Spencer Hays owned a Nashville company that sold kids' books, bibles and encyclopedias door-to-door. One day in 1966 he scratched his head and asked himself What else could we sell to people in their homes and offices? Brushes (Fuller) and cosmetics (Avon) were already taken, along with cleaning products and vacuum cleaners, and so, somewhat inexplicably, he chose men’s suits.
In the ensuing decades Hays built this new company, Dallas-based Tom James, into a gigantic sales engine, with nationwide revenues in excess of $100,000,000, employing self-starting sales people from San Diego to Bangor. Hays, like many entrepreneurs, was simultaneously adored and despised; but the impact that Tom James made on the men’s tailored clothing industry was epic, to say the least.
In an era of outright depression in the men’s tailored clothing industry, owing to decreasing demand and global competition, Hays bought a bunch of basically anonymous manufacturers that produced custom-made clothing and shirts, providing sales and superior management techniques to save them from imminent death. To these he added some name brand companies also on life support – venerable outfits like Troy Shirtmakers Guild, Gitman Brothers, H. Freeman of Philadelphia, and Corbin – riding in with his white knight Tennessee charm and leaving the previous owners debt-free but otherwise cleaned out, a practice sometimes politely referred to as bottom-feeding, eventually acquiring prestigious Oxxford Clothes of Chicago by this means. Recognizable brand names and a broader product range strengthened the Tom James peddler’s pitch, offering more than just convenience and custom-made business clothes, but weekend wear as well.
It’s fair to say that Hays’ foresight contributed to the nationwide explosion in custom-made clothes; but whether he was clairvoyant or just plain lucky is hard to say. The tide was turning in clothing manufacturing as it was in so many industries, and he rode this rising tide into a safe harbor.
Time out for a Hilton story.
I met a guy, in 1980 or so, by the name of Cohn. His family made overcoats in Boston. (How I met him is another story.) Mr. Cohn had two distinguishing characteristics in addition to his heavily Yiddish-inflected Boston accent; he was extraordinarily short, and extraordinarily old.
“You’re a Hilton,” he said right off. “Yes,” I averred, and waited for the inevitable consequences of this admission. No one in the industry was, shall we say, neutral on the subject of Hiltons. “Norman’s boy?” Okay, here we go, thought I; But Mr. Cohn surprised me.
“I knew your great-grandfather,” he said, “Joe Hilton. A brilliant man! I sold him coats! In the thirties!” he said, in his wonderful accent. He went on to tell me about how Joe Hilton was a great innovator who, instead of working as the “outside” man for his brothers’ tailor shop, traipsing around trying to sell custom-tailored butler’s liveries, chauffeurs’ uniforms and so on, had one day been inspired to open stores -- to let the customer come to him -- ultimately to own a chain of ten clothing stores in metropolitan New York, Joseph Hilton and Sons, and a three-story, 55,000 square foot factory to supply them.
Cohn went on. “Joe says to himself, ‘Why schlep these samples around? There’s a million guys want a suit these days.’ He was right! He had balls!” Joe Hilton was a pioneer in Big Inventory, the mirror-image of Spencer Hays, and his idea lasted a hundred years.
Back to the present. We are witnessing the senescence of the Big Inventory idea. Factories are tooled and geared to produce made-to-measure clothing, and stores have awakened to the waste and inefficiency of carrying a range of sizes. Remember the Portly? So long. How about the Extra-Long? Sorry, pal. (One unintended consequence of this was the creation of another competitor: the Big and Tall Store.) And the customer generally likes the idea of having something made for himself. Glamorous, prestigious, personal, and particularly in the case of shirts, no more expensive.
And clothing individualization has entered the technological age. A while ago I was contacted by a company who swore to me that by taking some combination of unrelated an apparently irrelevant information about a guy, like his age, shoe size, and golf handicap, they could -- by some trick of algorithmic mumbo jumbo -- guarantee that the custom-made clothing he ordered through our website would have a 90% chance of needing no alterations. I didn’t reject this outrageous claim outright because I am in awe of the power and potential of technology. So I looked into it. There are a number of firms selling custom-made clothing online, hundreds of twenty-somethings in sincere poses or holding cell phones rushing around in cities wearing suits. Prices are great, $200 to $600 generally. Indochino, the one that Warren Buffet touted to Bill Gates, has an apparently permanent sale on, marking things down from $999 to $399 or something like that. Each company offers some rebate or dollar amount to cover your alterations expenses. I came away from my investigation convinced that these were not “custom-tailored” clothes so much as they were “personalized.” Your choice of fabrics and details like lapels and pockets, but simply an approximation of your fit. Not what you’d get from an actual tailor. Online custom may be the way it’s going, but, frankly, it’s a long way off. And the quality? Hmmmm.
So what’s the immediate future of retailing in men’s tailored clothing look like? My guess is it’s a hybrid. Small showroom intimacy, some ready-made inventory, and a wide range of possibility. One thing that dogs the direct seller is what’s missing from the equation: What is the actual garment going to look like? The average man’s mind boggles trying to visualize this four-inch swatch made into an entire suit. Sport jackets are even harder to imagine. But in a shop you can try stuff on, get a sense of fit and proportion, maybe see a similar fabric already made up, making it easier to commit to something you’re not sure you’re going to love when it arrives. Also, the shop gives a sense of Institution. (This may be why some online retailers, from Gilt to Trunk Club, are opening up showrooms around the country.) There are real folks working there, people who seem to know what they’re talking about, with the background and expertise to guide you. There are alterations people as well, who can make the finishing touches. Ultimately, you know “where they live.” And because you’ve read this far, I kind of think that’s important to you.