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Can Digital Men’s Wear Upstarts Pick Up the Slack from Brooks and Tailored?

The stay-at-home environment that has infiltrated everyday life has thrown a major curveball at men’s formal apparel companies. Already, Brooks Brothers and Tailored Brands have been two of the largest casualties, with the former filing for bankruptcy and closing 51 stores and the latter potentially filing as soon as its third quarter.

Prior to COVID-19, while the decades-old retailers saw sales declines within stores, a batch of newbies popped up focusing instead on digital sales with only select physical showrooms, ushering in a new way to shop and get tailored for custom-fitting suits and shirts. But in the second quarter alone, sales of men’s formal clothing fell 74 percent in the second quarter, compared with a year earlier, according to London-based consultancy GlobalData Retail.

As men continue to prefer comfortable, neutral work-from-home attire and weddings, proms and other formal events have been either postponed or outright canceled, the question remains if an online-driven men’s tailoring industry can still thrive.

Black Lapel co-founder and chief marketing officer Derek Tian, compared the status of the industry to that of early online grocery, in that consumers simply weren’t used to it and wouldn’t have thought about trying it until they had to make the decision. But after trying it for the first time, shoppers would soon realize that the process may not be as arduous as it first appears.

“People who would have never bought groceries online probably made their first purchase using something like Instacart for the first time during the pandemic,” Tian said. “I think that concept applies here as well in terms of people’s willingness to shop online.”

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When it comes down to it, many shoppers will remain apprehensive about returning to a store, specifically in trying clothes on, according to a First Insight study. In fact, more than half (54 percent) say they won’t feel comfortable both in a dressing room or working with sales associates.

Now compound that concern with the fact that these shoppers would have to get their measurements done personally at a close distance inside a shop and an online custom-made tailors might suddenly offer greater appeal.

Tian said the Black Lapel business is down significantly year over year in 2020 due to the pandemic, describing the sagging short-term demand as a legitimate concern. But upon paying attention to macro trends, he noted that his company, which has a single showroom in New York City that remains closed, has the agility to withstand a downturn whereas retailers with massive store operations may not have that luxury.

“This too shall pass. People will have weddings again when we eventually have a vaccine, when we eventually do have a therapeutic,” said Tian. “I think some of that demand is not necessarily permanently destroyed. Weddings that got put off are going to happen in 2021 and 2022. The industry will survive, but it’s just surviving in a different shape and form. I think the brands that have not invested in e-commerce and having a good user experience online are the ones that are going to be a little bit of  a laggard in that because some of the permanent shift in user behavior has now opened doors for more willingness to shop online.”

Another men’s suit manufacturer and retailer, Suitsupply is installing “Safe Shopping Screens” in its stores as they reopen, which it says allow for health-protecting up-close interactions. The plexiglass shell surrounds the shopper, but strategically placed openings allow the sales professional to make the necessary garment adjustments.

But while Suitsupply has more than 100 stores worldwide, it must now leverage the e-commerce side of its business to draw people into the store and enable customers to book fitting room appointments or private shopping suites, which Suitsupply says will be sterilized beforehand. Prior to the pandemic, the company’s online business generated 30 percent of total sales in 2019.

How Suitablee caters to the COVID consumer

Younger digital-first companies such as Suitablee once measured people the traditional way in its Montreal headquarters to collect data and learn about customers’ different body shapes. However, Suitablee now seeks the lower barrier to entry in the industry by capitalizing on a combination of the body measurements, artificial intelligence and infrared body scanners to create an online tool designed to eliminate the need for store visits, guesswork and corrections.

The Suitablee website offers customers the option to click on the “Create Your Own Size” button and answer 12 questions, ranging from height measurements to the client’s typical posture. They can then use the design tool, which includes hundreds of fabrics and designs, to further customize their suit. When the customized order is completed, the data is used to tailor the garment according to the precise specifications. The suit is then shipped and delivered within four weeks.

The company has adapted to the COVID world with the introduction of order sampling so buyers can evaluate fabric quality and feel without having to visit a store.

“We implemented the ability to order samples from home at a very affordable price at only $5,” Suitablee co-founder Jean-Sebastien Siow told Sourcing Journal. “When [I] boast about our technology and the use of artificial intelligence, I think that sort of also lowers the barriers and gives us a little bit more credibility when it comes to fitting. We’ve fitted thousands of people and so the amount of data we’ve collected through infrared scans here locally has allowed us to zone in on fit.”

Siow pointed out that he was “pleasantly surprised” with the company’s numbers for the quarter, with sales projected to improve over the prior-year period. Helping Suitablee’s cause, while the fabrics and raw materials for the suits come from all ends of the earth, the suits themselves are hand stitched in the Montreal location,  enabling the quick turnaround process.

“All of our fabrics are either from Italy, the U.K. and Australia,” Siow said. “We’ll get these cut up by laser in Asia. Beyond our showroom, we do have our tailors that work on our suits and put them together, so all of the quality and the assembly is done here in Montreal.”

Inherent Clothier’s ‘mental health first’ approach

While Suitablee came onto the scene in 2017, entrenching it entirely in the digital world, another custom men’s wear company, Inherent Clothier, has had a unique journey, getting off the ground as the pandemic swung into full force. The company’s online site first launched on May 15, but co-founder and CEO Taylor Draper feels he is up for the challenge.

“We do fully custom suits with handmade canvassing, so no glue and all hand-stitched,” Draper told Sourcing Journal. “The current environment is definitely tough, but I feel that if we can at least get you on a video or get you to schedule an appointment with us, it makes it so much easier because once we talk to you, one of the ways that I’ve trained my staff is to not be product-forward whatsoever. As soon as I talk to somebody, I just say ‘Hey, tell me about your day.’”

There’s a built-in reason why Draper has this focus on the sincerity of the interaction, and not the product itself. In an era when all e-commerce companies have to do something that stands out or helps build a brand purpose, Inherent Clothier is a high-end luxury suit company focused on men’s mental health and ultimately helping shoppers feel better through the clothing they wear. These “suits of armor,” with four distinctive collections including “Timeless,” “Café,” “Modernist” and “Vintage,” are designed to inspire authentic self-expression and enable men to speak openly about mental health.

“Right as the pandemic was starting, I knew that I wanted to just get it out there and be that resource for people who needed more mental health empowerment,” Draper said. “Especially for me, someone who has battled with depression and continues to battle it on and off because you never know when it’s going to hit, I thought, ‘I’ve been cooped up in my house for two and a half months. I need to push out the online portion of the business as quick as possible.”

Inherent Clothier plans to make livestreamed mental health awareness events a major part of its platform going ahead, with the next one set to occur in September for the company’s suicide awareness campaign.

The company’s headquarters and upcoming first store, set to open in September, are located in Colorado Springs, Colo. But Inherent Clothier already has expansion plans to set foot in Nashville by 2021 and Los Angeles by 2022, before potentially breaking ground in other cities.

The suits are handmade by master tailors in an U.S.-run factory in Bangkok, but the end-to-end supply chain’s success so far comes in the technology used to deliver transparency to Draper and his team, which enables them to know exactly where a product is in the supply chain.

“If you ordered a suit, I could see at any time within the time that it takes to make a suit,” Draper said. “Have they created the pattern yet? Have they created the blocks? Are they cutting it? Are they selling it? As it comes through quality check, I can see at any given hour what that process is and that’s all from being able to work with a U.S.-based vendor.”

The company is working on installing this feature to soon enable customers to discover where their suit is in the supply chain in real time, which in turn can build confidence after shoppers purchase.

Given the overall state of the men’s formal wear industry and apparel at large, innovations like this and the continued tech implementations such as AI-powered body scanning and virtual consultations are going to be pivotal for these brands to succeed amid shifting shopping preferences in 2020 and beyond.