The colors, the fabric, the stitching, the snaps — every detail in a Ryan Michael shirt shows pure passion for the West.
Michael Ryan has just run home from his design studio in Kennesaw, Georgia, to let his dogs out. Once that’s taken care of, he settles in on the back porch of his equestrian community home on the rural outskirts of Atlanta to talk about the journey that put him and business partner Fred Rowan on a mutual quest to embody the lore and lifestyle of the West in a clothing brand.
Both longtime apparel pros, Ryan and Rowan share a passion for dogs and horses and the fiercely independent spirit of the American West. With decades each in the industry, it was clothier kismet that the two crossed career paths. Little did they know their top-of-the-line contemporized pearl snap shirts would become one of the go-to standards for the wardrobe departments of shows likeLongmire, True Blood, and Sons of Anarchy, with movie and music stars like Jeff Bridges, Morgan Freeman, Rascal Flatts, Jason Aldean, and Blake Shelton among their customers.
But although Ryan Michael (the company name is an inversion of Michael Ryan’s own) is fashioned out of the heart and soul of the West, the brand got its start in a distinctly different part of the country.
It was hard winters in the North — and the charm of the South — that would eventually put Ryan and Rowan together on their apparel journey west. A former football quarterback and team penner who majored in marketing at The Ohio State University, Ryan had his first job interview in Detroit over Christmas break in “snow-ice-rain-cold-muck” and another interview a few days later in Atlanta, where he stepped off the plane into serious Southern sunshine.
He took the warm-weather job at Rich’s/Federated Department Stores (now Macy’s), put down roots, and started amassing experience that would serve him well in his own future venture. After five years of being a buyer at that first gig, he worked sales on the wholesale side representing the hot men’s line Gooch Apparel, riding that success to a stint as national sales manager with the booming urban line Cross Colours. At that point Ryan got the entrepreneurial itch.
“I wanted to launch my own brand, combining my love of the West with my work experience,” he says. “I had worked with people who had the guts to go out and try to do their own thing, and I felt like I had it, too. It was just a leap of faith.”
Ryan made that leap in the early ’90s with Barn Fly Trading (“like barfly, but a person who hangs out in barns, not bars”), which he launched with a handful of shirts and artwork that showed the edgy creative direction and exclusive designs that would make the brand distinctive. Early on, Barn Fly got the attention of Fred Rowan, who at the time was the CEO of Carter’s. “He was attracted to the lifestyle branding and the way we had positioned Barn Fly,” Ryan says.
A well-established guru in branding and global positioning with a heavy-hitting résumé of helming major companies, Rowan didn’t just share Ryan’s deep affinity for the Western lifestyle, he lived it, albeit on a 500-acre horse farm in northern Virginia, where he raises Tennessee walking horses, Peruvian Pasos, and bird dogs. “Fred’s got this corporate expertise with multiple companies as CEO and chairman,” Ryan says, “but he’s also an international hunter and raises world-class dogs and championship horses. He is the most passionate man I’ve ever met about the lifestyle of the West.”
The respect went both ways. “I was impressed with Mike and impressed with his point of view of what Ryan Michael and Barn Fly should look like,” Rowan recalls. “I hired him for a couple of years at Carter’s; then he started Ryan Michael. Mike has great instincts and product savvy. Most important, he sits tall in the saddle, as his word is sacred.”
With a love of the West as their foundation, Ryan and Rowan got to work on growing Ryan Michael and Barn Fly as contemporized Western brands. “There are a hell of a lot of labels but few great brands,” Rowan says. “Great brands have distinctive positioning and a well-thought-out business model.” Toward that end, he helped focus Ryan’s entrepreneurial energy on identifying what is now the classic Ryan Michael garment: the silk and cotton whipstitch shirt with exclusive snaps and trim.
“That’s our signature shirt,” Ryan says. “That defines us: the special fabrics, the unique snaps, the tremendous amount of hand-stitching.” The first allure is color, he adds. “It attracts you to the rack. Then you touch — that’s the next filter. We want to make sure people touch and say, ‘Wow!’ It has to feel unlike any other.”
The discipline carries through on every detail, including the unique dying and finishing. “Garments are assembled and then dyed, creating uniqueness in the seams.” That’s what gives the signature weathered look and achieves the vintage quality Ryan Michael is known for — “like something you grabbed out of your grandpa’s closet.”
While best known for its men’s shirts, Ryan Michael gives equal care and consideration to the design of its women’s collections. “The standard history of the West, the tough nature of the people who settled this country — it’s typically portrayed as such a male-driven thing,” Ryan says. “Women truly don’t get the respect they deserve for their part in settling this country. The men got the plaque, but the women were raising kids in those wagons and on the frontier. We want to honor their role.”
In the end, what Ryan Michael honors is the West itself. “So many people in our business just sell product,” Ryan says. “That’s not our path. We’re passionate about trying to sell the West and what the spirit of the West represents. It’s not a short-term journey. But Fred and I like the legacy involved in building a lasting brand. We’d like to see Ryan Michael and Barn Fly live long beyond both of us.”
From the January 2015 issue.