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

If the consumer is king, as the saying goes, why should kings shop off the rack?Theres probably never been a better time to buy made-to-measure clothes. The mens 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



Biased Cut

, and


encourage customers to measure themselves and punch in the results onlineeven 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 middledispatching teams of roving salespeople to measure men in their homes, offices, and the neighborhood Starbucks. Its Avon-lady service leveraged with e-commerce economics. Its 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 theres 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 employeesprofessionals that J. Hilburn calls stylists.

Were 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. IfMens 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 Ill call heavy suburban centersless 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


Whats more, if something doesnt fit just right, the company has to either whip up a new garment or cover the cost of shipping for adjustmentsoptions 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 aboutand not just the Kickstarter crowd. Trumaker & Co., a San Francisco based startup with a model similar to Hilburns, 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 doesnt 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 were 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 doesthe 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 cant be seen.

Were like J. Crew cut for you, Lovas said. Were just using made-to-measure to solve the problem of fit, were not using it to complicate the process.

Traveling Tape Measures:

In New York, one of J. Hilburns 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 seasons 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.

Trumakers 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 clients corduroys and wondered what company, if any, will nail custom-fit denim. When its time for business, hes extremely fussy with the measuring tape and fairly enthused about some of the companys limited-edition stuffa 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. LikeFacebook 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 isnt the other custom companies, Rathod said. The biggest opportunity is the billions and billions spent atNordstrom and Mens 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 bourbona 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 theyre a vast improvement over anything Ive tried off racks at such places as Brooks Brothers, Charles Tyrwhitt, or Banana Republic. Plus, I didnt leave the office or set foot in a store to get them.

Trumaker also makes office calls. Last week it zipped my measurements from Bloombergs New York headquarters to a sewing floor on the outskirts of Beijing. The shirtbutton-down collar, no pocket, side pleatwill 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.

The $100 Custom Shirt Is Here. Does It Have Room for Profit? 1

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