Top Of The Line: Two New Canaan Football Graduates Looking To Make It Big In Men’s Activewear

Former New Canaan football players Nate Checketts (left) and Jon Drenckhahn believe their company, Rhone Apparel,  will be a big hit in upscale men's activewear. (Photo: Mark Conrad)
Former New Canaan football players Nate Checketts (left) and Jon Drenckhahn believe their company, Rhone Apparel, will be a big hit in upscale men’s activewear. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

NEW CANAAN—Nate Checketts and Jon Drenckhahn have a question for active males: are you willing to buy workout and casual attire that can cost close to double the industry standard, but which they claim will perform better and last longer?

The two New Canaan High School graduates have thrown all of their chips into the table betting that the answer is yes.

Checketts is the co-founder of and Drenckhahn the vice president of business development for Rhone Apparel, a new men’s line that will be celebrating its first anniversary in November.

Gearing up for a major fall launch, the company right now offers five different styles of shirts, four types of shorts and pants, and socks geared for men to wear to the gym or during their down time.

“Part of the challenge with what Jon and I and others in the company do is we are active guys, and oftentimes at a hedge fund or investment fund you have to dress up, you wear the suits and you come home and your options are jeans or baggy shorts that you wore when you were 17 years old,” said Checketts, whose father, Dave, is a former NBA executive and president of Madison Square Garden. “We kind of thought there was a gap in the offering. There’s an opportunity to make really high-end gear that guys will want to wear in the moments of transition, so it’s functional enough to wear in the gym but stylish enough to wear out with your friends and comfortable when you’re sitting at home watching a football game. We basically created a line that we wanted to wear all the time.”

Checketts was a running back on New Canaan’s 1999 and 2000 FCIAC football championship teams, and Drenckhahn a wide receiver for the Rams’ 2001 and 2002 state championship teams who went on to play at Williams. The two friends, and Rhone’s three other full-time employees, were neck to toe in their company’s products during a recent visit to their New Canaan office.

The company’s name comes from the river and region in Europe. The products in the line derive from what Checketts said are “inspirational and aspirational figures.” The Mako short, for example, comes from the Ernest Hemingway book The Old Man and The Sea. There are motivational quotes inside the hems of all pieces.

“We want to make the best product possible,” Checketts said. “That’s why we are only doing men’s and focusing on that. We want to inspire guys to be better and work harder.”

Both Checketts and Drenckhahn have backgrounds in the financial world. The two reconnected by happenstance at JFK airport last fall when Drenckhahn was on his way to a Packers game, not long after Rhone launched. That was the impetus for a meeting and Drenckhahn joining the company.

“The bigger names have a pretty good grasp on the market, but in my view the market is moving where people want choices and you’re seeing a lot more start-ups,” Drenckhahn said. “People want quality. They want the better fit. They don’t want the regular T-shirt that everyone makes.”

If you are looking for a simplistic analogy, think Lululemon for men.

“I don’t mind if people draw that conclusion,” Checketts said.

Added Drenckhahn, “We try to make sure we are over serving our clientele. We try to source the top designers, the top fabrics and top fabric technology we can find out there. We are not turning over the product constantly. We want to try and take our product and make it better, whether it is tweaking a shirt, tweaking a short a little bit to make it more functional.”

A recent writeup it the Wall Street Journal kept the staff busy last week filling orders. Many consumers are repeat buyers. They include a unit that defuses bombs in Afghanistan as well as marathon winners.

“Some of the best things that have happened is seeing people who buy the gear doing incredible things,” Checketts said. “We love what we do and it’s exciting to see people love what we do.”

In the new-world economy, many are discovering Rhone from positive word of mouth on social media. The company is preparing to expand its offerings this fall.

The company’s credo is three Fs: form, fit and function. Checketts said the reason Rhone products cost more is because of the superior material, which also means it will last longer.

“We aren’t going to make the tradeoff in quality,” he said. “In the end you are going to get a few shirts that you really love instead of a new shirt each year that you aren’t particularly fond of. We think the proof is in the pudding. Once someone puts in on, they will say ‘I get it now. I know why it costs more.’ ”

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