The Online Symposium: How luxury menswear can become more digital

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One of the things bespoke artisans have struggled with during the Covid-19 crisis is not being able to travel. Savile Row makes more than half its money in the US, and the Spring trips weren’t possible. Should they try to do remote fittings? Can that achieve the same fit? 

And just as importantly, how much does it undermine the experience? A Zoom call with a cutter asking you to turn around and show him all angles is not exactly glamorous. 

That’s a challenge retailers are having too. Everyone has e-commerce today, but luxury shops build their value on providing more than just flat-lay images and fast delivery. How can they replicate more of their luxury experience online?

In order to start answering these questions, we held our first digital Symposium this week with a mix of small and big makers, online and physical shops. 

The aim was for everyone to share their experiences and best practice. Whether that was shirtmaker Luca Avitabile offering unlimited free shipping on his garments, so customers could return them easily for any small adjustment - or Mark Cho of The Armoury talking about the equipment he’s been using for his online videos during lockdown. 

Chris Callis of Proper Cloth gave his experiences of running much larger, digital-native business. Greg Lellouche, too, explained what he has found works best running online store No Man Walks Alone. And James Sleater from The Cad & The Dandy talked from the position of a disruptive player on Savile Row. 

The video is embedded below. Thank you so much to Thomas Mason for their support and help organising this debate, as ever. 

 

 

The speakers in full were: 

  • Greg Lellouche, founder, No Man Walks Alone
  • Chris Callis, head of product development, Proper Cloth
  • Mark Cho, co-founder, The Armoury
  • Luca Avitabile, bespoke shirt maker
  • James Sleater, director, The Cad & The Dandy

You can see all other Permanent Style films in the new video section of the site here.

There is also news coverage of the talk on WWD here

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Nick

Hi Simon, very interesting to see more of the business side of men’s clothing. I think particularly James’s point, on it being a bit daunting entering a tailor’s shop for the first time, is something tailors should really work on. I don’t think people are less willing to part with large sums of money buying clothing, but someone who has never been exposed to bespoke will often be more likely to pay the exact same amount for, let’s say Brioni or even Isaia, than for a bespoke garment, just because you know exactly what you are getting. I do think having trial pieces in the shop would be a good step, but also, as mentioned pre-meetings, to ensure a more relaxed first chat and allow the customer a bit more time to think about what cloth and configuration that persons wants would be good.

Any plans to do more on Cad & Dandy or Proper Cloth?

J

Hi Simon, just curious as to why you are not trying out the offering at the Cad?

D.R. Butler

I would like to interject that I have found many people simply assume bespoke or even made to measure is more expensive than an off the rack garment from a prestigious brand such as Brioni or Gucci.

Robin

With many large offices having no plans to return back to anywhere near 100%, business travel non-existent and most people not making any non essential journeys it begs the question of how tailoring will even survive at all.
Existing customers may order from previously taken measurements and patterns but how do you attract new customers to a business where personnel touch is the very essence of the product !?

And even if these obstacles are overcome why would anybody order anything other then leisure-wear to sit at home ?

Should current conditions continue then even Tailors may need to move into other lines of work causing the possible permanent loss of skills .
And thus economic conditions created by coronovirus turn into structural changes in industry (tourism and travel are witness to this as we speak ).

I’ve noticed Graham Browne begin to discount to encourage custom but , as of yet, there appears to be very little of this .

Having previously ordered MTM shirts from visiting tailors from Italy I have no plans on travelling to London to visit a tailor and ,being very mindful of the current economic climate , would not entertain the idea unless lured by heavy discounting.
Any business model based on low volume and high pricing may have to switch to chasing volume by discounting pricing merely to survive.
And if they can’t do this …. then sadly they’re not viable future businesses.
I’ve notice travelling Hong Kong tailor , Raja Fashion, pickup as normal with some price reduction. The industry may need to be less ‘snobbish’ and take a leaf from them and how they continue at volume despite conditions with the virus and the political climate in Hong Kong.

Having lived through the 80’s and experienced the erosion of engineering and manufacturing don’t think it can’t happen!
Start discounting , chaps !
Sorry Simon, this may not be what you want to hear but it is appearing to be the new reality.

Anonymous

Robin makes valid points. But , Simon, the point you make about loyal customers is spot on. I can’t wait for the tailor I use to start his London trips again. In his absence I’ve appreciated quite how different his offering is compared to mass produced garments.

Parker

I wholeheartedly disagree. Lowering your prices is like admitting you overcharged your customers, that will do more harm than good. While tailored clothing is already unfeasible for 99% of the public it will only mover further upwards until we’ve reached 99,9%. Bespoke in Western countries will go the same way as high-end audio or furniture, made for conaisseurs but mostly out of the public eye.

The big challenge for tailoring businesses isn’t just managing the current situation but also the continuing change towards an ever more casual style aswell as the change of demographics in many (Western) countries. Anderson & Sheppard have introduced their haberdashery, others have added MTM to their offerings for a broader audience but when the baby boomers are gone there won’t be as many younger people replacing them.

Anonymous

I do not have extensive experience of commissioning bespoke pieces from tailors, but even from rooting around on this site, it is clear that the price increases implemented by various houses in recent years have been aggressive and that customers are being overcharged (notwithstanding all the usual arguments about the ‘value’ of bespoke). My view is that in the long term, it would be be better for tailors to ‘admit’ this, lower their price points and increase their potential customer base accordingly.

One often hears the argument that margins are thin for tailors, limiting the scope of price drops. However, at today’s prices I would assume that (i) this is far from always the case, and (ii) where it is the case, such houses are often poorly run and they need to manage their costs better.

Anonymous

I think that principle can work, though it is case by case and depends on the tailor. As an artificial illustration, if the same product costs £100 in Yr 1, but its price rises to £150 in Yr 3, then the consumer is clearly getting less value for money in Yr 3. As that trend progresses, you may well reach a point where you are overcharged – this a subjective judgment though.

As those prices increase the gap in margins of luxury bands vs tailors also declines. From a group perspective (rather than on the basis of the unit economics), I am also of the view that margins are not a great indicator of value. Margins may well be as low as they are just because the underlying business model isn’t great, or the tailor is poorly run (there must also be lots of variability between tailors).

Anonymous

Simon, I’m surprised you’ve included propercloth. Their offering is quite poor. This has been my experience and the experience of my friends who have tried them. Would be interesting to read the views of others.

D.R. Butler

I have tried Proper Cloth. I don’t think their products are poor. But, most importantly, Proper Cloth, has been at the fore in utilizing technology to create made to measure garments especially for someone such as myself who lives far from the cities where bespoke tailors and high-end made to measure services proliferate. With that said, I recently commissioned a bespoke suit from Sartoria Pastena Elegance out of Naples via Instagram and WhatsApp. I am impressed with the suit I have received. With that said, I think this sort of “remote” bespoke is here to stay even if or when things return to normal in a post-pandemic world.

Sam

I can’t compare to bespoke or in-person MTM, but I wear PC shirts every day and I’m happy with them. From the online shirtmakers, they definitely have the best fabric selection and style options. I didn’t see the video yet, but I imagine that their main significance there is their very well-built online platform and customer service. It’s really the smoothest online ordering experience I’ve had anywhere online for a product of any complexity.

Anonymous

Agree on the range of fabrics. I only ordered one shirt and decided against future orders. I couldn’t even get my forearms into the sleeves. If they’d simply held the shirt up they’d have spotted that the proportions were way off. They suggested a remake but insisted I pay for the return postage. Good to hear others have had a better experience.

Ari

Great panel discussion! (FWIW, I’m fairly fussy about fit, and Proper Cloth gets it right. I’ve been very happy with the selection, quality, value and ordering process. )

DKP

@Simon – really enjoyed the video and great to see Luca as it’s been some time since I’ve seen him IRL. Was interesting to learn of the free shipping he’s now offering and hope to take advantage of it soon. Mark seems particularly adept at leveraging the online space and its tools and conveying a personal “relationship” with the viewer which I think is going to become of increasing importance and it’s reassuring to see that all the participants appear to accept and embrace this in their own ways.

Rupesh Bhindi

Hi Simon,

An interesting perspective from the bespoke business by various makers across the globe. I truely believe with bespoke it is a personal experience and interaction that one relishes as this can never be achieved on digital platform. As a bespoke tailor it is their wealth of experience and vision that you actually look forward to achieving your near perfect if not perfect garment. However, I do agree that digital platform tools can be useful before/after the physical one to one meeting to enhance the customer experience without the need for another face to face meeting.

Anonymous

Nobody seemed to talk about how a client how a client would select cloth if having a suit made through the internet. It is a bit of a gamble when you order from Luxire/PC even if the cloth is from a known source.

BTW, there is a great story somewhere (sorry, cannot locate it) about Old Henry making a suit for a client purely be video conferencing; probably 5 or so years ago, but it shows it can be done.

MB

A very enjoyable discussion.

For me, the key problems are that the need for tailored clothing has diminished significantly (in the short term) because it’s not required when working from home and even if people return to the office, I suspect physical meetings will take a while to follow. When you join that with the fact that purchasing luxury clothing is (for most people who purchase bespoke/MTM) a process to be savoured, it makes the initiatives interesting but still less appealing than the original proposition.

That’s not to say that I’ve not bought anything or that I’m not considering additional purchases but it’s definitely affected what I’ve bought and where I’ve bought it from. Several friends have simply not bought anything at all.

I must say, Mark comes across especially well in the discussion. Not surprising, as his videos have also been a highlight of lockdown, but still a point worth mentioning.

DE

Hi Simon, I was interested to see the inclusion of Proper Cloth in the discussion – I would suspect they must be very big Thomas Mason customers. Whilst they are not the bespoke makers you normally feature and I am not yet a customer, I think there is value in their innovations – developing algorithms and using science to try and make sense of a centuries old craft appeals to the ‘techie’ in me!

Joseph Leftwich

Unfortunately, although I registered and received an email promising login details, none arrived and I missed this. Not ideal, Simon.

Joseph Leftwich

Thanks, Simon. Yes I did.

Jason

This is very interesting.
Going forward it will all be about how folk can progress and add value to their brand.
Mark Cho was brutally honest. He has created something beautiful with ‘The Armoury’. A new type of personalised, democratised , friendly luxury that is devoted principally to tailored clothing. Then, along comes the pandemic which destroys the consumer appetite for his core product.
He responds with his videos but in truth, it’s something positive to do but unless the ‘new normal’ is the ‘old normal’, his brand will have to pivot radically to face the future.
What he will have to pivot to is to be determined but one can imagine – for a whole host of reasons – much less international travel, more staycations, more working from home, more outdoor activities, more entertainment at home ( a friend runs a luxury home catering service. His business is off the Richter scale and he does report that people are dressing for their home events but not surprisingly the code is luxury casual ).
It’s how you adjust to these sort of changes that will be key. Personally I think outfits like The Armoury, A&S Haberdashery and Anglo-Italian can do it if they further developed the personalisation of their businesses and their e-commerce platforms whilst simultaneously focusing on a ‘star product ‘ strategy. Companies like Begg & Co and Private White should already be in a good place in that regard. For the traditional luxury players and bespoke I think it’s going to be very, very, difficult. It’s not just the trend that’s against them. It’s the process.

R Abbott

I use Proper Cloth for my MTM shirts. They have a wide variety of options (over a dozen different collars) and an excellent range of fabrics. And their online presentation of all their wares is excellent: a variety of photos of all their fabrics at different angles, including closeups and pictures of people wearing them. And most importantly, the service is consistent. The first time I had a shirt, the fit wasn’t quite right, so I returned it (free of charge) to have adjustments. And the 9 shirts I ordered from them subsequently were all spot on in terms of fit. The shirts are entirely machine sewed, of course, but they are well constructed. Not the cheapest online MTM company but certainly not the most expensive either, and on the whole an excellent value proposition. I’ve gotten everything from traditional dress to long sleeve polos (“button down 2” stands up nicely over a sports jacket) and have been satisfied with all of the.

That said, I’m American and the company is American. I’ve no idea whether they serve customers overseas or what their overseas service is like.

R Abbott

Also worth mentioning is that Proper Cloth branched out several years ago to sell a variety of other wares. All in all, they have a very nice but modern aesthetic, and I always enjoy looking at their look books. Lots of tonal looks. Their trousers and jackets are fitted but not overly tight. The designs are interesting but almost always wearable (unlike their competitor Suit Supply, which produces lots of fashion forward designs that are too trendy or dapper to wear for business purposes). I’m especially fond of their ties. Lots of wool, cashmere, cotton, and silk options in a variety of muted tones, and not so many brightly colored silk ties.

Aside from the shirts, I’ve purchased a number of ties, 1 pair of trousers, 1 quilted vest, 2 sweaters, and one unconstructed sports jacket.

The only thing I would avoid is the knitwear. It’s off the rack (not MTM) and the sizing is off (eg, length is shorter than I would expect at any given size). The quality is also hit or miss. I got a donegal lambswool sweater that is pretty hardy (albeit slightly scratchy), but the lightweight merino sweater quickly developed several small holes. (The merino is lightweight without being too thin, and would be an excellent layering piece – but is just too thin and delicate)

Professor I. W.

I would like to draw an analogy with American Universities where I have been a Professor for about 30 years so far.
We have the high niche education such as Harvard and the similar . Those provide a service or a product that will continue to flourish despite clearly over-charging their students. Check tuition rates at Harvard ! . However, their brand is so much desired that nothing could cause any damage to their “revenue” and also profit margin. Their acceptance rate is so ridiculously low (less than 10%) and perhaps this is one of the reasons why their brand is so much desired. A very small niche of well-known bespoke tailors world-wide fit into this category. It includes about 20 or less bespoke makers.
Now, we move on to the “second tier” private and state universities who also used to over-charge but not by much, and deliver a product that is more like MTM as well as many tailors who do bespoke but not at the quality of the high niche.
Many of those may not be able to survive unless they make a major shift in their business model. Similar to tier two universities, the main shift they are now undertaking is adopting online learning. That is to offer degrees via online model without students ever or rarely visiting campus! This way, a class of (in-situ) 50 students could very well accommodate 500 (on-line) students. There is no doubt there will be a drop in the quality but there will be a corresponding huge drop in tuition fees that will make college education affordable for the first time for many students. Similarly, with only online tailoring, some technical tools to aid in measurements, it will be possible to cut down the cost of bespoke and MTM and hence gain a whole new cohort of customers who otherwise could never afford it! For example an MTM or bespoke style jacket with a cost of about $2000 could very well be sold at half or two-third that price but then be sold to many more customers.
For sure you loose the touch of personal bespoke but you gain a lot in terms of value of the product.

Anonymous

I don’t think the analogy holds up. One obvious difference is that brands like Harvard are universally recognized, both in the US and abroad. Conversely, I doubt that very man people outside the fashion world have even heard of any of the top tier tailors, and even if they have, I doubt they could tell the difference just by looking at a suit. In contrast to many luxury brands, bespoke suits generally do not have any logos. And of course, the primary advantage of going to a place like Harvard isn’t even the brand but the connections you make while you’re there and the access to the alumni network after you graduate. The “teaching” that you get at a public university (or a smaller but equally expensive “liberal arts university”) may well be superior to that at Harvard (which relies too much on on graduate assistants), but you’re much more likely to meet and interact with a Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard.

Beyond that, the analogy glosses over a substantial difference in fit between MTM and bespoke. MTM undoubtedly allows considerable customization and allows for a better fit than off the rack. And from outward appearance, a very good MTM will begin to approach bespoke. But the biggest difference is one that is not visible in the outside. The 3D customization of bespoke – the moulding of the structure to your body – creates a level of comfort that you simply don’t get with MTM. When I wear a bespoke jacket, I can move around much more freely and comfortably than I can when I’m in a MTM jacket. Based on outward appearance, a stranger might not be able to tell the difference between bespoke and MTM, but the difference in comfort is real, especially if you’re wearing it all day. It’s a difference I’m willing to pay for, and it’s a difference that someone who has never owned a bespoke jacket can never truly appreciate.

Where the value proposition gets more questionable is in the distinction between high end bespoke and the bespoke you get from a skilled regional tailor or from a tailor like Whitcombe and Shaftesbury that outsources some of the work. Personally, I prize bespoke due to the comfort and fit that it provides, and I’m not willing to pay a premium to have the lining sewn entirely by hand, to have perfect finishing, etc., that you get with the top flight tailors.

Dakota

Really enjoyable symposium, it was good to hear from such a diverse group. As always, thank you for making great content.

Jason Leung

Hi Simon, have you had any experience on Cad & Dandy bespoke? I had recently disocved them because of the ads and surprisingly their price is relatively lowered then others tailor on the row. Do you have any recommadition for someone who is looking for a neapolitan jacket to be made the first time?

Jason Leung

I am thinking of Anglo Italian because I am based in London, looking at your review they seem to do a decent job in that price point too.