Rusted Oak owner Robert Ordway sees how tradition and innovation can work together.
“Our core mission is to help men aspire to be better gentlemen, learn more about the traditions that make us men and believe in being both traditional and progressive. I think that is possible in society … to maintain tradition and be forward-looking,” he said. “We are educating men – whether on etiquette, shoe-shining, whiskey-tasting and pairings – and ultimately creating a sense of camaraderie and building wardrobes for guys that fit their lifestyles.”
The men’s boutique offers traditional menswear, casual wear, sportswear and custom items, such as topcoats, suits, sweaters and shoes. The team also provides tuxedo rental and tailoring services.
“The biggest challenge the industry is facing, even though younger guys are buying their own clothing, it’s still stressful and they don’t enjoy the process. They need help and guidance and our job is to make it easy for them,” he said. “When they wake up in the morning, when they are making a big CEO decision, it’s not going to be if the gingham check matches the herringbone or tartan … they don’t even want to know what those words are.
“It’s about, ‘Do I look good? Is it going to help me be confident in my day?’ Whether they are getting ready to make a presentation or it’s a college student going to his first interview … at the end of the day, we want men to be confident in all aspects of what they do.”
Ordway also sees the importance of working with community members and offers a range of items on consignment, including used barrels from Journeyman Distillery of Three Oaks, Mich., and books by authors with region ties: Valparaiso University Dr. Heath Carter, Crystal O’Brien and Tyler Bush.
The store also has a signature scent by Would You Lather out of Fairland, Ind., featured in beard oil, soap, shampoo, body wash and other products and will soon feature handmade leather goods by Christian Resiak of Howl & Hide, a Michigan City native who now lives in Indianapolis.
“Featuring other local artists allows me to tell their story when folks are in here. Through social entrepreneurism, a business is a piece of the community. When we talk about how to make Northwest Indiana a better place to work, live and play that is through partnerships and teamwork,” he said.
He also emphasizes how partnerships with other entrepreneurs are a key part of his business’s growth and development. Valparaiso-based We Create Media (another NW-ISBDC client) assists Ordway with marketing and branding and was the force behind photos snapped at Journeyman Distillery.
“We Create Media is an extremely talented firm. They take ideas from paper and turn them into a true vision and into something tangible,” he said.
“There are folks who live in a mindset of scarcity – approach it from the other side. An abundancy mindset makes the pie bigger and the goal – in my mind – is individual pieces get bigger for everyone. There’s always someone to make a friend with, to help and encourage, to sell to … as along as everyone’s piece is getting bigger to some degree, we can make sure that the rising tide is helping all ships.”
Ordway landed in the entrepreneurial world after realizing government or politics wasn’t a long-term fit.
“I always wanted to be my own boss but having the financial resources is a challenge. I graduated with a finance degree in 2007 – the worst degree to have going into 2008 – entry-level jobs required five years of experience. I went back to grad school and pursued opportunities in government and politics,” he said. “That wasn’t a long-term strategy … more of a hobby and a way to give back to the community.”
Ordway believed he could help fill a void created by the closing of David’s Men’s Clothier and the retirement of owner David Shurr.
“Valpo is one of the best downtowns in the Midwest. I don’t know if this opportunity would succeed or be as good in another downtown venue,” he said.
He worked on his business plan for about 250 hours, refining it over time with research and learning more about the industry. He worked with NW-ISBDC business adviser Gary Brownlee on his plan as well as data accumulation.
“Gary is a great asset. Data from ESRI really helped me learn about the demographics and psychographics: what are people’s lifestyle behaviors, what are their values and hobbies. Knowing someone’s race, religion, culture, creed, income or gender is OK, but you need to know how that plays in what they do in their day-to-day life,” he said.
His interest in clothing and style stemmed from his time as an undergrad at VU and looking professional for presentations and career fairs. This mindset was a 360 from his upbringing in a union steel worker’s home.
“Clothing was the last thing my family invested in. Today, there is an element of casual culture but an expectation overall for men to dress better particularly from women,” he said. “For men, function will always supersede fashion – always. Women will wear high heels for the evening and if they look pretty, it’s worth it. If a guy doesn’t feel comfortable in a tie or jacket, it’s going in the garbage can, it’s coming off. We strive to sell pieces that are multifunctional.”
The idea of investing in a wardrobe is an old-school principle that Ordway says is part of the ‘Made in America’ mentality returning, but yet hindered by “Americans addiction to low-cost.”
“In the 1960s, we made about 90 to 95 percent of our clothing. Today, we make 3 percent. There were certain staples you bought once and had for life. Back then, your garment really had to perform,” he said. “There is a push for ‘Made in America’ in many sectors and with garments, the idea is out there … At the grocery store, you look at price per ounce. Clothing really should be about price per wear.
“It all comes back to education. A man needs to own a navy blazer no matter what he does in life and he should spend the most that he is able to comfortably afford.”
As he gets off-and-running, Ordway looks to add educational events and remain on point.
“We are working toward wine-and-canvas-type events and authors talking about their books … events with something to learn,” he said. “The key is staying focused on the mission … patience, perseverance, hard work. It’s easy for a business, non-profit organization or even government to get off its core mission. Instead of doing one thing great, you do many things poorly. Let’s not get too far off in the weeds.”
Rusted Oak is located at 19 Lincolnway in Valparaiso. Connect with the team on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, call (219) 510-0016 or visit www.rustedoak.co.