What is most striking is Thomas Ferre's background, not as a designer, but as an engineer. This technical background, which also included strategic financial consulting, gives Ferre an eclectic edge. TOMI OTEE is the laureate of the 2011 French American Entrepreneurship Award.
"I always knew that if I was going to come up with a shirt that is just functional, I would only appeal to geeks. And while they are an interesting market, they are not going to make you live and make you able to address a wider, broader audience. So for me it was really about defining a brand that is more than just a function. So from the get-go we have 34 products, we go across all season, with strips and no stripes, with different fabrics and cuts. That design is really important," he said.
"To talk about the fashion end of it, I think it was really how ... I'm an engineer so I looked at it from an engineering perspective," Ferre said. "You know, what do people look for in a line? And it's really a shirt for every type of weather. If you can play golf, you need a shirt to play golf. That was
Photo Credit: Morgan Miller
initially the theme -- providing a shirt for every occasion."
Currently, the TOMI OTEE line is focused solely on polos, offering 17 for men and 17 for women, all priced at $70. All shirts come in an array of colors -- from crimson to lemon yellow to navy -- either solid or striped.
"I was raised between Paris and New York, so I was influenced by both cultural influences. So my influences were a sleeker, more tapered cut. Regarding the colors, when I think golf, it is a summer sport. Going a lot to the south of France, that was a really strong inspiration for me in terms of colors with the lavenders and the soft greens. [I wanted to] put in some more colors that are a bit flashy and poppy," he said.
Celebrity stylist, fashion guru and founder of the LRL Group for Styling & Fashion Consulting, Lauren Rae Levy, helped TOMI OTEE develop this distinctive flair as the stylist for the brand's photo shoot.
"I think everyone knows the classic and basic ways to wear golf attire. As TOMI OTEE is a fashionable golf wear line, I wanted to stay on trend, while still staying 'golf chic,'" said Levy, who was recently honored at the 26th Annual Night of a Thousand Gowns.
When Lauren Rae Levy was first offered the styling opportunity with TOMI OTEE, she immediately put on one of the women's polos and had her friends try some on as well. "It's always good to see production on real people to get an honest idea of the fit. Most clothes look great on models, but that's the obvious. What impressed me was to see that these shirts looked and felt great on everyday people," she said.
Levy offered some tips on how to integrate TOMI OTEE's golf apparel with chic pieces from today's hottest designers.
"I turned to some of my favorite designers to help me do so. Shoes for the shoot came from United Nude and Camper. The United Nude shoes are the suede pastels that had a golfy vibe; also from United Nude are the fabulous hats! I fell in love with these hats at first sight, and have been waiting for the perfect opportunity, such as this, to use them," said Levy.
"The Camper shoes had a different vibe, and more classic colors that are seen on golf courses. All female bottoms came from Tucker by Gaby Basora. With the colors of the pants/shorts being so complementary to the shirts and the fit being flawless, they were a no-brainer. The pleated skirts were so fun, and I loved the prints for adding personality to the golf course."
Photo Credit: Morgan Miller
"The men's striped and khaki pants come from Benson, and the fabrics were so comfortable and wearable, I felt they suited TOMI OTEE shirts perfectly," said Levy. "The plaid pants, fun socks and ascot/Pucci ties (all of which are vintage) came from my favorite store in the world, What Goes Around Comes Around. I also added my personal vintage suspenders and bow ties (purchased from WGACA) to give extra personality to the TOMI OTEE shirts."
"As this was a lookbook shoot, I would never put cardigans or jackets from other designers over the shirts, as the focus must still remain on TOMI OTEE shirts; but the ties, bowties, and ascots were my way of still having fun and showing that the shirts can be worn multiple ways to express one's personal style on the golf course," she added.
Having worked with retailers like Scoop, Catherine Malandrino, Bergdorf Goodman, Intermix and Blue & Cream and having assisted the likes of Christie Brinkley, Sarah Jessica Parker, Christy Turlington, Susan Lucci and Mary J. Blige during her days as a stylist, Levy knows what it takes to be successful in fashion. She has nothing but faith in the TOMI OTEE brand.
"It is an extremely fashionable golf wear collection, and what drew me to this project was that TOMI OTEE is the most fashion-friendly [line] I've come across. The colors are on-trend, and there is a flattering color for everyone. The fabrics are not only eco-friendly, but comfortable -- and who doesn't love to be comfortable while looking fab?! I have to add that I really love the detail on the sleeves for your golf tees. Practical and fun!" said Levy.
It is not just the look of a TOMI OTEE golf polo that attracts customers, but also the progressive blueprint behind the design. The TOMI OTEE golf shirts are strategically created for all types of weather a golfer can encounter. For cooler temperatures, one would choose the organic cotton fabric, while hotter weather calls for the moisture wicking fabric of bamboo viscose. Each shirt is made of 100 percent certified organic cotton by the Organic Exchange as well as 100 percent certified bamboo by OKEO-Tex standard 100, class 1.
"Providing a variety of materials, for the colder weather but still playable you'll use cotton. For the more hot and humid weather you will use something that it more moisture wicking."
Ferre explained that there are two angles to the TOMI OTEE collection. "One is just the usage. Your cotton fabric is going to be really comfortable and nice; it is the traditional feel. But it keeps the moisture there and is like a sponge. Our angle was to say polyester is not biodegradable. So how can we do something good for the environment? So we chose bamboo viscose."
TOMI OTEE is more than just clothing; it is an impetus for community building. Thomas Ferre refused to establish a one-dimensional, revenue-driven
Photo Credit: Morgan Miller
brand. He knew that in order to create something both fruitful and successful he needed to tap into community and customer engagement.
The TOMI OTEE TEE for TWO program is similar to TOMS in that, for each shirt bought online by individual customers, TOMI OTEE contributes a shirt to a charity helping children. TOMI OTEE goes one step further through its partnership with The First Tee of Metropolitan New York, the largest golf charity in NYC, which focuses on helping minorities, increasing female participation in golf and supporting children in their path to college.
"How can I help people grow? The First Tee of Metropolitan New York program is not so much a golf-skill but a life-skill organization," said Ferre while explaining the charitable pillar of the TOMI OTEE brand. "We can produce what TOMS did but in a way that might mean more to the community. I love golf, we all love golf. I can give a shirt to a child in Africa or India, but it's not so much the quantitative impact you have but the qualitative value. So I said if I can do something that is more than just giving products to an organization that is really the essence of a great operation."
Currently, there are 5,000 children involved in the program in the New York metropolitan area.
"The First Tee is about life skills. They wanted to teach kids golf. So the first kids came to play golf wearing T-shirts and they are spitting on the course and they are yelling and screaming. You have to think about it, they are kids," he said. "You realize there is a really important educational part of it. They are children and they need to learn the ethics of it; golf is a game based on ethics. Let's teach kids golf, and the whole ethics of golf. The ethics of golf is something very respectful of the environment, of the players, of those who are playing with you, et cetera."
"I think the obvious factor that makes TOMI OTEE stand out from competitors is it's philanthropic tie-in; TOMI OTEE is the 'TOMS' of Golf Wear," said stylist Lauren Rae Levy, who was honored as the Featured Young Philanthropist of the Month in June 2010 with CharityHappenings.org.
TOMI OTEE caters to both young boys and girls, teaching children that golf is a growing unisex sport.
Photo Credit: Morgan Miller
"For the First Tee program they asked me if I would have a T-shirt for girls and I said, 'Yes of course I will have shirts for girls' and they said 'Well that's good because every sponsor that we had over the previous years, the girls would always have something that made them feel like they were wearing a boy's shirt and not a women's shirt.' Small things like this can make you feel unwelcome," he said.
Golfers Annika Sorenstam, Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis have risen quickly through the ranks to superstardom, shattering any glass ceiling that may have hovered over the sport in decades' past.
"I am very proud. I am already a sponsor of one women's golf organization, the EGGA of NYC. The women are an integral part of our strategy only in the sense that I could never imagine developing a product that is just for men," Thomas Ferre said confidently. "We don't want to discriminate. Women are an important part of our angle, in particular because what we have realized is that when you go to a country club a lot of the women are buying for their husbands, saying, 'I wish I had something for me.' It's about having the right apparel and the right environment for them. In our strategy, we will always try to keep a balance. Fifty percent of our offering is for women."
As a small brand TOMI OTEE certainly has some growing to do. The line currently only offers golf polos, but will eventually expand into pants, shorts and, ultimately, a full ensemble. The growth of TOMI OTEE is currently supported by customer involvement.
"We are a small brand and our focus was always on making a quality, luxury product. What we are trying to do is, rather than trying to spend money on Google Ads, et cetera, we are really learning from what has been done before and trying to spend a lot of time connecting with people. That is really what it is about," said Ferre.
Developing a solid relationship with a customer base is more than just pennies in the pocket; it is brand loyalty.
"For us, it is much more of a sustainable process to act like this than spend on advertising. If you connect with your consumers, and they accept and like your product, then it becomes a snowball effect. You do not want to buy a one-time purchase from your customer. If you make that connection with your consumer base, they will always come back to you."
Ferre regularly rides his motorcycle out of the city to meet with customers. He enjoys the feedback, both positive and constructive, he receives from these face-to-face meetings. He believes that this intimate interaction is what will make TOMI OTEE not only profitable but enduring.
"We are going to help our brand identify itself and mean something in the eye of the public," he said. "The bigger your impact, the stronger your game."
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