The founders of unapologetic clothing brand Rufskin talk loving men’s clothing and each other.
Sending Shock Waves
Fifteen years ago, Hubert Pierre Pouches and Douglas Coats started a line of men’s clothing that sent shock waves through the fashion industry. Rufskin designs didn’t stick to time-worn masculine stereotypes like Levi’s or Wrangler. They were boldly and explicitly gay in their approach to the male form. Their jeans were skin tight (even before Spandex allowed them to stretch and move as they do today), and the models wearing them were handpicked for bodies built to the popular gay ideal. Today, as the pair celebrate not only their union as husbands but the 15-year mark as business partners, they face increased competition from such brands as Nasty Pig and other up-and-coming online retailers. While they operate as a pair, the biggest division of labor is that Pouches is the visionary designer, and Coats (once a model himself) focuses on marketing and public relations. Still they say, each of them contributes to all aspects of the Rufskin empire — which keeps them both on their toes.
At First Sight
METROSOURCE: Do you remember the first time you saw your husband? Was it love at first sight?
POUCHES: As if it was yesterday. Twenty-seven years ago at the agency where I was working in Paris, I remember Doug coming straight from Milan for the shows there…
COATS: He was this charming Frenchman with a strong accent, dealing all day with an army of Brazilians for the castings, which should have given me an indication that he was pretty intense and hands-on with every aspect of his business. I’m not sure the love arrow didn’t strike us at once; I’m not even sure we were each other’s type.
How long it took you to become serious about each other, to move in together, and to decide to become business partners?
POUCHES: Doug came to my apartment that same night. A week later, we were a couple, and our business partnership became official 15 years ago. Now we’ve been married for almost two years.
COATS: There were some discrepancies on the living situation in Paris for the shows, so I ended up crashing at Hubert’s flat the first night (with too many models smoking hashish who never moved out until about four years later, when we moved to the States). It took us a week to really share a bed, and it took me about a month to clean up his pad and get rid of all the crazy models crashing all over his Madeleine apartment. I guess that’s what you call serious! We always knew that we would end up being business partners, and we started Rufskin in 2002.
Differences of Opinion
Hubert has said that after years of designing for women, he was ready to move on to the male form. What’s the biggest difference?
POUCHES: Everything. Women’s fashion is … contracts, collections, calendars, deadlines, shows, salons, etc. Designing for men was an escape, in a certain way — it meant absolute freedom, especially since we were creating our own company and structure.
COATS: Don’t get me started. I still ask Hubert once in a while about developing a girl’s line for Rufskin, but his Catalan blood always cuts me off immediately.
When disagreements come up between the two of you, what do you argue about, and do you have a system for working through them?
POUCHES: Just about everything! Opposites attract and react. It’s part of my French heritage too, I guess. And having strong and genuine points of view. It’s what enriches the whole relationship. After 27 years, we do have many ways to faire la paix [make peace] as they say. And we got two dogs; two Frenchies. They will solve any crisis.
COATS: You could ask this question of our employees, as they have borne witness to many of our fights. I also feel that I’m one of the very few people who can actually push Hubert’s buttons and get away with it. Our system is to yell at each other at the top of our lungs, give each other the silent treatment and then realize we are being dumb and smoothly get back to reality and compromise on our disagreements calmly.
The Ethos of Being Gay
METROSOURCE: What do you think Rufskin contributes to the ethos of being gay?
POUCHES: I grew up in the mid-’70s in the south of France, so I never really was conscious of gay issues — maybe because of the time of total liberation in all directions, including sexually. So if we contributed to the gay community in any way, we didn’t have the feeling we were pushing that agenda. Maybe that’s why we started with so much attention right away. In 2002 when Rufskin started, the line was all about sex and rock ‘n’ roll: low-waisted jeans and zippers around the crotch with actual “butt cleavage” around the back. Later, the stretch denim underwear/swim line caused a major splash, too. But for us, it was always about standing for who you are. We did The Janice Dickinson Show and became “the gay brand from California.” This, plus a series of images from Justin Monroe, and suddenly, there go all the taboos and norms out the window. Year after year, we stand for what we believe and Rufskin is as much a lifestyle as a brand of clothing. Our campaign to promote pot legalization in California is a perfect example of that, too. So Rufskin is all about the free spirit and open mind vibe.
COATS: I think Rufskin embodied our desire for freedom without restrictions and disregarding mainstream judgments and attitudes towards fashion. We hope our campaigns deliver the same message, presenting an image that’s sexy, but not vulgar, and I believe our clothing reflects that and gay people are attracted to our formula.
How has Rufskin changed over the years, in terms of the clothing?
POUCHES: We started with four jeans designs, then we added underwear and swimwear, since I was working in Brazil with a huge factory. In 2006, when we decided to have our clothes manufactured entirely in California, we extended the line to what it is today. The freedom of our structure allows us to basically do what we want when we want, including the way we manage our sales.
COATS: Although we continue to follow our concept, I think we’ve matured our line in the following years. The focus isn’t as much on that übersexual vibe as it was at the start, but has extended to a wider range of designs, according to our lifestyle. California played a huge role in that evolution.
How do you keep your line unique? When you started, there weren’t many doing what you do.
POUCHES: For sure. As I said earlier, we have no restrictions. Guys had no real choices unless they were willing to go to a women’s store to search for their size. Low-rise jeans, sexy denim, edgy underwear were the base of our our brand back then. Now 15 years later, we’re seeing the market explode right and left. Some of our vintage pieces are being reborn or knocked off by others, but Rufskin is what it is and keeps us constantly motivated to create something new. We are a lifestyle brand, not a fashion label, and we intend to keep it that way.
COATS: I’ll agree to disagree. From my perspective, I’m always surprised at how Hubert manages to “trip” over certain concepts, totally disregarding the current trends. That may be where our joint influences come into play.
Secrets of Success
Was there a garment that took off so successfully that it surprised you?
POUCHES: Our first four denim jeans were a surprise hit. The low-rise, straight leg — or boot cut — being available for guys absolutely jumpstarted the whole brand, but the “butt cleavage” jeans sealed the deal. The Western chaps-cut jeans with names like “Hustler,” “Cody” and “Chuck” made them more personal, so we were delighted with the whole project. But when we started the underwear and sport lounge with fishnet underwear and terrycloth lounge pants, we really began to see massive returns. We manufactured the Tambo sweat pants and the Dino shorts for more than four years, but I finally had it, and I killed them!
COATS: That may be the biggest difference between us. I have an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, but Hubert is always craving new styles and drives the whole team crazy. So there are always many new surprises in store.
Read Next | Breaking Down HIV Stigma, One Test at a Time
Do you get responses about the models being so perfectly sculpted, e.g. from the bear community and people who criticize aggressive gym goers?
POUCHES: That’s another “Damocles’ Sword” question. Of course we do, But here’s the thing: I think in general people are too analytical about everything. We live in a society and a community that needs to learn how to respect and accept each other. It’s all about choices. Some love to suffer to reach an aesthetic that makes them feel good. Others love to eat and could care less about their looks. What matters is to feel with yourself. … We never intended to cast anyone away.
COATS: We could go in the current direction of the new normalized aesthetic that has taken over so much of the fashion world, but Rufskin has always been and will always be a brand that stays true to its roots. Aside from the technical execution of the garments — including size, cut and construction — there is also a partisan (and very reflective of our current political landscape) position from our company that is the essence of our brand. We are continuously baffled by messages like “I can’t wear your clothes!” or “I don’t have that body!” attitude, but I see that as self-blocking behavior. With a closer look, we realize that our customer base is really as diverse as the community itself, so I say: Let’s embrace that!
Any pushback from the straight community about “scandalous” pieces?
POUCHES: We do have a fairly consistent customer base that could give a damn about whether the clothes are “gay” or not. We started our brand with sexy pieces, and so is our image sometimes. But the goal has always been to make the guys feel sexy without crossing a line to vulgarity. We’ve actually gotten more negative comments from gay people than straight dudes.
COATS: When you stand up for your choices, you can’t expect to avoid reactions. We are actually often pleasantly surprised by the open-mindedness and the wide range of our customer base. We can observe this from our headquarters store in San Diego every day, and it is quite refreshing and gives us some hope about how mentalities can change.
What do you see as the future for your brand?
POUCHES: We don’t live in the future. We are super-fortunate to be able to do as we please — most of the time — so there are no real plans. After 15 years, each day is a new page of a new chapter. Some stay in fiction, others become reality. That’s the beauty of life, isn’t it? … If we can in any way open people’s minds, let them express themselves, or just tease their curiosity to realize that we are all different, but part of the same world, then that will do for us.
COATS: That may be why we are so different — Hubert and I — and yet working in the same direction. I am always browsing for new adventures, disregarding the technicality, and that’s probably why I keep us always on the move. I think the whole Rufskin concept a the beginning was a little daring, and ambitious at the time, but it is also what keeps us on the edge of our own destiny.
You can see and purchase Rufskin apparel online at rufskin.com
If you like Rufskin, enjoy a sexy blast from the past here on Metrosource.
Read Next | Find LGBTQ-Friendly Real Estate Agents in NYC
Last modified: August 14, 2019