When US home-furnishings company RH decided to transform an explorer yacht in its image, it was a high-risk move. But as CEO Gary Friedman tells Charlotte Hogarth-Jones, the gamble has paid off handsomely...
When it comes to retail, Gary Friedman knows a thing or two – particularly with regards to selling upmarket homewares to the US market. Dropping out of college aged 18, the charismatic San Franciscan began his 47-year career as a stock boy at Gap. He quickly became the brand’s youngest ever regional manager, thanks to his keen eye for detail and an innate talent for sales. At 29, he was recruited by another big US firm, kitchenware and furnishings chain Williams-Sonoma, where he spent the next 13 years and helped to grow the business’s annual revenue from $300 million to $2.1 billion – thanks in part to his introduction of novel and interactive experiences on the shop floor (demonstration kitchens, for example, and tasting bars), which you’ll now find in department stores around the world.
In 2001, he left after being passed over for a promotion to CEO, and instead became CEO of the then-struggling chain Restoration Hardware, now known as RH, injecting a multimillion-dollar investment of his own cash in the process. Since then, he’s been on a mission to elevate RH from a company selling cheap trinkets and $2 card games to a global luxury brand. Today, it sells everything from marble entry tables to works of art, with price points at thousands of dollars. And, the key to taking the brand even further, he believes, doesn’t lie in glossy billboards or prime-time Super Bowl slots – it’s in a breathtakingly beautiful superyacht.
The 38.7 metre explorer yacht RH Three to be exact, which the company bought in 2019 and firmly put the RH stamp on. A calling card for the brand’s design aesthetic and a landmark to gain the attention of wealthy clientele, the yacht is also a charter vessel in her own right. She hits the market this season and will operate in the Mediterranean in summer and the Bahamas in winter. Although, explains Friedman, it was a chance encounter that got things to this point.
“Quite frankly, I’d been invited on many boats before by many very wealthy people, and I’d never been on one that I thought was beautifully designed,” he says. “I always thought there was a lot of discord between the boat inside and out, and a lot of them looked too decorative, like Las Vegas.”
Then, a designer in Belgium who had been in the Med, saw that a yacht called RH3 was up for sale. “He emailed me and asked, ‘Are you selling a boat in the Mediterranean?’ I laughed and replied, ‘I don’t know anything about yachts; I’m not even very good at swimming!’” Friedman recalls, but the note had piqued his interest, and he soon found himself flicking through the listing. “I said, ‘Yeah, it looks like we could have [designed] that,’” he says.
Friedman kept tabs on the yacht, visiting it with his design team in Sicily, and a year later presented the project to his board. Her good condition and fair price, he reasoned, meant they wouldn’t have to invest much financially to make an impact, and besides, “This wasn’t one of those white plastic boats you see in the harbour in Saint-Tropez, which are all the same. I liked that it was different.”
Once RH3 was acquired and renamed RH Three, the renovations were begun in earnest, although much of the original structure and design remained untouched. Built in 2003 by Turkish yard RMK Marine to a design by Vripack, the yacht had already been blessed with something of a transformation, thanks to a renovation by esteemed Belgian architect Vincent Van Duysen in 2016. “He had taken this boat to a certain level in a way that was extraordinary,” explains Friedman. “We didn’t change any of the bathrooms, they were incredible. We didn’t really change any of the staterooms apart from a bit of painting and new bedding, or the lighting either.” Besides, he’s keen to point out, the yacht isn’t a floating catalogue of what can be bought in RH stores. Rather, she represents the essence of RH quality and good design.
There were, however, some major adjustments – starting with the yacht’s exterior. Her hull was originally white and grey, whereas today it’s a dark, metallic Phantom Grey with a champagne metallic above. It was a controversial decision. “Everyone told us you can’t paint the boat metallic, it’ll look bad, it’ll be too reflective,” remembers Friedman. “So we almost didn’t. And then right at the end we said, ‘You know what, the planes are painted metallic [the company had previously designed two Gulfstream jets known as RH One and RH Two], and everyone told us that was a bad idea, and they look great.’ So, then we painted RH Three metallic, and now she’s the most beautiful boat in the harbour!”
Another move, according to Friedman, was changing the layout of the crew cabins, and downsizing the yacht’s five guest cabins to four in the process. “I went down into the crew quarters and I was in shock at the spaces the crew was kept in. I mean, two people in a room that was maybe a metre wide with 70-centimetre-wide bunks on top of each other? I can’t believe that’s much better than a prison cell, [I thought] it was crazy,” he says. “Everyone said ‘That’s just the way it is, don’t worry about that,’ and I said ‘Well, I do worry about that. We have a crew that we expect to give luxury service to our clients, but we’re not giving luxury service to them’.”
The crew then spent a week at RH’s California Center of Innovation and Product Leadership, advising designers on what they needed and felt was important in their space. One of the five guest bedrooms then became the captain’s room, while the captain’s room became a spacious twin cabin, replacing one of the two bunk rooms that was previously for the stewardesses.
The upper deck was also transformed, from a space that was originally half lounge, half gym, to a single area with a bar and lounge space that extends outside, changing the white ceiling into a wooden one too. Initial plans to place a spa pool on the top deck were scuppered when the team realised how much extra this would cost in terms of stabilising the boat with the extra weight on board, and the idea was replaced with a large fire pit and outdoor daybed to create a sunset terrace, while a new gym was created on the bow, with equipment stylishly stashed out of sight.
Inside the saloon, a masculine palette of champagne lacquer, wire-brushed white oak, caramel Italian leather and charcoal velvet mirrors the colours of the yacht’s exterior, adding to the seamless effect of the design. And, there’s a less is more approach to styling, with items like individual photographs, carefully curated shelves and an extensive spirits bar taking centre stage over a more maximalist approach.
Friedman has been on board of late to iron out any last-minute kinks. “I don’t get any freebies,” he laughs, “I have to pay full price, and I’ve chartered the yacht three times now. One was last winter, and then I chartered this summer, one week in Saint-Tropez and one week in Ibiza.” Like many owners, he’s enjoyed the intimacy of spending time with friends on board, while having plenty of private space to retreat to – not to mention the joy of a good night’s sleep in the way that only a yacht can deliver.
It’s a world away from the one Friedman was born into. Growing up “very poor”, he says he “barely saw a swimming pool” where he lived. “I thought rich people had colour TVs, I never even knew about superyachts,” he goes on, explaining that his father had passed away when he was just five years old, while his mother suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Throughout his childhood, he lived in “tiny apartments”, while “the most my mum ever earned in one year was $5,000 – and that was our best year”.
“I had no clue into design or luxury, I had no background,” he explains, but he thinks it gives him a unique perspective. “When you come from outside of industries, you come at it with a lot more curiosity. Steve Jobs was never in the music industry, the cellphone industry or the video camera industry, but he reinvented them and had a fresh view of them. If you think about the car industry, Elon Musk had never built a car before. How does the car industry, with all that capital, all the know-how, how could they not figure out electric cars? It’s because they’re trapped by what they know.”
Since the new-look RH Three has been out and about, she’s certainly gathered her fair share of attention. The company has now had requests for yacht design from some of its biggest investors, as well as owners who have seen it on the move. With such a clear and fixed aesthetic, catering to the personal tastes of clients could be problematic, and Friedman agrees that the brand will be choosy about what it takes on. “We’re not going to do anything that doesn’t reflect our general design ethos,” he says.
According to Friedman, she’s already fully booked for the Caribbean season and has limited availability for next summer in the Med, having been swiftly snapped up by RH customers and experienced charterers alike. A sprinkling of stardust due to some “very influential people” booking time on board too, will no doubt have helped her reputation.
For now, there are other projects vying for attention. Among them, RH Guesthouse in New York and RH England in the UK – a 30-hectare estate in Oxfordshire with a 1615 manor house, built by legendary neo-classical architect Sir John Soane, that will mark the company’s first big move into Europe.
Nonetheless, RH has already met with Feadship several times to discuss the possibility of designing a new yacht from scratch, and has also been in talks with Vitruvius designer Philippe Briand about a potential collaboration. “It’s not the right time yet for us to do [another] superyacht, but it’s more likely in our future than not,” Friedman teases.
Of course, there’s a risk that another yacht project could prove to be somewhat of a “difficult second album”, but Friedman talks only of opportunities and the learnings that come from operating in unfamiliar territories and the joys of finding new ways around problems that industry had previously thought insurmountable. And besides, he says, once RH takes on a project, it commits to it 100 per cent. “Our expectation is only to do stuff that is really special.”
RH Three is available for charter with Y.CO from €125,000 per week in summer and $125,000 per week in winter.
First published in the November 2022 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.shop now