By simply speaking with Bobby and Marianne Bock, one can tell the two have a healthy marriage. They finish each other’s sentences when the other can’t find the words; they speak very highly of each other’s accomplishments, and they love to talk about their eight-year-old son. However, there’s one aspect of the Long Island couple’s life that sets them apart from most married couples: they are also business partners of 525 America. Bobby is the chief executive officer and Marianne is the president and creative director. As the company celebrates its thirtieth anniversary, Bobby and Marianne discuss their experience in the fashion industry, their work dynamic, and their mutual love for good sweaters.
Could you describe how 525 America came to be what it is today?
Marianne Bock: Bobby started the company thirty years ago with $1,500 that he borrowed from his parents and the drive to produce a desirable product . . .
Bobby Bock: . . . with the idea of making a great cotton sweater. We bought a knitting mill to make the sweaters and even made blankets in the off-season to keep our employees working. Like businesspeople though, we not only adapted to the trends in the fashion industry but also business trends. We eventually moved production to China to keep costs down. Now there are two brands: 525 America and 525 Made in America. 525 America is made in China, while the other is made in the US.
How did you wind up in the fashion industry?
Marianne: Bobby started the business with no design background. It wasn’t, “I’m going to grow up and be a designer.” He started his career at French Connection working for two talented merchants, Stephen Marks and Michael Axelrod. When it was time for him to go on his own he did. He has this innate ability where he can walk down the street and look at what someone is wearing and see what is wrong with it. He has the sense to see what’s missing, but he doesn’t have the patience to execute it. That’s where I come in. I studied journalism in college and worked for a couple of news stations as a reporter. After I graduated, I went to a job fair and was offered a job as an assistant buyer. I had no experience in retail, but learned on the job. I was a buyer for a few years before entering the wholesale side of the business. Bobby and I met twenty years ago, and the rest is history.
How would you describe the business relationship between the two of you?
Bobby: I’m good with ideas and Marianne is good with carrying them out. Marianne does the merchandising and running the show. She has evolved from merchandiser to the company’s design director. I handle the financial component, branding opportunities, and new product categories. It’s a good collaboration because we actually see things differently. She has a more feminine way of looking at things. When you put us together, we are one great businessperson. But she’s the tougher one.
Marianne: I was going to say he’s the good cop and I’m the bad cop. I’m a bottom-line kind of person. Bobby is good with dealing with nonsense and I’m not.
Bobby: I love nonsense. I’m the people person.
Marianne: I’m the pragmatic executer.
How does working together affect your marriage?
Bobby: When I want to talk about business at night, she doesn’t. But it’s part of our lives. It’s what we do.
Marianne: The one thing that saves our marriage is that we commute separately. It’s necessary!
Bobby: It’s not like we have lunch every day. She comes in earlier and I come in later. At the end of the day, we realize it’s about us, but our business is part of our lives, too. It’s great because we are doing the same thing. My mother was a bookkeeper and my father was a salesperson. I saw my parents do it, so I know how it works.
Marianne: It’s difficult, but it keeps us on the same page in our life. You know you’re not alone and we have each other’s back. We have a normal relationship, of course. We fight, but it’s healthy to do that. It keeps it “real.”
Explain the “Knit for the Cure” program.
Marianne: Bobby and I were introduced to the founder of the Max Cure Foundation, which is a pediatric cancer research foundation. The founder started it because his four-year-old son had a rare form of cancer.
Bobby: We met the family and the story was so great that we had no choice but to get involved.
Marianne: But “Knit for a Cure” came from one of the foundation’s initiatives, “Dunk your Kicks,” where children donate used sneakers. We also wanted our eight-year-old son to get involved in a charity. We wanted him to see what philanthropy can do for you and for other people. Our son raised more than $1,000 with the help of his summer camp. For [525 America’s] thirtieth anniversary, we teamed up with Hamptons magazine and collaborated on a sweater. Twenty percent of the proceeds went to Max Cure. We just finished the campaign, and it was very successful.
Bobby: We will have a [Knit for the Cure] sweater run in the spring again. It’s not all about the money, or about us. But it is all about the sweater.
You’ve said, “Catching a trend is easy, making sure it’s a relevant one becomes the challenge.” How do you make sure it’s relevant?
Marianne: What Bobby meant is that you can read all the trade publications you want about the industry, but at the end of the day, the trend you are trying to capture is for you and your customer. So if you don’t know your customer or yourself, then the trend won’t matter. We know who we are. There are some trends going on in the market that are not for us.
Bobby: Also, we’re multidimensional in a one-dimensional world. There are people who ship 30 percent of showroom-quality clothes, and we ship 99 percent of products that are showroom quality or better. They can count on us to get the goods and the quality.
What does this thirtieth-anniversary milestone mean to the pair of you?
Marianne: We’ve remained the same brand that the contemporary customer can rely on. Our customer has grown up with the label. It’s like having a family member designing your clothes. I came in twenty years ago. The uniqueness is that we’re a private company doing the same thing for thirty years, which doesn’t happen in this industry. You either go out of business, or you get bought by a larger company. Bobby has successfully navigated an ever-changing retail climate. Anyone familiar with this business knows how remarkable that is.
Bobby: We try to make comfortable knitwear that looks good on a sixteen-year-old or a sixty-year-old. It’s about the aesthetic. To our surprise, we have stayed with it through good and bad.