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Gift basket entrepreneur creates menswear line

After 20 years as an executive in the gift basket business, Jeff Burkard has turned his eye for design to menswear with the launch of BOGA, a line of "high-end dressy-casual" apparel and accessories.

Burkard, 47, the startup's founder and lead designer, launched BOGA.com in March and in August plans to open a showroom and retail shop at his design studio on the fifth floor at 133 N. Jefferson St., where the elevator doors squeak open to reveal a pile of mannequins in various states of undress at the fore of a very cool, rough loft.

Coincidentally, the century-old building, owned and mostly occupied by Werner Printing and Engraving, formerly housed the boutique of designer Maria Pinto, a favorite of first lady Michelle Obama.

Though Burkard spent the bulk of his career at the helm of DesignPac Gifts, a Melrose Park-based wholesale gift basket company he co-founded whose revenue grew to $67 million, he said he always was a clotheshorse with a passion for high-quality fabric and construction.

He remembers being a 5-year-old ring bearer at his uncle's wedding and thinking of his tuxedo, "Oh, my God, I look so good in this," Burkard said with a laugh. Once the tux rental was returned, he said, he kept wondering what happened to that suit.

After 1-800-Flowers.com bought DesignPac in 2008 for $36 million, Burkard stayed on for two more years as president of the DesignPac operating unit and was charged with launching 1-800-Baskets.com, the direct-to-consumer gift basket company. Ready to move on to a new challenge once his contract was up, Burkard spent the next two years trying to figure out his next step.

The idea for BOGA was born, as ideas often are, from his frustrations trying to shop for a cohesive collection of coordinated garments.

"The most important thing missing was a product that coordinated well together," said Burkard, who financed his new venture with his earnings from the DesignPac sale. "It is hard to find a belt that matches a pair of shoes. It seems simple and basic, but a lot of retailers don't do it."

BOGA — it's a name derived from Boghardt, an Old World German spelling of Burkard's last name — targets men with a timeless, "dressy-casual" aesthetic who are willing to spend on durable clothes made of fine fabrics woven in the storied mills of Italy and Switzerland.

Its offerings include $70 extra-fine cotton T-shirts, $695 merino wool knit sweater jackets, $425 shoes made of Italian calfskin and $165 handmade Italian silk ties. Its "white collar" jeans, $170 each, come in three form-hugging fits, for thin to more athletic builds.

Central to Burkard's mission is a carefully selected palette of 15 core colors, and 22 secondary colors, that can help men populate their wardrobe with versatile basics. He said he spends a lot of time viewing fabric swatches under the different settings of a light box to ensure that the colors will work day and night, outside and in.

"Seventy to 75 percent of everything we carry is mix and matchable in some way, shape or form," Burkard said.

Next month, BOGA will be among the emerging menswear designers to showcase their spring and summer 2015 designs at the Vanguards Gallery at MRket in New York, a global fashion trade show for menswear brands. BOGA will also be featured at the MRket show in Las Vegas in August. The hope, Burkard said, is to find buyers for BOGA's wholesale business.

Burkard's entrepreneurial experience from starting his wholesale gift basket company from scratch and working in every functional area — operations, marketing, warehousing, accounting, design — has been crucial in bringing BOGA to life, he said.

The international nature of his gifting business, in which he might pull together tea from Sri Lanka, cookies from Europe and candy from South America, also has helped him run BOGA, which prides itself on sourcing and creating its products in Europe and Morocco, which have histories of great garment hands. (All of the design and pattern-making happens in Chicago.)

"You have to be very hands-on when you work overseas and spend weeks, if not a month, visiting factories to work on product development," he said.

Burkard had not initially set out for such a career. He moved to Chicago from his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., in 1989 in hopes of landing a job in advertising. It was a bad time for it, and after he grew tired of going door to door begging for receptionist work, he accepted a sales job with The Wisconsin Cheeseman, a mail-order food-gifting company based in Madison, Wis.

Burkard was there two years when, at age 23, he and his boss, Darrell Naughton, broke away to found DesignPac, at a time when a growing contingent of warehouse clubs was demanding gourmet gifting beyond a collection of meats, cheeses and jams in a box.

By figuring out how to pack premium "three-dimensional" gifts that arrived looking as lovely as they did when they shipped, and giving retailers a better value because of efficient assembly line production and savings from high-volume demand, DesignPac grew to employ 77 full-time employees and 350 part-time seasonal workers, Burkard said.

At BOGA, which has 11 employees, Burkard is learning a new set of business lessons. One, which he initially underestimated when he launched online, is the power of having a retail space where customers can interact with the clothes, especially when they are no small investment and he is starting to build brand awareness.

"When people can see the product and touch and feel it, they walk out of the office with a couple thousand dollars in merchandise," said Burkard, who has been taking appointments for men to come to the studio. "It's hard to get that online."

Importantly for men, Burkard said, his showroom and shop will have stylists on hand, and he will encourage other stylists to bring their clients.

"I think a lot of men question their own style; they want some reassurance," Burkard said. "They want one person who knows them and can put outfits together and help them shop."

aelejalderuiz@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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