Byline: James Collard
Move over Ralph Lauren: meet the schoolboy entrepreneur who's got designs on how we dress
"They took me seriously from the beginning," Baruch Shemtov insists, somehow making his young voice carry across the sounds of chatter, clanking of plates and general hubbub that is breakfast at Balthazar, the perennially fashionable bistro in downtown Manhattan. And while the idea of a baby-faced 16-year-old running a small but thriving and achingly hip fashion business might seem absurd, when Shemtov fixes you with those doe-like but utterly confident young eyes, I defy anyone - grizzled manufacturer, bitchy fashionista or even journalist from cynical old Blighty - to mock this city's latest (and surely unlikeliest) fashion success story. Besides, surely a teenager who sells ties on Fifth Avenue for a hundred bucks a throw or more deserves to be taken seriously.
"Like me, Baruch is going to claw his way to the middle," joshes Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys department store and a fashion columnist on The New York Observer, who first met the yarmulka-wearing wunderkind last summer, when Shemtov was an intern at the interior design company owned by Doonan's boyfriend, Jonathan Adler. Both men were impressed by the extraordinary drive and energy of this youngster, which stood out even in New York, the capital city of ambition.
"Baruch was very together," recalls Andrew Mandell, a buyer at the Takashimaya department store, one of the first outlets to start stocking Shemtov's playful, innovative neckties, which he started manufacturing locally last year. The "Japanese shopping palace" on Fifth Avenue had been Shemtov's favourite shop ever since he was seven, when he went there with his grandmother. "He looked about 12, but he had impressed my boss, Virginia Haywood, when he'd introduced himself to her in a fabric store, and I have to say he impressed me. He was concise, knowledgeable, and got straight to the point." And, unlikely as this seemed, Mandell rapidly reached the conclusion that the youngster was better at presenting his stock than most would-be suppliers. "I told him that he led a wonderful meeting".
More to the point, the buyer also ordered some of the ties; a small order to begin with, but one that would prove to be the first of many. Striking, occasionally verging on the garish, Shemtov's ties might have seemed an odd fit for the discreet, monochromatic palette that is Takashimaya's signature style. But, according to Mandell, "they just popped out of the case - and out of the store", even the eccentric, two-ended neckties (that create the illusion of two ties, one worn above the other) that signal Shemtov's determination to "reinvent" this staid, centuries-old masculine stalwart.
The two-ended ties and the tie-like sashes and tie-inspired headscarves that represent Shemtov's first foray into womenswear perhaps wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea. Indeed, although customers in the UK and elsewhere will soon be able to buy Shemtov's products online (at elsewares.com, a new website designed to bring small but trendy American labels to a wider marketplace), so far Shemtov's work remains largely a fashionable New York phenomenon. His ties are on sale at a limited number of trendy outlets throughout the city. Local-boy-done-good articles ("If you thought Zac Posen was youngI") appear in fancy titles such as New York Magazine and the glossy Gotham. Even Donald Trump, the developer-turned-business-guru and reality TV star, took time to give the budding entrepreneur the sage (if simple) words of advice, "Sell a lot of ties." And one retailer predicted that Baruch Shemtov will be "the next Ralph Lauren" (which maybe isn't quite as silly as it sounds, as Shemtov has already analysed the roots of Lauren's extraordinary influence in a school dissertation).
Still, all that remains to be proved. But what's extraordinary is that Shemtov has achieved this while still a schoolboy. He lives at home on the Upper East Side with his father, a urologist. Fashion aside, he is a star pupil at Ramaz, an Orthodox Jewish day-school, where he studies Talmud, Hebrew and biblical studies, as well as enough maths-based subjects - think trigonometry, advanced algebra and the like - to prove he is no fashion airhead. He plays tennis and the clarinet, and even takes lead roles in many of the school's dramatic productions. For the past three years he has participated in the "Model UN" and "Model Congress" debates in which America's brightest youth are encouraged to put their rhetorical and lobbying skills to the test - coming away with a Distinguished Speaker Award three years in a row.
How on earth does he find the time? "I'm busy, busy, busy!" He handles orders "in lunch-breaks on my cell-phone". And although Shemtov has already taken pre-college courses in fashion merchandising and store planning at New York's prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology, he sounds unlikely to let expanding his business get in the way of a spell at academia ("perhaps at Brown or Yale"). After that, "I'm not ruling fashion out. I'm not ruling anything out." Doonan has some words of advice for Shemtov: "Don't lose your sense of humour or let yourself be fazed by criticism."
And, perhaps most importantly, "If anyone throws poo at you, just throw it right back at them." Quite.
Copyright (C) The Times, 2004
Portrait: Mike Persson