Monday, July 24, 2006
Sock designer Vivek Nagrani stretches to reach a corner shelf in his tiny showroom east of Times Square and pulls down a handmade birch box that he refers to as his "sock humidor." You may laugh at the notion of socks being compared to expensive Cuban cigars. He does not.
There are four pairs of Tibetan cashmere socks in mouth-watering vegetable shades curled cozily inside. Nagrani removes a pair of basil-green-and-heather ones and gently unfurls them. "Feel this," he coos.
The socks are as soft as a kitten. Nice. But then Nagrani says that each pair costs $125. Do the math: You are staring at $500 worth of men's hosiery. You begin to yearn for the good old days, when sartorial panache could be had with a four-in-hand purchased from Countess Mara for less than $100.
But socks, in certain quarters, are becoming an alternative to the power tie as a man's point of distinction. "Men who dress up are beginning to treat the socks like they started treating ties 20 years ago," says Trish McHale, the executive vice president of marketing for Gold Toe Hosiery.
Nagrani's gaze lingers over his wares. What is that look in his eyes? Pride? Affection? No, it is something closer to despair. Nagrani, a man who loves socks the way some folks love their pets, admits that he ended up having to give these socks away rather than sell them. It turned out the fine cashmere could stand up to only five washings. That would mean that each wearing would cost a man $25 and that seemed steep even for Nagrani, who ordinarily does not flinch at charging exorbitant prices for socks. A pair of his basic cotton socks, manufactured in either Italy or France, costs $30. The average price of a pair of socks sold in the United States this year was $1.52, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm.
Seven years ago, Nagrani founded Ovadufut Hosiery, which specializes in men's luxury socks but is now expanding into men's underwear and small leather goods such as briefcases and overnight bags. Before socks, Nagrani designed toys.
"I was designing junk toys," he says. "I was designing things for kids to dispose of in five seconds."
He wanted to create "something of importance." He chose socks. A man needs to cover his feet.
"Why should a guy be stuck having to wear cheap socks?" Nagrani asks.
Most men stock their sock drawers with utilitarian shades of navy, gray, khaki and black. Especially black. Of all the socks sold, 60 percent are black, according to Gold Toe Hosiery, which should know, because the Burlington, N.C., company controls 54 percent of the sock market. Walk into any department store and more than half of the socks are made by Gold Toe. You guys are probably wearing Gold Toe socks right now. At most, you paid $10 for them.
There is a Candyland quality to the socks that Nagrani makes. He sells socks in shades of orange, pink, red and teal. His socks are like fanciful gumdrops. They are charming, luscious, delightful.