Broadway star also a fashionista
| June 13, 2010 9:00 PM
NEW YORK - In the Broadway show "Memphis," Chad Kimball plays a lackadaisical guy who floats through jobs before wandering into the music biz.
In real life, Kimball has two successful careers - at once.
The Tony-nominated actor is half of Obvious Clothing, a line of upscale T-shirts that recently launched Lolly Cashmere, a sort of hipster take on the traditional cashmere sweater.
Kimball performs six shows a week in "Memphis," at the Shubert Theatre, a musical about a great female singer in the 1950s and attempts to get her - and other black music - played on the radio. The show won a Drama Desk award for best musical and has been nominated for eight Tonys, including Kimball as best actor for his performance as Huey, the man behind the music.
"It's been trying," he says of balancing two professions. "But at the same time it's really fantastic and lucky and I'm really excited about it."
Kimball studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music and has been performing in musicals and plays on Broadway and around the country for several years. His older brother, Todd, was working in insurance when they went into business together in 2006.
They had always talked about a partnership as a way to raise money so they could hang on to a piece of property in their family known as "Home Place," a parcel of about 10 acres on Vashon Island near Seattle.
"We wanted to keep it for our family, our great aunt lives there now," Kimball said. "So we'd dream up ways to do that."
Todd, the business brain, came up with the idea of selling T-shirts. With Chad as the creative force they created the line - though neither had any experience in fashion. Kimball was working with the show but it hadn't yet hit Broadway.
"The great thing about going into business in a field you're not familiar with is that you don't ever know that you're doing something wrong," Kimball says. "A lot of times in fashion, people will say, 'How did you do this? You had no idea.' I think it's precisely that. There are no limits."
The T-shirts have a worn-out look. The idea is to take a simple pattern and twist it a little - a blue houndstooth with a flower splashed across the front, or a short-sleeve yellow hoodie with a silvery edge.
The design worked and their shirts are now sold in about 250 boutiques around the country, as well as Macy's, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's. The company grew nearly 200 percent last year.
Todd Kimball says the success of the line is due in part to his brother's success on Broadway.
"It really helps to have a Tony-nominated spokesman," he said. "Chad and I have a good system and we work really well together. We're family first, and I think that helps us."
Their take on the T-shirt is popular because it can sass up any outfit. Boutique owners say the shirts, which retail from $70 to 90, are great for under blazers, paired with jeans.
"They have some really nice burn-outs. ... T-shirt that are in tatters, where you can wear something underneath," said Kristy Wolfson of the Bella Blue boutique in Murphy, N.C.
"It's pretty contemporary. It's great with blue jeans, slip on a cute pair of flats and a blazer and you're downtown cool."
With Chad in New York and Todd in Seattle, the brothers hired a third person, Naomi Hunt, to look over the company's day-to-day operations from Los Angeles. Chad Kimball says he remains highly involved and hopes to keep it that way.
Last fall, they started Lolly Cashmere, named for their grandmother. "Lush, buttery soft and simply sexy, Lolly is not your mother's cashmere," the ad slogan reads.
The concept is the same - printed, faded images juxtaposed on oh-so-soft cashmere hoodies, sweaters and shirts. They retail at $150 to $210.
Kimball, talking in his one-bedroom apartment near the Theater District, said ideas for the fashion come from everywhere. He compiles little notes while riding the subway and has a file called "images of interest" on his computer where he stores anything he sees that catches his eye.
"Just put the stuff that's been around for ages, I'm talking thousands of years, just put it through your own filter and it's going to come out different and cool," he said.
He drags out of his closet plastic bags full of Obvious T-shirts and cashmere: a V-neck with a splashy butterfly, a long, slim T with a faded print, another houndstooth, this one a hoodie cashmere sweater.
"We don't put too much stock in trending," Kimball says. "It comes from us, from our ideas of what we think looks good. And Naomi really has her finger on the pulse. She knows what's hot."
Adds Todd Kimball: "We really do work hard to create a high quality product. That sounds so totally cliche, but it's really true."
They're hoping to grow into baby clothing and a men's line. Meanwhile, "Memphis" has been a huge success leading up to the Tonys on June 14. The AP's late drama critic Michael Kuchwara called the show "The very essence of what a Broadway musical should be."
As the pressure mounts, Chad Kimball says, it's important to remember that family is most important. Last year during a particularly busy stretch of previews, hours of rehearsals plus Obvious Clothing issues, the brothers found out their mother was sick with cancer.
A year later, she's cancer free and will be his date to the awards show.
"Literally nothing else matters," he says of loved ones. "None of this matters, it's really all about your relationships."