Bespoke Makers Employ New Strategies to Survive Pandemic

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Holding a fabric up to a camera is no substitute for an in-person meeting, but that’s one of the strategies bespoke makers are using to reach customers during the pandemic. They’ve also turned to Instagram and YouTube videos, videochats and even tutorials on how to take the most accurate measurements as they search for viable alternatives to communicate with customers in a virtual world.

In a webinar Tuesday morning hosted by the upscale fabric mill Thomas Mason and moderated by Simon Crompton of the British blog Permanent Style, a group of custom shirt- and suit-makers and retailers took on the topic of how the luxury men’s wear industry can adapt to a more digital future.

Luca Avitabile, owner of the custom shirtmaker based in Naples, Italy, said since his atelier was forced to close, he has been offering videochat appointments instead of in-person meetings. With existing clients, he said the process is easier since he already has their patterns and preferences on file, but it is “more complicated” for new clients, who are asked to fill out forms and take their own measurements or send in a shirt that can be used to determine the fit in order to get started.

He admitted that with new customers, the process is not the same as having two in-person meetings to determine the proper sizing and choose the fabric and details for the shirts, but the end result can be around 90 percent as good. And if the shirt is not perfect, Avitabile said the company is offering free returns since it is saving on travel expenses.

Chris Callis, director of product development for Proper Cloth, a U.S.-based online made-to-measure men’s brand, said that because the company has always been digital, there haven’t been a lot of changes to its operation since the pandemic. “It’s remained business as usual,” he said. However, Proper Cloth has begun holding more video consultations and that will continue in the future. He said with bespoke makers using many of the same tools as online companies, he needs to “bend over backward to make sure everything is right.”

James Sleater, director of the Cad & The Dandy, a bespoke suit-maker on Savile Row, has found a silver lining to the pandemic. Even before the lockdown, some people were afraid to come into his shop — and others on the London street — because they were intimidated. “But on a Zoom call, you’re in their house. It breaks down barriers and relaxes customers,” he said. “So using technology can actually make things more seamless.”

Mark Cho, cofounder of The Armoury, a high-end men’s shop with locations in New York City and Hong Kong, has turned to YouTube videos and other strategies to maintain business during the lockdown in the States. “We’re a brick-and-mortar store. We’re not set up to be a volume-based online business,” he said.

Although his stores in Hong Kong were never forced to close, he has seen the appetite for tailored clothing — The Armoury’s primary business — “drop dramatically.” Instead, in the States, he’s seen unexpectedly strong sales in briefcases, neckties and wallets, Cho said with a laugh and a shrug.

But in an effort to boost sales of suits again, Cho has personally been taking measurements of customers who come into his stores in Asia. And next month, he said, The Armoury will add a true tailor to the mix in an effort to further ensure the fit is right.

Sleater expects that the recent shift toward more casual men’s wear will continue for the foreseeable future and is investing more energy in creating jersey jackets, polo shirts and other sportswear pieces to battle the “downward trajectory” in more formal attire.

Greg Lellouche, founder of No Man Walks Alone, an online men’s store based in New York, has used the time during the pandemic to explore how his business can provide the best customer service and use its “voice to bring our community together.”

Before the pandemic, he had used behind-the-scene videos to showcase the company and its product offering, but that stopped after the lockdown since Lellouche didn’t believe the quality of the images was good enough and opted instead for “a more human experience. We continue to provide the best possible service and communication to make them feel comfortable buying.” Putting live videos on YouTube makes you “look amateurish [and] our online experience is more human than some luxury experiences you can get in the physical world.”

But Cho’s experience has been the opposite. Unlike Lellouche, he has found that his videos, most of which are shot on cell phones using $300 worth of lights, have resulted not only in starting conversations with customers, but have also led to sales. “We get better engagement,” he said. “And you can achieve a lot with relatively little effort.”

Sleater said it’s easy to become “lazy” when someone operates a brick-and-mortar store — they need only put product on the shelves and wait for it to sell. But with stores closed, it has forced merchants to be more creative. For him, he’s turned to storytelling to sell product instead and become “much more dynamic” than he had been in the past.

Callis said because he doesn’t operate a physical store, he uses editorial content to describe products and their attributes. That’s better than just holding a fabric or a buttonhole up to a camera on a computer. “We’re clearly communicating the soul of the product,” he said.

“When you try to put a fabric close to the camera, you can see nothing,” Avitabile added, saying he instead uses his knowledge of his customers’ lives and jobs to recommend options. He said that before the pandemic, there was a “really big gap” between brick-and-mortar and online businesses, but now, the two are blending and “everyone is trying to do something in between.”

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