The $100 Custom Shirt Is Here. Does It Have Room for Profit?

Photograph by Sharon Simonson/Getty Images

If the consumer is king, as the saying goes, why should kings shop off the rack? There’s probably never been a better time to buy made-to-measure clothes. The men’s dress shirt, a high-volume and sartorially standardized product, is particularly ripe for disruption.

A rash of startups is buying fine European fabric, arbitraging it against cheap Asian craftsmanship, and selling the results to American guys who hate to set foot in stores or tailor shops. The business models run from casual (dozens of Kickstarter campaigns) to formal (big venture capital plays). The only issue is getting the measurements.

Web-only outfits such as Indochino, Biased Cut, and Woodies encourage customers to measure themselves and punch in the results online—even going so far as to mail out free measuring tapes. Others, like New York-based Alexander West, take a more traditional approach, operating old-school showrooms while encouraging far-flung clients to mail in their favorite shirt for sizing.

At least two companies, however, have built a business model around what they see as a sweet-spot in the middle—dispatching teams of roving salespeople to measure men in their homes, offices, and the neighborhood Starbucks. It’s Avon-lady service leveraged with e-commerce economics. It’s also an extremely tricky business model to right-size.

Slim Fit: J. Hilburn has been at it for seven years and claims to make more custom shirts than any other service in the country. While there’s no way to verify that statistic, the Texas-based company is shipping almost 500 shirts a day. All are cut to measurements provided by some 3,300 traveling sales employees—professionals that J. Hilburn calls stylists.

“We’re trying to sell a premium quality at a Brooks Brothers price,” co-founder Veeral Rathod says.

Returning customers can customize orders on J. Hilburn's website

In terms of overhead, the model makes abundant sense. If Men’s Wearhouse wants to do face-to-face business in a small Midwestern town, it has to buy bricks and mortar. That means justifying the cost of a lease, a pile of inventory, and employees to be on hand, whether anyone is shopping. J. Hilburn just has to find someone with a good personality, a decent sense of style, and the willingness to work entirely on commission. Once a customer has measurements in the system, he can skip the sales call and order custom-fit clothes on the website.

J. Hilburn, which said it will total close to $55 million in sales this year, employs about 100 people at its Dallas headquarters. “Our best markets are what I’ll call heavy suburban centers—less so Manhattan, but places like Chicago that have sprawling suburbs,” Rathod said. “Meanwhile, most luxury brands are not going to be able to have a presence in Fort Smith, Ark., or Charlottesville, Va.”

Still, profit has been tricky to pin down. Every year J. Hilburn has added an apparel category, a decision requiring a chunk of capital to source fabric, streamline processes, and train employees on a new set of measurements. In 2010, it was pants. The following year it was suits, and then came sportswear. Today, J. Hilburn even offers outerwear and cufflinks in the form of tiny Labrador Retrievers.

What’s more, if something doesn’t fit just right, the company has to either whip up a new garment or cover the cost of shipping for adjustments—options that quickly burn through what margin there might have been. Rathod says J. Hilburn will get into the black sometime in 2015.

Slimmer Fit: Now there is more competition to worry about—and not just the Kickstarter crowd. Trumaker & Co., a San Francisco based startup with a model similar to Hilburn’s, is just beginning to blanket the country with a legion of tape-wielding outfitters. At the moment, it has about 200 salespeople in seven cities, having added New York this month. Like J. Hilburn, Truemaker doesn’t have to sweat much about profit for a while; in February, it accepted a $6.5 million round of venture capital.

“We could be profitable pretty quickly, but we’re just focused on investing in the business,” founder Mark Lovas says. “We want to build something big for the long-term.”

Lovas says the business aims for a younger, more casual consumer than J. Hilburn does—the guy who wears a small-collared chambray, rather than a starchy white poplin with French cuffs. Trumaker offers fewer ways to customize the shirts and refuses to stitch monograms unless placed on the inside of the collar, where they can’t be seen.

“We’re like J. Crew cut for you,” Lovas said. “We’re just using made-to-measure to solve the problem of fit, we’re not using it to complicate the process.”

Traveling Tape Measures: In New York, one of J. Hilburn’s top stylists is Susan Kantor, a 50-year-old mother of three who commutes to Manhattan from the suburbs of Connecticut to fit new clients and show off the season’s fabric swatches.

Susan Kantor sold so many J. Hilburn shirts that the company bought her a new Lexus

On a recent trip, Kantor, a senior managing partner in the business, wore a stylish leather jacket and glasses that would not have been out of place on a SoHo architect. She has an MBA from Cornell and offers a wide range of business banter, deftly switching from how the stock market is doing to where her eldest son should go to college.

Some 90 percent of J. Hilburn stylists are women, two-thirds of them college-educated professionals who left work to start families.

Trumaker’s man in Manhattan is, well, a man, and a relatively young one at that. A 28-year-old graduate of the University of Colorado, Scott Cleland looks like an athlete turned financier. Indeed, he used to sell sovereign bonds in London before moving to Beijing to travel and teach English.

On a recent sales trip, Cleland complimented a client’s corduroys and wondered what company, if any, will nail custom-fit denim. When it’s time for business, he’s extremely fussy with the measuring tape and fairly enthused about some of the company’s limited-edition stuff—a saturated blue chambray from Japan called “Auckland” and a green belt hand-crafted in a San Francisco garage.

Cleland moved from Chicago to lead Trumaker's New York expansion

“I love J. Crew, but it never fits me right,” he says. “We want to be an upgrade for guys from brands like that.”

Fashion Wins: The winner in all this may or may not be the venture capitalists backing these hybrid business models. The path to profit, with hundreds of roving tailors and relatively cheap custom shirts, is scale. But the more these networks grow, the harder it will be for them to monitor their brands and maintain stellar customer service. Outfitters may eventually overlap.

At least for now, the clear winner is fashion. Regular guys can get, for the first time, a bit of CEO service on middle-class wages. Like Facebook or Amazon, these companies are focused on building a network of users, not squeezing out handsome margins. From that perspective, low prices are imperative.

“When I view our competitive set, it isn’t the other custom companies,” Rathod said. “The biggest opportunity is the billions and billions spent at Nordstrom and Men’s Wearhouse and all the other big brands.”

My favorite dress shirt was made-to-measure by Michael Andrews Bespoke, a shop opened by a former corporate attorney in a trendy alley of downtown Manhattan. The garment was a splurge, at about $210, and it came with a rich glass of bourbon—a customized option of the measuring process.

Neither of my J. Hilburn shirts fit quite as well or feel quite as nice. And when I tried them on, the bourbon I sipped came from my own bottle. But they cost about half as much, and they’re a vast improvement over anything I’ve tried off racks at such places as Brooks Brothers, Charles Tyrwhitt, or Banana Republic. Plus, I didn’t leave the office or set foot in a store to get them.

Trumaker also makes office calls. Last week it zipped my measurements from Bloomberg’s New York headquarters to a sewing floor on the outskirts of Beijing. The shirt—button-down collar, no pocket, side pleat—will show up at my apartment in a couple of weeks. It cost $98. Time will tell if Trumaker can squeeze a profit in there somewhere.

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