This blog has been, first and foremost, about studying tailored clothing, often analyzing other people’s methods so that readers and I can learn something. Up until now the focus has been solely on the construction of tailored garments; for the first time, I wanted to study somebody else’s method of selling tailored garments.
The ready-made tailored clothing industry is almost 150 years old; many of the companies still producing in the United States themselves are well over the century mark, and most of us are very prone to the “but we’ve always done it this way” disease. And it really is a disease. I happen to think that London’s west-end tailors fell to this a long time ago- they felt so confident in the fact that they were the world leaders in quality tailored clothing, as they were for a very long time, that they never noticed that many other schools of tailoring worked so hard at improving themselves and in many cases they ended up surpassing the product being sold on Savile Row. The men’s made-to-measure industry in the US may be nearing that moment right now.
My last post mentioned Indochino, one of the numerous upstart MTM clothing companies. When Indochino first hit my radar a few years ago, I wasn’t overly impressed. Aside from my deeply-held skepticism about internet-based MTM, and self-measuring in particular, there were some glaring quality issues at the time. When I encountered them at our convention in Spain this spring, however, my ears started to perk up. They were addressing many of my initial concerns in some very fresh ways, ways that the rest of us, if we were smart, should learn from. When I heard they would be hosting on of their new pop-up stores at Chicago’s Union Station this week, I was very curious to go see for myself.
Clothing geeks will be familiar with the name of Frederick Scholte, the famous London tailor who, in the beginning of the twentieth century, turned the industry on its ear when he developed a new silhouette called the Drape Cut, or the London Blade. It was pretty radical at the time, and by the 1930s became hugely popular with English and Hollywood royalty. There are many stories of manufacturing executives approaching Scholte, posing as customers, wanting to have one of his famous suits made so that they could study them and copy them in their new ready-made factories. Scholte was sharp, and he was also a curmudgeon; he could sniff them out pretty quickly, and they would be promptly tossed out of his shop. The twenty-something co-founders of Indochino are far more accommodating- when I told them that I wanted to take a look at their operation to see what I could learn from them, instead of tossing me out, they offered to make me a suit. Classy.
What sets Indochino apart is their approach to the shopping experience. Men generally hate to shop, and they especially hate to shop for clothes. There is one shopping experience, however, which manages to lure the male customer, and hang on to him, and these guys seem to know that; from the moment I walked in to their “shop”, I felt like I was at the Apple store.
The shop occupied the great hall of Union Station, a gorgeous space to do an event like this. A space this big and this grand could easily dwarf a clothing trunk show, but the strength of the visuals, the fixtures, and the branding on every possible surface managed to hold its own, and occupied the space rather than being overwhelmed by it. Everything, from the coffee cups to the water bottles and cookies are branded with the sort of attention to detail that reminds one of Steve Jobs.
You are met, upon arrival, by a host who will whip out their iPod touch to plug in a few basic details about you, such as name and email address. Al l in the Indochino App, of course. The generation of customer that they are targeting knows all about iPods and iPads and apps, so he feels immediately comfortable with the type of interface. This is not my father’s clothing store, it says.
You are then handed off to a fit specialist who will measure you, and input those measurements into your file which they have brought up in their own iPod. In fact, at each step of the way, each specialist will have access to the information that the previous specialist has entered. Armed with your basic measurements, the fitter will select a size of garment for you to try on to determine your preferences in fit. Instead of the industry-standard sizing, they have come up with their own. These are two very important points. First, what one customer may think is far too tight, the next might think is far too loose. This is one of the challenges of any kind of e-commerce model where clothing is concerned; Indochino has chosen to address this with their pop-up stores so you can try stuff on, then when you want to order repeats, the process can be entirely internet-driven. Second, I know first-hand about people’s reaction to sizing- “what do you mean I’m a 44? I’ve never been a 44! I’ve been a 40 all my life!” “ Well, sir, have a look at the tape- it says 44- would you like me to pull it hard enough to get a reading of 40?” “That’s impossible. Your tape is wrong.” Well, customer in question has never been a size 8 and has no basis of reference, and no reason to protest. Very clever.
Alterations are punched into the iPad and you’re handed off to a stylist who will guide your choices.
This is usually the part where the customer’s eyes glaze over and you lose him. He’s now off on some other planet and has no idea about, and even less inclination to make the sort of decisions about the styling of his suit. Show him a box of swatches and he starts to fidget; expect him to be able to visualize what a 4x6 rectangle of cloth will look like made up in a suit and you’ve just about pushed him over the edge.
Indochino’s fixtures have full lengths of cloth which you can feel, play with, and even remove from the fixture to drape over your shoulder to get an idea of what the cloth will look like on you, with your own coloring and complexion. It makes every bit of sense. The ranges are organized on separate fixtures, and for those who are still challenged, photos of the cloth made up as a suit are attached. It’s about as dummy-proof as you can get.
Linings are also rigged like the fabric choices.
Details about cuffs, collars, hems, waistband finishings, are all displayed in well-labeled cases.
And if you’re still not sure, just about every possible variation has been rigged so you can see it on a finished garment.
Of course, there may be options available that they don’t have on hand. So there is a bank of (Apple, of course) computers where you can browse their website and see the entire range of options.
When your choices have all been made, they are read back to you to confirm, and you’re off to the cash. Except there is nothing so pedestrian as a regular check-out counter; your credit card is swiped through the little square reader sticking out the bottom of an iPod and an email is immediately dispatched to your address with a receipt, a confirmation, and a delivery date.
When your garment is delivered to your home three weeks later, Indochino provides a $75 credit toward any alterations which may be required and which can be performed by a local tailor. They also have a rep come back to town a month after their traveling tailor show to do follow-ups for alterations. Of course, if you are unhappy, they will also remake the garment for you.
The results of the shopping experience itself are the result of approaching the business from an entirely new perspective. The downside to that, as they are discovering, is that the learning curve in tailored clothing is steep. Very steep. That said, the quality is vastly improved since the last time I looked closely at their garments, and if their efforts toward developing the quality of the garment match what they have done with the quality of experience, I have every reason to believe they will succeed. What they need now, in my opinion, is a partner or a buyer with clothing industry experience to give them the technical support and industry experience that they are currently lacking. If I were the CEO of a major manufacturing outfit, I would be very interested in what these guys are doing.
Meanwhile, check back in three weeks to see how my suit turned out.