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Rails: How A Fashion Outsider Created A Global Lifestyle Brand

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Jeff Abrams didn’t have a background in fashion. But that didn’t stop him from pursuing his passion. It all started in 2008 with a single black hat with the word “Rails” sewn onto it that Abrams sold door-to-door. Fast-forward to today and LA-based Rails has become a global lifestyle brand for women, men, and children that’s sold in more than fifty countries by more then fifteen hundred retailers including Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Shopbop, Selfridges, Harrods, among many others, and has generated more then $350 million dollars in sales to date.

“I started Rails in 2008 with no technical background in fashion. It was really in my twenties travelling across Europe where I began to conceptualize what would become the Rails collection. I envisioned a brand that blended the refined global aesthetic I found abroad with the innate effortlessness of the Southern California lifestyle. I had no previous experience or family tie to the fashion industry, so I had to blaze my own trail. I was looking for a way to jumpstart the brand, while I learned the ins and outs of designing a full collection. I sewed the word Rails onto a single black hat and walked into stores unannounced trying to get orders. I got into Fred Segal and the hat quickly sold out, but I knew I needed to evolve beyond a single item. The collection began with a limited unisex offering, but I quickly transitioned into shirting—something I knew could be an enduring category. I made a luxe cashmere-like fabric that was something unique to the market, and felt like nothing else available. This catapulted us into premium contemporary retail stores, even before we had any meaningful infrastructure,” Abrams, who graduated from University of California Berkeley with a political science degree, tells me.

Abrams, continues, “I think it was my naïveté of the industry that allowed me to embark on the journey with no inhibitions. What I lacked in industry experience, I made up through vision and perseverance. I always focused on finding the balance between effortless and accessible, without getting mired in the “traditional” fashion process. And I never let any setback slow me down. When I first began, I really had no idea how to actually produce a full collection. It was a journey of trial and error that led me through the initial stages of building the brand. I drove all over the United States, walking into stores unannounced trying to build the foundations for the Rails collection. I came back to Los Angeles and employed the same concept learning the business of fashion, walking into factories and suppliers, staying late nights at sewing facilities to understand the details of garment construction and the process of assembly.”

Rails began with a modest personal investment from Abrams. “I started with $5000 I had saved through various jobs, and was working out of my apartment. I woke up at 6am, traded stocks (semi-unsuccessfully) until 1pm and then went downtown to figure out how to make clothes. I bought a handful of hats and made a few garments, sold them, reinvested the money, and kept reinvesting my earnings in the business. In ten years we’ve never borrowed any money. We’ve funded our growth through disciplined investment in product and distribution, keeping our operations efficient without sacrificing amazing quality”, Abrams tells me.

Abrams attributes his early success to an organic celebrity following, Abrams continues, “One of the most important elements of Rails’ initial success was the incredible celebrity following we built early on. We quickly had people like Kate Moss, Gisele Bundchen, Jessica Alba, Matthew McCaugnahey, and Leonardo di Caprio in Rails, which was amazing to help launch our brand into the market. But this celebrity following has been very organic. We’ve never paid anyone to wear any of our products. Instead they are wearing the collection because they genuinely love it, and customers who see this recognize it as authentic.”

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the brand is the “handfeel”—specifically with their iconic button downs. “I wanted to build the collection based on timeless, seasonless styles, and knew it needed to strike an emotional chord with customers. I developed a new tencel fabric blend that felt almost like cashmere, and like nothing else in the contemporary shirting market. We applied this concept to plaids, denims, solids, and prints, focusing on becoming experts on both fit and feel. Luxe handfeel has become the brand’s cornerstone and we continue to launch new categories with this brand ethos in mind. From ideation to execution, our design process is very hands-on. We start with our color and trend inspiration, pulling from our international travels or local flea market finds. We then create our patterns—whether traditional plaid tartans, stripe color ways, prints or classic solids. We hand design each color combination into these fabrics and have swatches produced for review. Many of our colors go through 3-4 versions before finalizing the perfect pattern and shade. Our fabric is run through multiple wash processes to give it the drape and luxe handfeel we’ve become known for”, states Abrams.

Although Rails started with women’s, the brand launched their men’s collection and Little Rails (their kid’s collection) in 2014. Abrams tells me, “For many years, our Women’s collection has been the focus of our business. Each season I refine the creative direction and focus on creating versatile pieces in luxe fabrications that represent the effortless Southern California lifestyle. With this brand ethos in mind, we’ve slowly introduced new categories including knitwear, jersey, dresses, outerwear, silks and luxe loungewear—effortless staples that weave into our customer’s everyday. With shirting as a core category, menswear was a very natural brand evolution, and a huge growth opportunity for Rails. We’re mirroring certain fabric concepts from our Women’s collection to the assortment, which includes outerwear, trousers, tees and lightweight jackets. We are partnering with a focused number of specialty retailers for our rollout and anticipate a steady growth of our Men’s business this year. Little Rails is off to a great start, and we’re capitalizing on the mommy and me demographic. Our brand loyal women’s customer is cross-shopping in these categories and outfitting her family in Rails.”

As an outsider to fashion who seems to have cracked the success code regardless of his background, I wanted to know if Abrams had any words of wisdom for other entrepreneurs looking to blaze their own trails. Abrams responds, “There is no guidebook for creating a successful fashion brand. You need to follow your creative instincts, try not to be everything to everyone and be innovative in a way that’s marketable. There are always challenges that arise and you need to be thick skinned and resilient. I can’t tell you how many setbacks I’ve experienced—you have to maintain the drive and determination that no one is going to stop you and you will be successful! There’s no fast track to success. It takes hard work.”

Rails offers the perfect mix of style and comfort and it epitomizes the California lifestyle. It’s easy to wear, well constructed, and offers pieces that are both classic and on trend. When I ask Abrams if he has anything new on the horizons he tells me, “Our first focus is always on product, and continuing to build out our women’s, men’s, and Little Rails businesses. We are planning to launch a pop up at The Grove in Los Angeles for the month of April where we we’ll be showcasing our spring collection in a custom designed space. It’s our first foray into brick and mortar. Our first flagship store will open in Los Angeles in fall of this year, with additional stores in other key cities thereafter. Stay tuned for amazing things to come!”