“When Matthew McConaughey came and bought ten of them for his friends, I was like, ‘Alright I’m on to something.” Rails founder Jeff Abrams reflects on his career to date
Credit: Supplied courtesy of Rails

When Jeff Abrams started Rails – the phenomenally successful label that has found favour with the world’s most influential and stylish women – eight years ago he had no idea what he was doing.

All he knew was that he was the only one doing it. Abrams, who possesses that charm unique to self-made Los Angelenos – the kind that could see them wax lyrical on the passions until the world’s supply of green juice is exhausted – was working in marketing and advertising for an entertainment studio when the opportunity to travel abroad and work in television distribution in Europe presented itself. Naturally, he took it, and availed to the vast Eurail network that proves irresistible to the wanderlust-inclined, the Berkeley graduate with a lifelong passion for art, painting and photography began to travel extensively.

Then, as is the case with all good stories, he fell in love.

A look from Rails’ Summer 2016 collection
Credit: Supplied courtesy of Rails

“While I was travelling around on the Eurail, I met an Italian girl and fell into a relationship. That’s where the name comes from. [Europe] turned out to the place where I really started building the creative juices I needed, and the impetus for starting the brand. So I came back and bought one black hat. Then I made a logo that said ‘Rails’ and sewed it on to the hat and began walking into store and asking people, ‘Hey, you want to buy this hat?’ Everyone was like, ‘No, get out of here. We don’t want to buy the hat.'” 

There’s that Angeleno charm at play again, the kind that would lead someone to believe that a simple hat and a hand sewn label would be their point of entry into a highly saturated and even more competitive ready-to-wear market. Be it by a relentless charm offensive, wilful optimism or dumb luck, Abrams eventually struck gold when a friend working at iconic retailer Fred Segal put the prototype hat on the counter, where it quickly started to sell. Increasing demand for Abrams’ first ham-fisted attempt at millinery soon extended to a need for ready-to-wear, which was slightly problematic considering his lack of formal training.

Abrams photographed in front of his signature shirting
Credit: Supplied courtesy of Rails

“I made one zip-up hooded sweatshirt which, when I went to wash it before giving it to them, fell to pieces – the fabric twisted and the zipper was off to the side. It was a total disaster, but it turned out that everyone loved them and started to buy them.

“When Matthew McConaughey came and bought ten for his friends I was like, ‘Alright I’m on to something. Let me take my hat and my hoodie and literally go on the road for three, four months.'” 
From there, Abrams would embark on another once-in-a-lifetime trip, this time from LA to Seattle before flying from Philadelphia and Chicago to New York, where he would “just walk into stores with my hat and my hoodie and, little by little, I started building a following.”

Building on that momentum and the self-belief that had seen him get this far, Abrams desired to create a product offering with more longevity and a discernible brand identity. While cotton button down shirts mightn’t seem like the most innovative solution that that need, a crucial point of difference lay in his desire to create shirts from a Tencel blended fabric of his own creation – shirts that riffed on classic styles, but were draped in “a much more feminine, sexy way.

[When I started] I went to China and told them, ‘Hey, I want to do something no one else is doing in this Tencel fabric.’ They told me, ‘No, you can’t do that because nobody does that,’ and I said, ‘That’s exactly why I want to make it. This is going to be different.’ It was really challenging to have this made, but once we did it was something that nobody was doing at the time.”

A look from Rails’ Summer 2016 collection
Credit: Supplied courtesy of Rails

Something sparked between the self-trained designer, his retailers and their customers, and Rails went from a small product offering stocked in a small collection of boutiques to a more fully articulated ready-to-wear collection spun from the same base fabrication.

“We started selling to Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Shopbop and a lot of great contemporary stores. We’re in maybe 50 to 60 countries now, but Australia actually ended up being one of our first international markets because, from a style perspective, there’s a lot of crossover with Southern Californian vibes.”

Despite having amassed enough demand to satisfy 925 retailers across 53 countries, and with a staff that has grown to 30, Abrams still has a hand in designing everything. “We’re growing, but we still operate like a ‘mom and pop’ operation,” says Abrams, “But for the first couple of years, it was just me doing everything.

Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid, both photographed wearing Rails
Credit: Courtesy of Rails on Instagram

“I was packing all the orders myself. My first big order was for Anthropologie in the U.S. It was a 3000-unit order and I did it with no employees, and all the production was done in the U.S. over three or four months. I packed every item into each box myself, putting stickers on everything. An 18-wheel truck came to pick up the order and when I loaded all my stuff on I noticed all these boxes of J Brand jeans. It was an $80,000 order and I was celebrating all night.

“The next morning, the trucking company called me and explained, ‘We’re sorry, but the truck was robbed immediately after. We don’t know where anything is.’ It must’ve been an inside job, somebody was trying to steal the J Brand and my stuff just got stolen along with it. They never found them.”

How Abrams handled that initial devastating loss is testament to (and further evidence of) his unrelenting positivity – perhaps that’s another side-effect of LA’s trademarked endless summers and infectious enthusiasm. Maybe that’s also why Rails resonates so strongly with other self-made women for whom hard work and a perpetual jet set mentality are second nature. Beyoncé, Kendall, Gigi, Rosie, Taylor, Cara and Kate have all been photographed riding the Rails (no pun intended on the latter) at one point or another, usually while running the errands that are part-and-parcel of their off-duty lives.

Jessica Alba and January Jones both photographed wearing pieces from Rails
Credit: Courtesy of Rails on Instagram

“In the beginning, I would get really worked up about things, but then I realised that there’s a new challenge everyday in business and that’s what’s fun about it. Things are always going places you didn’t expect so you go immediately into problem solving mode. You always have to be creative, even in a business context. I learned a lot on the job by going into factories and asking people. I would stand there and watch people sew for a week. I didn’t go to school for fashion and I didn’t have a single mentor. Looking back, I wish that I did because there were a lot of shortcuts and mistakes that I could’ve avoided, but in the end I’m glad I made those mistakes. I’ve had a few very important moments, some negative and some really positive – the Anthropologie [theft] for example. Even then I knew this was going to be a defining experience.

“Then there was the 2015 Super Bowl. Gisele wore our shirt to the championship when Tom Brady won and we had maybe 100,000 people come to our website right after trying to find the shirt.” 
“I was thinking, ‘Wow, okay we’re really on the world stage now. How does everyone know?’ She must’ve already had it in her closet and had been wearing it, because we had none in stock anywhere. If we’d known and had it in stock, we would’ve sold, I don’t know, 50,000 shirts – I could be relaxing right now.”

If the last eight years are any indication, it looks likely that another life-changing vacation won’t be on the cards for Abrams any time soon.

Gisele Bündchen photographed wearing Rails while celebrating on field following Tom Brady’s Super Bowl 2015 victory
Credit: Courtesy of Rails on Instagram

Tile and cover image: Courtesy of Rails