Idaho-Born Robert Comstock

Words by Kitt Doucette 

Successful fashion designer, world traveler, adventurer, and conservationist. Yes. We know. He rocks. And that hair… hello Bob.

Robert Comstock has stories to tell. Hewn from experiences on the frozen tundra of Greenland and off-road races across Papua New Guinea. Tales of hunting with golden eagles on horseback alongside nomadic Mongolian Kazakh tribesmen and participating in a three-day Native American Sun Dance—the only non-native person invited to do so. He’s trekked through remote Peruvian valleys, travelled down the Amazon River, and calls people like the late fierce Native American activist and actor Russell Means and the famous North Pole explorer Robert Peary’s family close friends. As a board member and field researcher for the world-renowned Peregrine Fund, he’s helped bring the peregrine falcon back from the brink of extinction.

Hearing about his adventures and conservation work you might think Robert Comstock is and does any number of things when he’s not exploring the most remote parts of the globe and living with native peoples. That he works in high fashion, as a leading designer and entrepreneur, would probably not be one of them. But that’s exactly what makes Robert Comstock so successful; he’s an enigma in the fashion world and refuses to bow to the rapid-fire trends that control it. In fact, he just simply refuses to bow to any societal trend or pre-conceived notion of what his life should be. How he landed in the fashion world? Well, that’s a damn good story.

A fifth-generation Idahoan, Comstock grew up in the wilds of eastern Idaho, exploring the mountains outside of Pocatello with his sheep dog and best friend, Prince, and fly-fishing on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. The son of a long line of bankers, Comstock bucked the family business and hit the road after college. He came back from those early travels with an idea. He wanted to design and make leather jackets. Starting in his parent’s garage and shipping orders in reclaimed boxes from the nearby Bon Marche, Rob opened for business in 1976. By 1989 he had taken the European-obsessed 5th Avenue fashion world in New York City by storm, winning prestigious awards for his fashion like The Cutty Sark award for menswear and the prestigious Coty award for outerwear. Companies like The North Face wanted him to design their sportswear and his clothes were sold in crème de le crème boutiques like Bergdorf Goodman. Through it all Rob continued to explore and let his experiences inspire his design, all the while using his influence to incite environmental action. And he would return to his small cabin on the Henry’s Fork every year to work on his next line of clothing.

Today at 64, Comstock is still designing clothes the same way he always has. Starting with a blank sheet of paper, a head full of great stories, and a piece of material between his thumb and forefinger. Recently he was named one of the top 25 designers and executives by MR, the menswear industry magazine, alongside Ralph Lauren and Tom Beebe. Movie-star handsome his whole life, his signature head of hair is still gloriously full, albeit now a wise, wizardly shade of white. He has two sons, Willie, 16, and Jackson, 18, and when he’s not traveling around the world sourcing materials, he lives in New York City while spending extended periods of time at the Henry’s Fork cabin. With a design studio in the heart of New York’s fashion district, two distinct lines of menswear, an eponymous signature collection sold in high-end specialty boutiques, and Comstock&Co, which is more widely distributed through shops like Nordstrom’s and Dillard’s, Comstock also has a couple of retail stores and is in the process of opening one up in China. From this distance, it looks like Comstock is on top of the world.

His clothes are timeless—built to last and stand proud against the whims of fashion trends. They are elegantly understated, designed to be worn outdoors. Incorporating subtle details, utilizing ethically-sourced, top-notch materials, and inspired by adventure and nature, Comstock’s designs are a direct reflection of their creator—functional, honest, and bold but not always what you’d expect. Above all, like Comstock himself, they are unique, extremely interesting, and tell fantastic stories.

KITT DOUCETTE: Can you tell us a little about your family history in Idaho, what draws you back to the mountains, and why they’re so special to you?
ROBERT COMSTOCK: That’s easy. After living in New York for some 15 years now… every once in a while someone will say, “You’re not from here, are you?” and I take that as a supreme compliment. I’ve been here all these years and I still don’t look like a New Yorker. So people ask me where I live and I say, “Well my body lives here in New York, but my spirit resides in Idaho.” I grew up in Idaho and it will always be my home. As a little boy I was always drawn to the mountains. We lived in the wilderness. There’d be elk coming down into our yard. In those days there was no such thing as a play date, so I would just roam around in the mountains, always wanting to go higher and explore. My best friend until I was 12 was a big scotch collie by the name of Prince. Man, did we have some adventures together! My love for the state, and for the Western expansiveness, open skies, everything about it, definitely comes from those early days. My favorite smell is still the desert after a rainstorm. It’s just so cleansing and purifying. Which is the exact opposite of the streets of Manhattan. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the energy of New York, and to work in fashion you simply have to be in New York, but I’ve always felt that the day they play “Pomp and Circumstance” for my 16-year-old Willie, my youngest son, I’ll be on the first flight out of New York on my way to Idaho.

KD: Well, you’re definitely preaching to the converted here. Let’s talk a little bit about clothes. Can you talk about this confluence you’ve found between nature and fashion?
RC: Well, yes. My inspiration has always come from nature. I love ultra-remote areas, places and cultures that are untouched by the modern world. Places like Papua New Guinea, Greenland, or way out in Mongolia. I’ve always found that I love interacting with indigenous tribes—sharing food with them, in their homes, in their encampments, and they always make me feel like I’m part of their culture. I don’t feel like a visitor. These influences have always made me a bit atypical in the industry. My designs have always been based on my experiences out there in the world. Combining my love for exploration, adventure, and local peoples with my love for fashion—it’s allowed me to make my evocation and my vocation the same and that is deeply satisfying for me. Nature, adventure, and traveling in developing countries, they all really help put things in perspective. Look, somewhere in the world, there are children starving and people suffering right now, so the length of a hemline doesn’t really matter all that much. Fashion is a luxury so let’s treat it as such.

KD: You do a lot of work in the conservation world. Can you tell us about your work with The Peregrine Fund and birds of prey all over the world?
RC: Yeah. The Peregrine Fund started in Denver. Well it actually started at Cornell with Dr. Tom Cade, who was an ornithologist and PhD there, and he did one of the first studies on the peregrine falcon. So they found a home in Colorado, then moved to Boise a few years later… and have been there ever since. When Bill Burnham was the president of The Peregrine Fund, some 26 years ago, he came to me and asked if I would join the Board.
It opened up a whole new world for me as far as being able to work with biologists all around the world. When I was a little guy, I could sit and watch anthills for hours. To have the opportunity to be in the wild with a biologist, in the neo-tropics for example, sitting in the rainforest at the very top of the canopy to watch the sun come up and listen as the jungle wakes up all around you­—it’s breathtaking. You can’t help but feel a part of something grand and mysterious and ancient and that makes you want to protect and conserve it so future generations can witness something magical like that. Birds, especially big birds of prey, are such global citizens; they don’t care about boundaries or lines on a map and because of that they can be extremely difficult to protect. Peregrine falcons have the longest migration in the world, from the icebergs of Greenland to the tropical rainforests of Central and South America, and they travel up to 15,000 miles each year. They’re also the fastest animals on the planet, routinely reaching speeds over 200mph during their dives while hunting. Peregrine falcons are just these magnificent animals, and 26 years ago they were in serious trouble. They were non-existent on the Eastern Seaboard and down to roughly 20 percent remaining on the West Coast.

KD: What was causing such a drastic decline?
RC: It was all because of DDT moving up the food chain and poisoning the falcons. So when they discovered that, we were able to work with agencies and Congress, and they banned DDT. The problem is, the peregrine falcon doesn’t stop in the U.S. They go down along the Mexican border and into Honduras and all the jungles down to the tip of South America. So it needed to become a global issue and was really one of the first success stories of the global conservation community coming together. In 25 years, because of work done by biologists and governments all over the world, the peregrine falcon came back from being listed for extinction to being off the endangered list all together. The whole experience has taught me the power we have as individuals to change the world. There’s actually a lot we can do and seeing how something like the peregrine falcon brought so many people together and united us was testament to that fact.

KD: You’re still involved with The Peregrine Fund, which is based near Boise, correct? What other projects are they working on?
RC: Absolutely. In Mongolia, we’ve worked with golden eagles and Kazakh falconers who have hunted with those birds for over a thousand years. A while back I was able to raise some money and I called up Bill and said, “I raised all this money—is there somewhere that we (The Peregrine Fund) don’t have anything going on but needs help?” He said, “Mongolia.” Back then, not a lot of people knew about Outer Mongolia. He said, “Rob, the Kazakhs have been hunting with golden eagles for 1,000 years. They’re the only culture in the world that hunts with eagles and they’re in danger of disappearing.” So we went over and met with Dr. Bohl, who was a very prominent scientist in Mongolia, to help establish a program devoted to raptor conservation and research. We also asked Dr. Bohl to identify a young student with great potential from the Kazakh tribe. So we met with the Kazakhs and hunted with these big, beautiful golden eagles and met a young man who we were able to bring with us back to Boise, Idaho, to study. He received his PhD in ornithology and now he’s the highest-ranking scientist in Mongolia and has helped create an entire raptor conservation movement in that country. The beautiful part about The Peregrine Fund—whatever country we go into and establish these programs, the purpose is to meet local people and work with them, train, and work with native biologists, and then in three or four years we’re out of the country and they’re running it themselves.

KD: Any other projects you’re proud of?
RC: We’re actively working with countries all over the world. We not only work with birds of prey, but also birds like the California condor. All of the ongoing California condor releases in the Grand Canyon are done by The Peregrine Fund. Ten years ago, India had thousands of vultures dying all of a sudden and no one could figure out what had happened. Since it’s against the laws of the country for any animal body parts to be shipped out of the country, we had to set up labs there to figure out what was happening. We found out it was an antibiotic… doxin-something or other. Used by veterinarians on livestock. When the vultures would feed on the carcasses, it was absolutely lethal to them. 90 percent of vultures in India were lost before The Peregrine Fund stepped in and identified the cause. A lot of people in Idaho have no idea what’s out there at the end of Flying Hawk Lane (home to The Peregrine Fund). It’s a world-class library and research center home to raptor species from all over the world. It’s always open to visitors and I encourage everyone to go check it out.

KD: You’ve also been involved with Native American rights and development. How did you get into that?
RC: Oh man, that’s a long story. I worked for a time period with some of the Native American tribes in the Idaho region. The Shoshoni, the Bannock, and then I was down in the Four Corners area and worked with the Hopi and the Zuni and the Navajo…some of it was fashion- based, working with native craftsmen on designs (beadings from the Hopi, and rugs from the Navajo, and silverwork from the Zuni) and some of it was on the social side, helping set up native businesses on the reservations and creating supply chains to help sell their work. Then I met Russell Means, who had started the American Indian Movement. While I was working with tribes in the Southwest, I would do sweats and became friendly with tribe members. One particular day a fellow named Will Tsosie, a Navajo, invited me to a native gathering. Someone overheard the conversation and said, “He can’t go because he’s white. Russell Means will be there and he hates white people.” So I said, “Well it’s ok, I do quite well with altercation, I’m sure it’ll be fine,” and he just said, “No, you can’t go.” So I didn’t go. About six months later I was invited to speak at the Native American college at the University of Colorado, and after my speech someone came up to me and said, “Would you like to have breakfast tomorrow with Russell Means?” So, of course I said yes and we go down to a restaurant in downtown Denver and Russ walks in, big guy, with his big long braids and stern expression. We’re sitting in a booth and Russell sits right next to me. The guy who introduced us is sitting across from us. It all starts out very pleasant. Russell asks a question, “What do you think about fur trapping?” Now, what I did not know is Russell had a plan where the Inuit would do the trapping of fur-bearing animals up in Alaska and the chain would come down for me to do the design for them, and then they’d sell fur coats. Not dissimilar from a lot of the work I’d been doing in the Lower 48. But me, not knowing his plan, said, “I’m very against fur trapping. I never use furs, or skins from animals that were harvested solely for their skin or fur. Only byproducts. Animals like sheep, goats, cattle, that were raised for meat.”

KD: Was that the right or wrong answer for Mr. Means?
RC: It was definitely the wrong answer. The second I said, “No I’m not into fur trapping,” he blew up and said, “If you don’t support that then you support the genocide of my people.” I’m like, what? But before I get a word in, this guy just takes off on me. “Before you white people came to this country there were 50 million buffalo, and you decimated them!” And he’s saying this and that, getting really angry. Eventually Russell gets up to go to the men’s room, and before he comes back, the fellow who introduced us, Gary, who was also Native American, said, “Are you ok?” And I said, “Yeah, it’s hard to get a word in…” Then Russell comes back and sits down, and he starts in on me again. Every person in the restaurant was staring because this guy’s yelling, and it’s just a spectacle. Finally I’d had enough and I turn on him and say, “Do you know what you are? You’re a maniac. You just wanna go club the s@#$ out of a baby seal.” He looks at me and he just breaks out laughing. It was like 50,000 volts of electricity just dissipated from the room. Prior to him laughing I’d reached over and taken him by the arm and I thought I was going to get punched out by Russell Means. But instead he starts laughing; everyone else in the restaurant starts laughing. This was 8 in the morning. At 12 we have lunch together, and then he invites me to have dinner that night and we became lifelong friends. He even invited me to a sun dance he was putting together. I was to be the only non-Native American there. And so, we went to the Little Big Horn in Montana and I did a four-day sun dance. I was so grateful to Russell because he would never let me be a passive observer. I had to participate and it changed my life. Unfortunately, Russell passed away a year or so ago but ever since meeting him I’ve had no choice but be involved with the Native American rights movement.

KD: What does your design process entail?
RC: For me, fashion design is all about the materials. I don’t travel to these places with any certain concept in my mind. I’ll go visit the mills in Biella, in Italy, and work with Loro Piana, and other extremely well-known mills, and the relationships there run very deep because I’ve been working with them for many years. I also work closely with a host of different tanneries in Italy. So I go to Italy and start my sourcing for any one collection. I’ll land in Milan and put about 2,000 kilometers on my rental car driving around the entire country exploring these small towns and meeting with my favorite tanneries and mills. They’ll bring out all these beautiful new skins, or new patterns or colors, with wonderful blends of alpaca, silk, and cashmere for me to look at and I always get so inspired…These are families that have owned their operations for many generations. I look at it as such an honor to be welcomed into that culture and treated like a part of their families. I look over and touch all these fabrics and some just really speak to me… I’ll gather up my favorites and I’ll typically go back to my cabin up in Yellowstone basin, right on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, and I’ll have my design table set up overlooking the river, a blank sheet of paper in front of me and all these beautiful fabrics. I try to figure out what materials combine the best and then the design happens. They’ll be what they want to be.

KD: Tell us, what do you love about designing clothing?
RC: I love… it honestly sounds like a campy answer, but it’s the truth—I love the adventure of it. There’s the excitement of sourcing the materials. But then, once I gather these materials and take off for my cabin, I have no idea what I’m going to come back with. It’s interesting, a number of years ago I was told that I should be working with a merchandising VP. She’d been with a very famous Italian company. I was told I should be working with her because she could really help me through my design process. So we met, and she said, “Here’s how it’s going to work. You do your designs, tell me what the colors are, I’ll get fabrics sent to the factories and we’ll put your collection together.” And I said, “Wait a minute, let’s imagine I own this amazing little restaurant up in the mountains with four tables and you need to put in a reservation three months in advance to be able to dine there… I hardly believe I’m going to put a menu out a month in advance. I’m going to be at the market at four in the morning to see and taste and smell the fresh vegetables and the fruits and the fish and the meat and that will determine what’s on the table that night.” That, for me, is what design is. I’ve never followed the crowd; I don’t do well with being dictated to. What I love about this design process that I do is not knowing what I’ll come back with, and yet discovering, as I start to put the pencil on the paper, and have that leather or fabric in my hand—it telling me what it wants to be. When I finish a design that way, it’s so exciting. It’s like a great adventure. You may try and have an idea of where it’s going, but eventually it takes you to a totally different place.

KD: What about adventure? Do you have a next expedition you’re planning? Or do you have a dream adventure you’re hoping to plan?
RC: I definitely want to get back down to the Colca Valley in Peru. I used to go to Peru fairly often for the alpaca down there. There’s just this unbelievable aura about that place, so ancient and mystical. It’s definitely somewhere I’d love to get into. The other trip I want to do—I’ve got a friend in Florence, who runs a mill there that makes some of the most beautiful cashmeres in the world. He works out of Tibet and Mongolia and we’ve talked about going into Tibet and doing a documentary on the harvesting and carting of the wool that the cashmere comes from. They roll these big bales of it down mountainsides, and then cart it and work with it, and then it goes to a mill selection process in Italy. So I thought it would be cool to do a documentary about the sourcing process, following the material all the way back to its beginning, on how it works, basically the journey it takes from Mongolia to Madison Avenue.

KD: Define success in your terms.
RC: I think success is holding your family and your friends close to you.