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Bricks-n-clicks for quality shirts

Hugh McLeod who drives the online marketing efforts of successful tailor English Cut is planning to get the company into the shirt business, through a partnership with an existing firm. I think that’s a brilliant idea, but here’s how I think Hugh and Thomas should go a step further to really build a business they can change the world with.

I love mass-customization business ideas and I think shirts are ripe for the treatment. They’re a lower-cost item than suits and that makes people more willing to experiment. It’s more straightforward to measure up for a shirt than a suit. There’s also a more constant demand for them, because they usually don’t last as long as suits.

The other good thing is that the margins on shirts are decent enough, if you can produce a quality product, and you can avoid the costs of being on the high street – rent, staffing, shrinkage, returns, indiscriminate discounting and so on. (Although the margins on custom-made are never going to be as good as on ready-to-wear.)

The problem, of course, is that most people in the mainstream don’t want to buy shirts, suits or any other sort of clothes over the Internet (something Hugh and Thomas are obviously well aware of). There has to be direct contact, a human touch, an opportunity to get measured up and get an idea what the final product is going to be like. This is really important at the beginning of the relationship. Once the measurements are on-file and the customer is assured about the quality of the product, it’s not quite as critical to meet face-to-face to close a purchase (although the relationship still needs to be maintained).

So here’s my ‘bricks-n-clicks’ idea for the shirt business.

Get suitable small but prominent premises in top-tier retail areas (not necessarily stand-alone shops) and have a shirtmaker on-site part-time and a trained salesperson on full-time. Customers can see the fabrics and quality, and get measured up for a custom shirt. They can also take delivery of their shirt there when it is made. This retail business only has to cover its costs.

The money is in the long-term recurring business. When the customer needs to buy new shirts, they go online and get more shirts made to exactly the same measurements over the Internet and have them delivered to the home or office. Regular customers receive fabric swatches twice-yearly so they can order something new. Subsequent orders after the first order are painless for the gentleman (who hate going out shopping anyway, and knows he can always go back to the shop if he has a problem later).

These later orders are also very profitable for the shirtmaker because they aren’t constrained by the retail operation. You can double or quadruple your sales without needing to add more or bigger stores. The retail business could also be scaled up to provide other types of clothes (maybe through appointments with tailors, that sort of thing).

Other people have done things a bit like this before. But they haven’t executed it quite the same. It’s critical to have a top-notch shop in an expensive location. That’s really expensive to do, and nobody has really done it before because the margin on bespoke isn’t as big as for ready-to-wear, so the high rent hasn’t been justified. What makes it worthwhile in this situation is the prospect of future Internet orders. The two work together. The Internet isn’t just an extra channel, it’s critical to making the whole business work.

The other thing that hasn’t been done before is building the relationship with the customer and telling the story. With English Cut, Thomas and Hugh do this better than anything else I’ve ever seen.

So that’s the idea, not one I’m likely to ever do much with myself – I just don’t have the background in the rag or retail trades, although my mother comes from a shirtmaking town and my uncle was a cutter and later invested in a well-known Irish shirtmaking business -. Someone will do this though, or something like it, sooner or later.

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  1. Well said. Currently, a bespoke suit isn’t in my opportunity set but a custom shirt is quite tempting. I think you outlined rather well the entire experience I would want when making such a purchase.

  2. I’d actually be *very* happy to never have to visit a ‘brick’ shop to get well fitting shirts. I *hate* RL (real life) shopping but love SL (second life) shopping, ie. windowXP shopping.

    I think the guys need to come up with a special measuring tape made of velcro with coloured millimeter markings all the way along it which they can post to prospective customers along with clear instructions for self-measuring. Last time I got fitted for a best-man’s suit the process didn’t seem all too difficult. AFAIR it was a matter of measuring the waist, the biceps, the chest and the shoulders? Give me the means of doing that myself with a velcro measuring tape, then filling in an online form with my measurments and finally choosing from a range of cool styles and I’ll be a happy camper.

  3. There is something like what you describe at Munich Airport, but for shoes. Plus isn’t there Mangas (, a (spanish me thinks) franchise company that measures people up in small high street locations and then gets the suit made elsewhere? not fully bespoke but getting there.


  • gapingvoid January 11, 2006

    shirts and los angeles

    Yesterday I told Thomas to stop making so many suits. He’ll burn out at the rate he’s going. We’re cutting back. We’ve already got too many customers. Shirts is the next chapter. Last night I had a dream about…