The socks are arranged on the table like thin cuts of tenderloin.
“These are over a year’s worth of effort,” says one sock guy.
There are eight pairs, each a different color, vivid and rich and juicy-looking.
“This is $10,000 in socks,” says another sock guy, holding up a bright-red sock with thin white stripes.
A third sock guy has donned a pair. Despite his satisfied smile, he has one final criticism. “These are knee socks,” he says, pulling one up past the upper reaches of his calf, then planting his foot on the table, “and if we sell these, people will go, ‘Those are for old people.’ ”
The sock guys have old-people names.
Jay Gaul IV.
D. Turner Swicegood.
They are actually 30, 30 and 26 years old, respectively — not quite old enough to be squeezed of vitality and adventure by a lifetime of civil servitude. Once upon a time, three young men in search of safe nonconformity might have started a band. Now three young men, especially three young men in Washington, might launch a start-up to make a statement about dress socks.
“You can see more lines, a lot more negative space,” says Jay, pointing at the stripes in this latest batch that have been narrowed to one-sixteenth of an inch. “So it’s more pleasing.”
Josh and Jay are lieutenants in the Navy and met in officer candidate school. Josh met Turner, a civilian staff officer at the Pentagon who focuses on Middle East policy, through mutual friends. Together, when they clock out of the Defense Department, they are Penance Hall, an infant company that’s investing against the stodginess and cheapness of the traditional, mass-market cotton dress sock, with its gold-toed foot soldiers, by creating a wool alternative that is high-end, vibrant, calf-high and made in the United States. Because the socks would be made in America, the company would employ American businesses and, therefore, American people, the partners say. So the project isn’t just vanity or boredom or a whimsical sideline, although it could be that, too.
“A very patriotic product,” Jay says. He picks up a pair that is somewhere between royal blue and dark blue. “You wouldn’t mistake it for a gray or a navy,” he says. “It’s elegant.”
Turner is pacing a couple of feet away in his bedroom, talking into his cellphone.
“Oh, come on, you don’t have masculine hands,” Turner says to a friend on the other end.
Penance Hall needs a woman to paint her nails red and tie a man’s dress shoe for one of its promotional photos.
“Well, why don’t you send me a picture of your hands and I’ll be the judge.”
There’s a dapper energy earlier this month here in Turner’s apartment on the lower slope of Massachusetts Avenue NW. In a matter of hours, they’ll take a middle-of-the-night train to New York to blow their last $2,500 to film a promotional video on Pier 59 for their Kickstarter campaign, through which they hope to raise enough money ($36,000) to finance a first order of three kinds of socks. The small batch they ordered just for video and promotional purposes cost them thousands.
For the video, “we’ll have 15 seconds each to talk about wool,” as Josh puts it.
Turner is as animated as Jay is reserved, and Josh is the centered strategist in between. Jay can monologue about Edward VIII as a fashion icon, while Turner’s tastes tend toward the modern and relaxed. Washington’s business fashion falls somewhere in between these sensibilities — between riverfront preppy and boardroom pinstripes, between military sharp and lobby-shop smart — but the choices are nearly always too typical, the sock guys believe, and too often dismissive of the details.
“I think, in general, the professional man’s look in Washington, D.C., is fairly staid and uniform, and there is a particular configuration of dark suit, white shirt, red or blue tie, and dark shoes that you see as sort of a trope everywhere,” Jay says. “And it’s a shame, really, because I think — particularly in a place where people do try to project value in their various professions — too little thought, time and energy gets dedicated to the way they present themselves.”
So they figured they’d start at the literal bottom of the wardrobe, with its most basic, underseen element. If guys are paying $1,000 or more for their suits, they argue, why wouldn’t they pay $25 or $30 for a pair of premium homegrown socks that are designed to impress and endure?
Since they incorporated Penance Hall in June 2012, their lives have been measured in microns and needle counts. They’ve road-tripped their way up and down the Mid-Atlantic supply chain and studied the make and design of such top-drawer overseas brands as Pantherella and Marcoliani.
Now they’ve got the right breed of sheep (an American variant on the Merino), the right wool supplier in South Carolina, the right dyer and weaver and suppliers of nylon and spandex (all in North Carolina), the right needle count (200) and micron count (19.5), the right colors (crimson, blue and black, to start), the right spacing between stripes (three-quarters of an inch), the right height (above the calf muscle but below the knee).
As Turner continues searching his contact list for the right hands, the producer of their video calls Josh’s cellphone. He puts her on speaker. The group talks about goals, aphorisms, benefits of the product, its provenance, stuff that will make their talking-head segments pop and resonate.
“Maybe I’ve been working in advertising too long,” the producer says through the phone, “but I prefer to see a good-looking woman once in a while — ”
“Tell her we need her to supply the girls,” Turner pipes up from the other room, “but don’t say it like that because it sounds like an Eastern European prostitution ring.”
“ — even if it’s just legs,” she finishes.
Josh, while serving a rotation in Baghdad several years ago, decided to wear loud argyle and bright stripes that clashed discreetly with the matte finish of the U.S. Embassy and its dusty, colorless surroundings. He became known as the sock guy. Those kinds of socks were color-coded conversation starters, like the academic scarves worn by British collegians that Josh had admired in his travels. Quiet evenings in the Green Zone were fertile territory for entrepreneurial thoughts, so Penance Hall, you might say, was one of a million small things to come out of the war. And now Josh and his friends are trying to create a small business the hard way, the expensive way. The entirely American way. And if the socks sell, and the business proves viable, they’ll start to work their way toward a full line of clothing, for men and women.
“All my polo shirts are made in Turkey and China, but the advertisements are very much all-American,” Josh says. “It feels like a little bit of a betrayal. We’ve been working on this for a year and a half, and we could’ve gone to Korea and had a product in 41 / 2 weeks. I told the guys when we first stated: ‘Look, we all have day jobs, roofs over our heads. It’s not a company; it’s an experiment.’ I want to see if we can do it.”