by Vanessa Mallory Kotz
Lounging in a form-fitting black T-shirt and jeans, Bradford Shellhammer ’98 sinks into a dark leather chair at the Soho House in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. He sits casually, legs crossed, occasionally and apologetically checking his phone; the tentacles of an octopus tattoo wrap around his arm in a half-sleeve. It is clear right away that Shellhammer is comfortable in his own skin, and he credits his self-possession to Goucher, where he studied communications and graduated with honors before attending Parsons The New School for Design. He then embarked on several entrepreneurial adventures before co-founding Fab, an online housewares and fashion merchandiser now valued at $1 billion, according to Bloomberg.com.
“Fab was born out of my outlook on life: optimism, happiness, color, a celebration of things that people make,” Shellhammer says. He proclaims himself to be a collector—of objects, ideas, and people. His aesthetic is influenced by music of the ’80s and ’90s, popular culture, and art—Morrissey and Andy Warhol, Erasure, and Alfred Hitchcock films—together with toys from his childhood and whatever else catches his eye, he says.
Shellhammer came to Goucher to study English (later switching to communications) and found that the college welcomed diverse individuals. Considered an outcast at his conservative, small-town high school in Anne Arundel County, Md., he says, “At Goucher, I was exposed to different people. I learned how to write and to think critically. I was blown away by the sophistication of the student body.” He threw himself into his social life, attending parties and founding Veggies and Friends, a club for vegetarians. He also offered fashion advice to his female friends. “We’d go out to gay clubs. I always had ladies on my arms,” he laughs. “I’d dress them in platform shoes with silver eyelashes.” As Shellhammer reminisces about college, he leans in, saying: “It’s kind of like a secret. Goucher gave me the confidence to go out into the world and have a loud voice.”
In 2009, he was working for a furniture company called Blu Dot when his friend and Clinton White House aide Jason Goldberg suggested launching Fabulis, a social network. Similar to TripAdvisor, the site would offer travel advice and reviews, but it targeted gay men in their 20s and 30s. They raised $3 million for the project, “but after about a year it was stalling,” Shellhammer admits. With financing still available, Shellhammer and Goldberg decided to create a member-based e-commerce site, a platform for designers not famous or commercial enough for Target or Amazon. What would make it unique? Shellhammer would select all of the objects himself.
Launched in 2010 by Shelhammer, Goldberg, and a third partner, Nishith Shah, Fab now has more than 10 million members. Forbes soon dubbed Shellhammer the “King of Quirk” in recognition of his unusual design aesthetic and Fab’s meteoric rise.
“I wanted to show the world affordable, great, authentic design,” he explains. Consumers tired of the mass-manufactured, sometimes poor-quality products of the big-box stores could order art prints, dishes, jewelry, and items not easily found elsewhere. The site also offered conversation pieces that customers felt they just needed to own, such as a cardboard deer head, a knit dog sweater emblazoned with an owl, or a banana-shaped wine stopper.
Within a few years, the company had grown so much that Shellhammer no longer was able to curate every object. “Mostly it was influenced by the more than 20,000 designers and artists whose products we sold,” he says.
Initially Fab’s business model was based on flash, or daylong, sales of small batches of work created by emerging designers. The concept worked for four years, during which the company built a solid consumer following and grossed millions in sales. But the operating costs were high, and last year, the company switched to a more traditional business model like that of Amazon. This also meant a change in staffing, and half of the employees lost their jobs.
“The layoffs were really tough for me,” Shellhammer says. “But these people have landed in really amazing places like Backcountry.com, Target, Quirky, and ASOS.” Others have started their own businesses. Last November, Shellhammer also left the company. On his blog, he wrote of his departure: “As I remain today a shareholder and a non-executive advisor to Fab, I also have the desire to explore, discover, and see the world and do other things.”
In February, he launched shellhammer.co, “a retail consultancy and design firm, founded with the aim of breathing a special type of creativity into other people’s businesses.” In announcing his new venture on his blog, Shellhammer wrote: “There is great freedom in consulting. I have freedom to choose who I work with and how I work with them. I have freedom to expose my various talents and expertise, without being put in a box.” Among his new clients are start-up companies including Heartwork, which designs work spaces, and Simply Framed, an online custom framing store.
He also is chief design officer for Backcountry.com, an outdoor gear and apparel company. “Bradford is amazing,” says Scott Ballantyne, chief marketing officer of Backcountry.com and former Fab employee. “His energy, passion, and genuine love of gear, apparel, accessories, and the unexpected are unique and infectious. He is, simply put, the best curator of beautifully designed stuff (which does not have to be expensive) that I have ever worked alongside.”
When not at the office, travel is on Shellhammer’s agenda. “In the last year, I’ve traveled 300,000 miles,” he says, repressing a yawn after having returned from Berlin earlier in the day. “Berlin is a place full of entrepreneurs. It inspires me every time I go.”
He spends whatever time he can at his second home in Sparrowbush, N.Y., 90 miles outside of New York City. He designed the interiors of the retreat, named Zubehaus, to reflect his love of color, kitsch, and pop music. From brightly striped carpet squares and a framed picture of Morrissey to heart-shaped red swivel chairs and a 1960s Norwegian purple armchair (a vintage find from Fab’s assortment), Shellhammer has created a space that manifests his passions, his bold personality, and his sophisticated design sense—elements that he pours into every aspect of his life.
That’s not all: In March 2013 he married Georgi Balinov, a vice president for
investment banking at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, in an over-the-top party that paid tribute to Truman Capote’s famous Black-and-White Ball. The ceremony was conducted by comedian and friend Sandra Bernhard at the Russian Tea Room. The New York Post and Out covered the elaborate event. In an article in Next magazine, Shellhammer said of his love for Georgi, “I’d never felt more confident about anything in my life, and I went for it.”
He also is putting together a band called Rough, which includes British designer Tom Dixon on bass, Shellhammer on lead vocals, and “real musicians” whose names he is not yet ready to reveal. They already have been asked to play at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
With so much going on, he still has an eye toward the horizon. “Deep in my heart, I know I’ll start another company,” he says. “I love to make things.”