When it comes to the world of selling apparel these days, the middle of the market is somewhat muddled.
The high-end haute couture market, despite a few growing pains into the digital age, is more or less functioning as it always has. The buyer base is narrow — and there are not an abundance of sales — but the sales are, generally speaking, high value and the buyer base is very brand loyal.
On the other end of the spectrum is fast fashion. The clothes looks good and don’t cost a lot. Now the apparel on offer is also very much not built to last (the phrase “wash-and-toss” abounds) and fairly repetitive, because one strategy for keeping cost so low in fast fashion is buying large lots of fabric that all match each other and cutting lots of different types of clothes out of them. But even those “downsides” are by design, as both motivate the customer to keep shopping and refreshing their wardrobe with new cheap pieces. And again, it is a business model that works (just ask H&M and Old Navy), as all those small transactions stack up into some pretty decent revenue.
The middle of the market, however, is having a hard time finding the right strategy for keeping the customer engaged. Not quite as expensive (or exclusive) as designer, yet not quite as expendable (or affordable) as fast fashion — that middle ground has been a harder and harder place to stake a claim, as the last few years of woes for J. Crew, Macy’s and The Gap have demonstrated.
Many versions of the new answer have emerged: better technical platforms, more consumer-centric retail locations and a better back to basics focus, designed to speak to the younger, upwardly mobile professional who doesn’t want to dress like every day is casual Friday.
For the two guys behind Bespoke, their answer to catering to the middle ground combines all of those concepts in an attempt to import a little designer shopping experience into the middle market male consumer’s buying habits.
In 2013, Business guy Max Schmidt and “all around creative type” Tom Daguanno were two middle market millennials with a problem: They wanted custom-made suits for Daguanno’s wedding, and they could not buy them without shelling out insanely. Their best option was to rent tuxedos.
Wanting to fill that gap for others, the duo co-founded 1701 Bespoke, a Detroit-based custom-made suit retailer that combines the attention of personalized shopping with the convenience of digital purchasing. (Schmidt notes that the culture of the city — specifically its “utilitarian nature” — is “a huge part” of the brand’s identity.)
The company currently has two physical locations (with a third flagship on the way). As a further reflection of the brand’s unique concept, the stores’ appearances aren’t exactly what one might picture when they think “suit seller.”
“Our brick-and-mortar shop doesn’t carry much merchandise for the casual customer to stroll by and pick up,” Schmidt told PYMNTS in an interview. “Instead, the brick-and-mortar is a spot for our clients to really experience our brand, as well as get fit. It’s kind of a 2-in-1.”
Instead of looking at clothes in-store, 1701 Bespoke customers touch fabric and talk about their style goals. When it comes time to buy, they shop on their own time though the website.
"We’re able to not only help them with fabric selections, but also help them formulate their style [and meet those goals]. From that perspective, we’re competing against some of the other custom outfits out there,” observes Schmidt.
"There’s the online route, which we’re competing against by really changing the location and putting in more on the customer experience front. When it comes to big-box stores and things like that, the battlefront that we’re going for … is really the tailored and the customized front, where we can actually make something specifically for you.
“We’re kind of trying to change the parameters,” he remarks, “and compete on a different plain.”
1701 Bespoke is also a very experiential base attempt on the middle market, with an initial in-store visit typically stretching to two hours.
What happens in that time?
"We take different measurements; we’ll put our customers in a try-on garment and we’re able to see how everything fits and drapes, and then we’re able to make changes … but [we] also really talk with them about their style and fit preferences, so we can get a really good understanding of how they want their garments to look, and what style they are really going for."
That begets what Schmidt describes as “informal loyalty programs.” Although 1701 Bespoke does not currently have an official such offering in place, the company does give ad hoc discounts and related benefits to its returning customers.
So far the firm doesn’t do much in the way of marketing — and it gets its name around with word-of-mouth, something Schmidt remarks “we’re very happy about.” But getting to scale requires more than that — and Schmidt says the company is in an “ongoing process” to reach scalability, “developing a constant, repeatable way to do measurements as well as a consistent, repeatable way to talk to our customers about our garments, critique their suits and develop their pattern.”
Going forward, the firm has two focuses. The first is hiring out some (adding three or four more people to the current three-person team) and getting their 2,700-foot flagship location up and running. The second is the continued buildout of its Web channels.
Once those two simultaneous builds are complete, “we’re going to determine where 1701 goes from there,” concludes Schmidt. That might mean expanding to new cities, or implementing new strategies such as pop-up fitting locations.
As its founders learned when trying to dress for a life event, the middle market fashion customer is out there and willing and waiting to spend, even if the old model isn’t working for them right now. 1701 Bespoke thinks that for at least a part of that market, they have the right new approach by making that middle market experience just a little more designer. Now it remains to be seen if they can can suited up to get to scale.