Words: Dominic Bonvissuto | Photos: Caroline Fontenot
A quiet force behind some of the smartest startups in menswear, Kirk Stafford's business evolution has kicked up its fair share of dust. Now, he's older, wiser - and stretching his wings to take off in style with a killer line of shoes and a shiny new title: COO.
It’s 8 a.m. on a weekday at Drip Coffee in Hapeville, Georgia, across from the railroad tracks in this quaint town just outside downtown Atlanta. Kirk Stafford sits in a bright yellow chair, letting his Two Leaves tea steep in a glass mug and relaying the events of his morning. He mentions that he’s already got in an hour of Crossfit. “See how I worked that in there,” Stafford says with a confident grin.
I hadn’t met Stafford prior to this interview, so I relied on Google to fill in the blanks. Through that prism, it’s easy to see Stafford as sophisticated and accomplished. As the guy who started his own bow tie company at age 25, co-founded a menswear boutique at 27 and launched a shoe company earlier this year at 28. As the guy called one of the South’s most stylish by Southern Living magazine.
Now Stafford tells me he awakens early enough to get in a workout and do a press interview, all before clocking in at 9:30 a.m. Is this guy for real?
Turns out, he’s not. Peeling back the layers of Stafford’s onion, the truth begins to emerge. That bow tie company? Defunct. The menswear boutique? He’s no longer a partner, after a split with his co-founder. The shoe company? It’s in a perpetual soft-launch state until he finds more time to devote to it. And the Crossfit?
“I do Crossfit like a chump,” the 29-year-old Stafford admits, explaining he just started back in July after taking more than a year off from exercising. “The fact I’m even walking today is amazing.”
So there it is, straight from the mouth of a man who once pledged a Georgia Tech fraternity while enrolled at Georgia State. Stafford doesn’t set out to pretend to be somebody he’s not, but if people perceive him a certain way, he’s not going to stop them.
“I’ve had a lot of people in the press talk about how Kirk had this tie company which he parlayed into a store which he parlayed into a shoe company,” Stafford says. “They make it sound so much cooler than it actually is.”
Here’s the reality: Stafford grew up in small-town Georgia and made his way to Atlanta for college. After graduating, he set off for Dallas, where he worked for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. His grandparents also reside in Texas and, while he lived there, his grandmother taught him how to sew.
“We tore apart a tie one day to see how it was made and I started experimenting with those,” Stafford details. “Then I started making them for friends.”
Stafford has always been attuned to his appearance, an interest proliferated by working at J.Crew in college. Creating bow ties seemed to be a natural fit for him and he grew his projects into a side gig while still employed with Enterprise (which eventually transferred him back to Atlanta). He named his endeavor Mast-McBride, hooked on with a New York-based manufacturer and began making custom wedding party attire — bow ties, cummerbunds, suspenders, etc.
His experiences with Mast-McBride led him to pursue a Masters in Luxury and Fashion Management at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Atlanta. During the enrollment process, Stafford met Thomas Wages, an Atlanta advertising executive with a passion for men’s style. Over a series of drinks meetings, Wages and Stafford conceived the idea for Tweeds.
“Opening a men’s lifestyle store was a dream for him, a dream for me,” Stafford muses.
By the summer of 2013, Tweeds opened on Atlanta’s Westside with immediate success. Stafford discovered he loved working with smaller brands and helping them gain broader exposure by featuring their products at his store. Fortuitously, in the store’s second week, a restaurant designer named Brittany walked in and caught Stafford’s eye. He proposed five months later.
As his September 2014 wedding date approached, Stafford shifted his perspective to the life he wanted to create with his bride. “Having to man a store seven days a week would have locked us down more than we wanted,” Stafford relents. Wages understood and the two worked out an agreement to dissolve the business partnership a week before Stafford’s wedding.
On their honeymoon to Croatia, the couple discussed an idea rattling about in Stafford’s mind. Missing the tangible creativity of his Mast-McBride venture, Stafford envisioned translating that process to launch a men’s shoe company. He needed a name, though.
“I knew I didn’t want to use my name. I took that cue from Billy Reid and Sid Mashburn, who both did so many things before creating a brand in their name,” Stafford says. “I’ll save ‘Kirk Stafford’ for when I’m 50.” So, strolling through Old Town Dubrovnik after dinner one night, the newlyweds heard a bell tower ring and looked up to see bats scrambling around the sky. “Where’d they come from?” Brittany asked. Stafford responded they were in the belfry. They liked the way the word sounded, and that simply, Belfry Shoes was born.
Once they returned to Atlanta, Stafford flew to Maine to talk with a shoe manufacturer about crafting the Belfry line and the first samples arrived in December 2014. Belfry’s offerings range from bright green penny loafers to Horween Chromexcel chukkas and are similar in style and quality to established shoe brands Oak Street Bootmakers and Quoddy.
Stafford soft-launched the site in early 2015; he uses the lessons of past mistakes, along with the knowledge he gained at SCAD, to guide his path with Belfry.
“I overbought with Mast-McBride ... a classic ‘no-no’ in retail,” Stafford says. “But I found that if I made my stuff to order, I actually made money. So I knew I wanted to do wholesale with Belfry.”
Stafford’s untucked blue-striped popover and unstructured nautical flag hat give off a relaxed vibe but he’s long-finished his tea and is now antsy to leave. He’s running a little late for another meeting, but he drops a hint about a larger brand project in the works.
“I love those conversations where brands reach out and ask me for help,” he says as we part ways. “I just like helping people realize their dream.”
Ed note: At publish date, In addition to retaining control of Belfry, Kirk Stafford has been named the COO of Big Flower, an East Hampton-based clothing company which just launched an end-of-summer capsule collection. Big Flower will produce a full line in spring 2016.
About the Author:
Dominic Bonvissuto is the founder of Jeans & Ties, a men’s lifestyle site. He also is an editor for Sports Illustrated’s The MMQB. He does both jobs on the spotty WiFi of local coffee shops in Long Beach, Calif, where he makes a home with his wife and son. He grew up in Nashville, Tenn., before it became insufferably cool.