By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 24, 2006; C01
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.
He names each design after leaders in industry, in the performing arts, in popular culture and after very good customers who are members of his 21 Club. These gentlemen have bought at least 21 pairs of socks and are invited to vote on which discontinued sock styles should be reintroduced. They get to bid on limited-edition socks. They're allowed to buy directly from Nagrani. They are afforded the opportunity to spend more than $100 on a pair of socks. And, apparently, they do. They are sock super-freaks.
Nagrani makes a "Gatsby" sock with the image of a woman sipping a martini, strategically resting along a man's Achilles' tendon. "She's holding him up," he explains. Another pair of socks named "Luther" have a floral pattern winding up the inside of the calf; the flowers are revealed only when a man sits down and crosses his legs. He named another pair of socks "Brian," after a customer who is attached to his dog Bottle Cap. The socks have stylized paw prints all over them.
The one thing Nagrani doesn't sell are basic black socks -- his black ones have a contrasting purple toe and trim. His socks are not for your meat-and-potatoes man. They are for the guy who goes looking for organic, free-range, grain-fed Kobe beef.
"Rather than be something to everybody," Nagrani says, "I'd rather be everything to somebody."
What is this sock madness? Is it possible for a pair of socks to actually be worth $30, to contain that much expensive labor and fine yarns? No, socks are one of the least labor-intensive apparel products to produce. But really, that's a rhetorical question, akin to asking a woman whether a pair of shoes is actually worth $400. What's the price of pleasure?
Gary Smith, 50, is a Northern Virginia defense consultant. He is married and has three children. He is an Ovadufut sock man.
"I probably have 35 or 40 pairs," he says. "I'm Mr. Impulse Buyer."
He discovered Nagrani's socks while reading the Robb Report, a magazine about incredibly expensive stuff. He saw all those different-colored socks spread out before him. They called out to him.
"At first, I generally only wore them with bluejeans and khaki pants on weekends," he says, sounding a bit like an addict launching into a confessional. Now he wears them with his Brioni suits and his Santoni handmade shoes. "You've got to look right. Especially for guys, there's no other way to define yourself. You've got your tie, your shirt and your socks."
Smith wears orange socks. He wears socks with pink and blue polka dots. And he wears them in an industry overwhelmingly defined by bland gray suits and button-down shirts.
What sort of reaction did colleagues have when they noticed his sock lust? "They thought I was a homosexual," Smith says, laughing.
Nagrani doesn't promote his socks among celebrities, although he does point out that actor Samuel L. Jackson wore a pair of them in the film "Unbreakable." Most of his customers are businessmen and government types, men for whom wearing a pair of orange socks named after Mick Jagger might be considered flirting with scandal.
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."