Raj and Akhil Shah immigrated to Seattle from their native Kenya with a couple of dashikis and a closet full of dreams. "I thought I'd landed in Alaska when I landed at Sea-Tac," recalls Akhil (pictured at right on opposite page), who arrived in 1975 at the age of 16, one year after his older brother made the same move at the same age. "I'd never looked at Seattle on a map, and I drove out of the airport and saw all the mountains. There was so much nature."
But back to those dashikis: Once Raj settled in Edmonds with another brother who worked for Boeing, his first sale—"24 units," he claims—was to the Edmonds High School bookstore. Satisfied he could make a go of it in the apparel business, Raj beckoned his baby bro to come armed with more.
"It was very unusual for kids of our age group to be sent outside the country," says Raj. "But even back in the '70s, America was the dream—and we saw that dream through reading American comic books. We started bugging our family, and they said, 'Raj, you go first, and if you like it, Akhil will go, too.'"
Reagan-era skate punks would go on to thank them at the cash register soon after the brothers set up Shah Safari Inc. in a modest white building in the Uptown neighborhood. There, they began peddling simple surf-centric T-shirts instead of loud, flowing garments from the old country. At one point in the late '80s, Shah Safari and its various spin-off brands (among them International News) held nearly a quarter of the market share for young men's woven tops in the U.S., a distinction that earned notice from the likes of Tommy Hilfiger and hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, who sought out the brothers for advice shortly after launching his Phat Farm clothing line.
"Russell was really struggling with his brand," says Raj, who holds the title of CEO (Akhil is president). "We talked for 40 minutes on the phone, and he wanted to come see us. When he came out, we told him to be true to his brand, and it'll come."
It did (and then some), so Simmons returned the favor by flying the brothers out to New York City, where they met Hilfiger. "He knew all about our sourcing," says Raj.
As the Shahs have aged into their 40s, so too has the scope of their target market. Hence, the introduction of ROAD, a "neo-classic" line of casual men's fashions that the brothers debuted in downtown Seattle and Bellevue Square in 2005 and will expand to Chicago, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and St. Louis this fall. Yet mogul status is hardly in the offing.
"Our dad used to say, 'The value of your name will be worth more than any asset you'll ever acquire,'" says Raj, who along with his brother helped finance creation of a public park on the site of the infamous Blob building at the corner of Queen Anne and Roy. "We don't want to be the biggest. We just want to be the best."—Mike SeelyShah Safari, 14 W. Roy St., 206-282-6122, www.shahsafari.com.
The Shah Brothers' Picks:
BEST RESTAURANT TO IMPRESS: Wild Ginger.
BEST VIEW: Top of Queen Anne Hill.
BEST-DRESSED PUBLIC FIGURE: Former Sonic "Downtown" Freddy Brown. "He's always very well groomed and has good taste," says Raj.
BEST SUBURB: Akhil—"Mercer Island."
BEST LOWER QUEEN ANNE COFFEE SHOP: Look for them at the sign of the mermaid. "I'm very good friends with Howard Schultz," says Akhil diplomatically.
BEST (ENDANGERED) PRO SPORTS FRANCHISE: The SuperSonics.
BEST ICE CREAM: The Ballard Ben & Jerry's. Chunky Monkey is Raj's favorite flavor.
BEST CLOTHING STORE NOT AFFILIATED WITH SHAH SAFARI: Mario's. "But if it's younger age, I would say Zebra Club," says Raj.