In 2014, when Matt Loftus was about to enter the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, he knew he wanted to start a business, but he didn’t realize how quickly it would happen. Loftus and a group of friends had partnered that summer with the clothing company Vineyard Vines in a marketing campaign that also raised money for the friends’ scholarship fund. The campaign was successful and fun. Only problem: The clothes supplied by Vineyard Vines didn’t work for Loftus’ and his friends’ athletic lifestyle.
“They were sweating through the cotton button downs, shirts, and pants that Vineyard Vines provided,” says Kristina Loftus, Matt’s wife and business partner, who also attended Darden. Along with a third partner, Kevin Hubbard, the couple realized they’d found a space in the marketplace: “high-end lifestyle activewear for men.”
They decided to make polos and T-shirts from sweat-wicking, antimicrobial fabric: clothes that could perform on a golf course or tennis court, but didn’t look like workout wear. “It’s transitional,” says Kristina. “You can be active, then tuck it in and wear it to dinner.” Rhoback—named for the naturally active Rhodesian Ridgeback dog—was born.
Darden proved the perfect lab for growing their idea. “We used the student body to help us develop all the products,” says Kristina, recalling how they surveyed students on different fabric and design choices. None of the partners had retail or design experience, so they learned on the fly about everything from Photoshop to dealing with manufacturers in South Korea.
“We had to understand, what was the problem with the current polos on the market?” says Kristina. Some brands lacked quality, while others targeted an older demographic. “There are many brands out there designing polos for 60-year-old men that are very long and should never be untucked. The fit had to be slimmer but not too slim,” she says.
The Darden golf and racquet clubs served as Rhoback’s first customers. In late 2016, the company launched with 1,000 shirts and sold out in three weeks. The clothing isn’t cheap—most polos go for $79—but the company has enjoyed 300 percent growth year over year, fueled by marketing that speaks to a youthful, fun-loving image. And, says Kristina, knowing their market is essential.
While most customers buy Rhoback shirts and hats from the company’s website, the three founders also hit the road in a wooden camper for “strategic popups” at golf and lacrosse tournaments. “Once people meet the founders they’re more invested in the brand,” Kristina says. “They want to support us.”