I recently received the first, and probably only, fraternity bid card of my life. Stamped with the insignia of "Social Primer Fraternity," the card is actually a formal invitation to a presentation at The University Club on West 54th Street during New York Fashion Week. It's a perfectly fitting way for Charleston-based designer K. Cooper Ray to spread the word about his newest collection of unapologetically preppy men's accessories.
"Let's call a spade a spade: I'm not the first person doing a prep collection out there," Ray says, speaking from his downtown carriage house studio. "It's a crowded field and there are a lot of masters out there. What Social Primer brings is sort of classic with a little bit of a twist. A little humor, but not too much."
You may recognize Ray for his work with Brooks Brothers, where he designs a line of reversible bowties; they're one of the top 10 performers in the company, according to the designer. This new 12-piece capsule collection, which includes long ties and blazers, is Ray's first outside of Brooks Brothers, although the pieces are being made in the Brooks Brothers factory in New York. "I designed it to be sort of a classic collection, the first one out of the gate in my own name," Ray says. "I wanted it to not really be seasonal, but rather evergreen."
Ray teamed up with silk tie manufacturer Steven Walters in London for the ties and Brooklyn's Martin Greenfield ("one of last great American tailors") for the very limited-edition, slightly British-inspired blazers. "It's something that my guys can trust that when they wear it, they'll fit in anywhere, they will be appropriately dressed," Ray says.
By "my guys," Ray is referring to the readers of his lifestyle blog Social Primer, which he started in 2008. "It was a dialogue between me and younger men behind me," Ray says of SP's origins. "I kind of got frustrated with my own generation ... seeing people not live up to any sort of standard." A modern, male version of Emily Post, he focuses on everything from manners to handling your liquor, and he hopes to give his readers the courage to dress with more panache.
"You see me out dressed, and half the time some might consider me a clown," Ray says. "I really push the limits of go-to-hell prep. My reasoning for doing that, other than I'm just an eccentric kook, is that I feel like if I'm dressed really eccentrically, I feel like the other guys out there will see me and think, OK, I can go another step further. At least no one's going to look at me, they're looking at him."
Though he's quite the traveler (recent Instagram adventures have found him in Cape Cod and New York), the Alabama native now calls Charleston home, and he finds a lot of inspiration in the Holy City. "Moving to Charleston was the most amazing thing at the right time that I could have done," he says. "Coming back here as a designer and looking around at the way the men dress here, from six years old to 90, is so inspiring. It just turned on this flood for me. I really feel like what I'm presenting in New York is this kind of condensed, concentrated version of what I see in Charleston.
"Walk past St. Philip's Church on a July Sunday and just stand out there when these men come out of the service — seersucker and hats and bucks and bowties," he adds. "It's all I can do not to take their pictures, and I admit I have a couple times."
Ray started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the presentation. His goal was to raise $25,000 by Sept. 5; at press time he'd raised $25,742 from 78 backers. "The whole mission of Social Primer is you don't have to be rich to live the good life," he says. "So I kind of wanted to do it more democratically and put it out there to my readers and to the followers and do it that way first. It seemed more SP, to tell you the truth, to do it that way. We'll see if that works. It's on a nice track so far.
"One time someone asked me, 'Aren't you rich?'" he adds. "I have to remind them that my last name is Ray, not Rockefeller. Even though I do know a few Rockefellers and am privileged to go to their house on vacation, I'm not one of them."