If The Suit Fits

Online Made-to-Measure Suitmakers Tout an Entry-Level Custom Experience.

Let's say you're a businessman who has to wear a suit and tie to work everyday, and it's important for you to look good. Let's also say you're so busy you can't find 15 minutes on your calendar to go pick out a suit.

Then Indochino.com might just be your perfect solution. Founded in 2006 in Vancouver, Indochino is one of several high-profile online made-to-measure suit retailers offering fit, value, customization and convenience. "A lot of our customers are really busy New York investment bankers," says CEO and cofounder Kyle Vucko, adding that they buy suits on a monthly basis, and appreciate being able to do it with a few mouse clicks, have it made specifically to their measurements, and delivered right to their door.

Like MyCustomTailor.com, OnlineSuits.com and ASuitThatFits.com, Indochino has married ecommerce and affordable outsourcing to give men a custom-like suit experience at an entry-level price. While commissioning a suit from a top bespoke tailor can easily run $5,000, Indochino's suits run $300-$500, including shipping. Claiming to be the first and largest in the space, Indochino is projecting 400 percent year over year growth for 2010 by offering limited runs, style advice and pre-selecting most of the custom options for a customer with an average age of 28-35.

It's a winning business model, says Vucko. Small production runs mean there are no big fabric commitments. Indochino also works directly with suppliers: Says Vucko, "The traditional fabric supply-chain has about 20 middlemen." Inventory turns over once a month, instead of twice a year as with many others in the apparel industry, improving cash flow. "If we hit on a product we can scale up on the fabric side, and if we miss we don't risk anything because we haven't pre-bought any of the fabric. The customer design process has made us a lot more efficient. So we can take a smaller relative margin on the product and still be very profitable."

Originally relying on home-based tailors in China, today Indochino uses a team of 50 production partners, but does all quality control and packaging in-house from its Shanghai office. Most deliveries take two weeks, but rush orders can be completed in 48 hours. Indochino also offers a full guarantee: If a customer is unsatisfied with the fit, Indochino will provide a $75 stipend for him to take it to a local tailor. "If it's way off we'll remake the suit completely," says Vucko, "and if it's not what they expect, they can return it for a full refund."

Business has been driven mostly word-of-mouth. "If you nail it on the first suit," Vucko explains, "people will tell all their friends." It's not uncommon for an order to come from a small town in Finland, for example, followed by dozens more from the same town several months later.

Indochino is a made-to-measure service, a level down from full bespoke, where an individual pattern is made from scratch for the customer. Here a standard pattern is adjusted based on a customer's measurements. Customers are sent a $29 refundable package that includes fabric swatches, lining samples and tape measures. The order form includes general body-type questions, as well as instructions for taking 15 measurements.

Though Indochino claims a high customer-satisfaction rate, David A. Eisele Sr. remains skeptical, and issues a big caveat emptor. "I think these online suitmakers do open the eyes of consumers to something other than off-the-rack designer clothes," says the owner of Davelle Clothiers, a custom shop in Reston, VA, and the president of the Custom Tailors & Designers Association, "but I think the consumer needs to be more motivated by process than price."

It's not simply a matter of taking measurements, Eisele says. A custom tailor takes measurements with years of experience making suits for different body types. And only a master tailor can ensure that a suit's trickiest areas, the shoulders and back, lie correctly, especially with changes in posture. Eisele also admonishes men not to forget that fabric is as important as fit, and an inferior cloth can sag at points like elbows, knees and buttocks because the weave isn't tight enough.

As a result, he warns that the fit of online made-to-measure suits may not be as great as customers expect. "When that product goes on your body," he says, "it's such a representation of who you are that people will notice it even more if it doesn't fit right. Because the excuse is, â╬Ëå"If you had it custom made, why were you so cheap about it?'"

"When people hear the word custom," he continues, "they have a very elevated high opinion of what the results are going to be -- it's going to be made for them, fit perfectly, be an extension of who they are -- and when the product comes back and it's really nothing more than a modified off-the-shelf item, they get frustrated with that. I think it just takes one visit down that road and then they want to get it done the way it should be."

Somewhere in between the experience of e-mailing measurements and getting fitted by a master tailor is Columbus, OH-based Astor & Black, founded in 2004.

Astor & Black uses a team of trained associates who visit homes and offices to take measurements and show swatches. The end result? A suit that is fully canvassed, not one whose lining is fused with vegetable glue, starting at $499. "We're the best value in the men's clothing business by far," says confounder Christian Boehm. "You can't walk into a store anywhere in America and buy a suit that is fully canvassed even readymade for under $1,000"

But now Astor & Black is using technology to make its services even more compelling. In July the company debuted the Bespoke Visualizer, a new online, interactive outfit-building program that Astor & Black "spent a ton of money on."

Bespoke Visualizer allows a customer to build outfits by simply clicking a mouse. If he's considering a glen-plaid suit and wants to know how it will look with his favorite pink shirt, with a few clicks he can see a mock-up. Almost every variation in men's wear is possible, from striped shirts with white contrast collars to three-piece and double-breasted suits and bow ties. "It's about as custom as you can make an online experience," says Boehm.

Sometime next year, Astor & Black will release phase two of Bespoke Visualizer, which will allow customers to submit their own measurements. However, Boehm says, there is no price break for this option; it will be offered as a convenience for customers who do not have a sales representative in their area.

Christian Chensvold is a New York-based free-lancer who writes about men's fashion and the apparel industry. He also runs the blog Ivy-Style.com.
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