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Washington Post
Three friends and federal workers have launched Penance Hall, a startup producing luxury men’s socks that are made in America.

DC entrepreneurs betting on luxury socks

The socks are arranged on the table like thin cuts of tenderloin.

“These are over a year’s worth of effort,” one sock guy says. There are eight pairs, each a different color, vivid and rich and juicy-looking.

Another sock guy has donned a pair. Despite his satisfied smile, he has one final criticism.

“These are knee socks,” he says, pulling one up past the upper reaches of his calf, then planting his foot on the table, “and if we sell these, people will go, ‘Those are for old people.’ ”

The three sock guys have old-people names: Joshua Steinman. Jay Gaul IV. D. Turner Swicegood. They are actually 30, 30 and 26 years old, respectively – not quite old enough to be squeezed of vitality and adventure by a lifetime of civil servitude.

Once upon a time, three young men in search of safe nonconformity might have started a band. Now three young men, especially three young men in Washington, might launch a startup to make a statement about dress socks.

“You can see more lines, a lot more negative space,” says Gaul, pointing at the stripes in this latest batch that have been narrowed to one-sixteenth of an inch. “So it’s more pleasing.”

Steinman and Gaul are lieutenants in the Navy and met in officer candidate school. Steinman met Swicegood, a civilian staff officer at the Pentagon who focuses on Middle East policy, through mutual friends.

Together, when they clock out of the Defense Department, they are Penance Hall, an infant company that’s investing against the stodginess and cheapness of the traditional, mass-market cotton dress sock, with its gold-toed foot soldiers, by creating a wool alternative that is high-end, vibrant, calf-high and made in the United States.

Because the socks would be made in America, the company would employ American businesses and, therefore, American people, the partners say. So the project isn’t just vanity or boredom or a whimsical sideline, although it could be that, too.

“A very patriotic product,” Gaul says. He picks up a pair that is somewhere between royal blue and dark blue. “You wouldn’t mistake it for a gray or a navy,” he says. “It’s elegant.”

Swicegood is pacing a couple of feet away, talking into his cellphone.

“Oh, come on, you don’t have masculine hands,” Swicegood says to a female friend on the other end. Penance Hall needs a woman to paint her nails red and tie a man’s dress shoe for one of its promotional photos.

“Well, why don’t you send me a picture of your hands and I’ll be the judge.”

In a matter of hours, they’ll take a middle-of-the-night train to New York to blow their last $2,500 to film a promotional video on Pier 59 for their Kickstarter campaign, through which they hope to raise enough money ($36,000) to finance a first order of three kinds of socks.

For the video, “we’ll have 15 seconds each to talk about wool,” as Steinman puts it.

Swicegood is as animated as Gaul is reserved, and Steinman is the centered strategist in between. Gaul can monologue about Edward VIII as a fashion icon, while Swicegood’s tastes tend toward the modern and relaxed.

Washington’s business fashion falls somewhere in between these sensibilities – between riverfront preppy and boardroom pinstripes, between military sharp and lobby-shop smart – but the choices are nearly always too typical, the sock guys believe, and too often dismissive of the details.

So they figured they’d start at the literal bottom of the wardrobe, with its most basic, underseen element. If guys are paying $1,000 or more for their suits, they argue, why wouldn’t they pay $25 or $30 for a pair of premium homegrown socks that are designed to impress and endure?

“I think, in general, the professional man’s look in Washington, D.C., is fairly staid and uniform, and there is a particular configuration of dark suit, white shirt, red or blue tie, and dark shoes that you see as sort of a trope everywhere,” Gaul says.

“And it’s a shame, really, because I think – particularly in a place where people do try to project value in their various professions – too little thought, time and energy gets dedicated to the way they present themselves.”