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Survival of the Fitted: Why do some golf-shirt brands have staying power?

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Illustration by Mario Wagner

October 04, 2022

What goes into making a “successful” golf shirt? More than you probably know. Chris Knott founded Peter Millar in 2001 on the back of a single line of cashmere sweaters in a rainbow of colors—and a name he cribbed from an inscription on an antique lawn-bowling ball—and by the close of the decade, you could find the logo on tour players, club champions, captains of industry and other influencers (even though that wasn’t technically a thing quite yet).

Former Ralph Lauren executive Scott Mahoney joined with the Sea Island Company (which owns the Sea Island Resort in Georgia) in 2005 to buy the majority of Peter Millar from its founding group, which in addition to Knott included Chet Sikorski and Greg Oakley. But fueling growth meant investing heavily in inventory, and when the global-financial crisis began to unfold, Peter Millar found itself in a vise. When the economy tanked, Sea Island moved to sell its stake to private equity.

When outside funding comes in, it can sometimes spell doom—or at least conscription to licensing purgatory and perpetual consignment to the discount rack. Just ask brands such as Ben Hogan, Etonic or Spalding. “When your money is tied up in inventory at the wrong time, you have nothing,” Mahoney says. “It was a difficult time for everyone, but going through that sales process at the time gave us incredible discipline.”

For Peter Millar, the new structure and cash infusion from Winona Capital—and Winona’s blessing to bolster the sales and design teams with talent on the sidelines despite the cratered economy—helped it survive a crisis that took out hundreds of undercapitalized or overextended companies. The brand’s attention to detail and real-world evangelists kept sales growing. Jim Gold was Neiman Marcus’ president and chief buyer in 2010, and he noticed his playing partner’s shirt during a round at Century, his home club in suburban New York City. “I asked what kind it was, and he didn’t know, so I checked the inside of the collar,” says Gold, who is now the CEO of Moda Operandi, a women’s luxury fashion retailer. “I had never heard of Peter Millar, but then I saw it in a few golf shops. I asked my team to track them down, and they said they couldn’t find them—so I called the 1-800 number on the website and left a message in their general inbox that I was interested in carrying the line in our stores. When they called back, they said they thought they were getting punked.”

Gold said the combination of quality, design and pricing—golf shirts with luxe detail and finish that still came in under $100—made the brand attractive to carry, along with Peter Millar’s willingness to embrace sleeker silhouettes and performance fabrics when baggy cotton shirts were the standard uniform in the category.

By 2012, Peter Millar’s trajectory made it a juicy target for another acquisition—this time by the Swiss luxury conglomerate Richemont, which also owns jewelers Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, watchmakers Panerai, IWC and Piaget and pen maker Montblanc. Richemont has left Peter Millar to continue its expansion in the luxury golf space, both by growing into street clothes, sunglasses and shoes and through acquisitions of its own. Peter Millar bought edgy California clothing and shoe brand G/Fore in 2018, adding a younger, West Coast-flavored option for players whose tastes trend toward flat-brimmed hats with golf slang embroidery, joggers and patent-leather saddle shoes. “It was the perfect acquisition because it wasn’t Peter Millar. There might be 10 or 15 percent crossover between our brands,” Mahoney says. “We were able to put our operational expertise behind them for sourcing and production and customer service and let them continue down their own path.”

All of which goes to show the combination of talent, taste, opportunity and luck it takes to last a dozen seasons through various versions of “Does this come in blue?”