Stephen Smith and Matthew Valiollahi
COMPANY Southern Marsh Collection
REVENUE $5 million
NEXT GOAL $20 million
As a student, Matthew Valiollahi noticed the many styles and varieties of T-shirts his peers were wearing. Inspired by those designs—and also by Garden and Gun magazine, which celebrates Southern culture—he decided to create a brand of high-quality T-shirts and casual wear with a distinctly Southern style and flair. While still in his senior year at LSU, he approached friend Stephen Smith to design the Southern Marsh brand, with its trademark mallard logo. At first, the pair simply sold their designs. As they began to investigate the quality of fabrics, they came up with a better idea: “That’s when we decided to build the T-shirt from the yarn stage and create quality garments from the ground up,” Valiollahi says.
When the idea first struck, the pair went to adjunct professor Walter Morales, who helped them refine their business plan. “We talked to everyone we could find,” Valiollahi says of the early days in 2007. “We couldn’t find any capital or backers. I put down a good bit of personal savings and got access to a credit line from the bank using the equity in my house.” Valiollahi’s father let him use his place for a minimal fee. Valiollahi concentrated on the business end, while Smith focused on the creative side of the business. “He is the guy who polishes everything that goes out the door,” Valiollahi says. Today, Southern Marsh sells its signature T-shirts, as well as polos, dress shirts, outerwear, youth clothing, and more.
“At the beginning and for the first year, no one thought the idea would work,” Valiollahi says. “Everyone thought the market was already dominated by the old guard (Izod, Lacoste and Brooks Brothers) or saturated by the lower-end, mass-market guys.” These days, the partners make at least two trips a year to Hong Kong, which serves as their base of operations as they travel Asia in search of factories that meet their standards of producing high-quality merchandise on a large scale. They focus on careful control of brand identity as they expand their footprint, and plan to spend 10% of revenues on print and digital advertising in the coming year.
“I feel like a lot of people don’t hire the right guys because they think they can do it all themselves. That’s almost always a fallacy.”