age 12 from his native Poland and grew up in 1960s Detroit. “I was the only white kid in my school and the only 12-year-old in a suit,” he recalls. “I was filled with memories of running from Communist persecution in Poland, of getting help from a social service organization in Detroit, of people forced to the back of the bus… It is these memories that make me truly appreciate our society finally moving toward social justice. I’m proud that so much of branding today centers on how to improve people’s lives. I’m excited when I think of the many charitable foundations created by business, and I’m thrilled that branding today is no longer just about selling stuff people don’t need…”
Asked what he would do to enhance menswear retailing these days, Graj is thoughtful. “A physical store needs to provide a dynamically different experience. Of course, it must offer constant newness. But more than that, the store must somehow, via style directors or artificial intelligence, guide customers to clothing that reflects their personal DNA, which makes an individual statement. Rather than dictate, the store should guide customers so that they can discover themselves. Retailing is not just about theater; it’s not just about hugging. Today’s store should help me unmask who I am, free from protocol and rules. It should fulfill our eternal quest for identity, for who we are and how we want to present ourselves to the world.”
Graj also believes that many traditional businesses will ultimately become co-ops or collectives, so that employees grow as managers rather than mere participants. “I feel fortunate to be part of creating this future, and fortunate that, after all these years, I still get to dream.”