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Blue-Chip Socks

Nagrani proudly displays his wares (this one's called the Churchill) in his Manhattan office. His
Nagrani proudly displays his wares (this one's called the Churchill) in his Manhattan office. His "basic" socks start at $30 and go way, way up from there. Most of his customers are businessmen looking for a sartorial kick in the pants. (Photos By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

Prominently displayed in Nagrani's office is a recent photograph of him with George H.W. Bush. The two are smiling pleasantly as Nagrani presents the former president with one of his new, $1,400 leather travel bags. Dangling from one of the bag's zippered compartments are several pairs of brightly colored socks.

Nagrani is not the only fellow selling expensive, whimsical socks. Peruse the men's sock selection at Bergdorf Goodman. A pair of Paul Smith socks with multicolored splashes of confetti sell for $32.50. The sock counter at Barneys New York could make a frugal man start to twitch.

And Nagrani isn't selling that many pairs. He sold about $500,000 worth in 2005 and expects to have about $750,000 in sales this year. That would be in the ballpark of 25,000 pairs of socks sold directly and through specialty stores.

To put that in context, consider Gold Toe, which has been around since 1934. The company sells an average of 144 million pairs of socks each year , McHale says. (Trivia: The socks are called Gold Toe because during the Depression the manufacturers reinforced the heel and toe with gold linen threads so the socks would last longer.)

Just recently, the company has been offering socks to go with the preppy trend: lots of argyle in shades of pink, blue and orange, and rugby stripes such as navy and kelly green.

McHale has been with Gold Toe for about six years and came from the packaged-goods industry, which deals with products such as crackers and paper towels. She didn't think much about socks. But no more. She loves socks. She steals surreptitious glances at men and their hosiery. "You know, one of the most fascinating places to look at socks is the security lines at airports," she says. "We tried to put together a promotion for anyone caught in a security line wearing Gold Toe. But airport security saw no humor in that."

Truth be told, however, the big sock companies are more obsessed with technological perks than rainbow colors.

Keepers International in Los Angeles manufactures and distributes labels such as Stacy Adams, Florsheim and 2(x)ist. The company makes ergonomic performance socks for 2(x)ist with a padded ball, a slanted toe box, antibacterial properties and mesh ventilation that retail for around $14. Gold Toe makes socks that regulate the temperature of your feet for $9.

Nagrani once auctioned a pair of taupe socks called the "Newton" with a geometric print for $145. They were not ergonomically engineered. They do not have bells and whistles to prevent a man's feet from smelling or overheating. They don't massage his feet. They're just pretty socks.

Nagrani, 34, was born in India and moved to Brooklyn when he was just a toddler. His father, who was in the Air Force, eventually moved the family to California, where Nagrani grew up. He has a brother who is a doctor and a wife who is a banker. Nagrani is alone in his sock passion.

He sells his socks with the gusto of a philosopher peddling the meaning of life. You are who your socks say you are. And if you let him, he will tell you why his form of entrepreneurship is like Buddhism. "I'm not just opening a store to sell widgets to people," he begins. And then he interlocks his fingers and starts talking about "connections." But your mind wanders because that talk is a little too highfalutin for a sock showroom. You think Nagrani's business technique has more in common with Starbucks than with monks. Nagrani is trying to elevate a commodity with style, philosophy and marketing. "I want the company to come across as being a very cool company," he says.

Now he's showing you a toy truck inspired by the Ford F-150. It goes 22 miles per hour and makes manly revving sounds when you jiggle the joystick.

"Is that not the most ridiculous thing you've seen?" he says with a big grin. "I made 260. I sold 200 to stores and auctioned 60 of them to raise money for children's hospitals."

The truck has nothing to do with socks. It's just a gimmick, a way for Nagrani to appeal to a man's silly side and to help him make the leap from playing with toys to playing with fashion.

"I see a guy with a great suit on and nasty socks, I think, 'Come on, finish the job!' " he says.

Nagrani concludes the tour of his socks and gets ready to pose for a portrait. It's a hot and sticky afternoon, but Nagrani is wearing a navy suit. His cream-colored shirt is lined with fine stripes in a rainbow of colors. He wears bright-green square cufflinks with a bull's-eye of lapis blue. His tie is navy with a quiet pattern of squiggly lines.

But of course, what you really want to know about are his socks. They are lemon yellow with stripes of coco and blue. He calls them "Churchill."

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