Paul LeBlanc needed a suit and, with a minimum of searching, he quickly found one. The Brookline financial adviser scanned the racks at a department store, and there it was — charcoal gray, lightweight wool, utilitarian and perfect for the office. But a few weeks later, the 27-year-old, who has wide shoulders, a narrow waist, and neatly cropped chestnut hair, was out for drinks with co-workers when they started making fun of his new suit.
“I was told that I looked like my dad,” LeBlanc recalls. “That’s really not the most flattering thing to tell someone.”
Determined to avoid future insults, LeBlanc joined a growing number of 20- to 40-year-olds and started shopping for a bespoke suit from an online tailor. The process is straightforward enough: Pick a style, choose the fabric and details such as lining, measure yourself at home, and
e-mail the results. About a month (and about $500) later, a made-to-measure suit arrives at your home.
Yet LeBlanc still doesn’t have the suit he wants. The problem? There are now so many online custom suit companies that he can’t decide which to order from.
The online bespoke suit business has ballooned over the past five years. What began as a novelty with a handful of these online cyber tailors now numbers close to 50.
“There’s definitely a big surge in the number of affordable custom suit options out there,” says Brian Boye, Men’s Health magazine’s fashion and grooming director. “I’ve been meeting with a lot of brands that are finding ways to provide a custom fit at a fraction of the cost” of a traditional bespoke suit.
Custom suits are not new, but what is new is the do-it-yourself approach through online retailers. Some are even consulting with customers through Skype to make sure measurements are taken correctly. According to Boye, the online custom suit phenomenon is being driven by shoppers in their 20s and 30s.
“My belief is that modern males, age 21 to 35, are very engaged with the idea of tailored clothing,” said Tom Julian, director of strategic business development for the Doneger Group, a fashion trend marketing group. It’s part of a major wardrobe change for many of these guys. “Dress-up looks were never part of their lifestyle since casualization in the workplace began in early 1990s.”
At the same time, men’s online spending is increasing, according to a study by NPD Group, a consumer tracking service. A 2012 study found that men’s online purchases had grown 13 percent over the previous year.
If the message of wearing better-fitting, custom clothing is not being reinforced by insulting co-workers, then it’s coming from pop culture.
“I think we owe this to TV shows like ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ and now ‘Downton Abbey,’ ” said Seth Howard, style director of suit maker Alton Lane , which has showrooms in three US cities, including Boston, where customers can be fitted for a custom suit. “Male celebrities — even in their personal lives — are also contributing. They’re trading in their T-shirt and jeans for three-piece suits and more sophisticated dress. Prime examples: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.”
Justin Timberlake, who enjoys singing the praises of a good suit and tie, has been an unofficial ambassador for this new generation of bespoke, which borrows heavily from slim European silhouettes. That means a custom suit allows men who have been hitting the gym the opportunity to show the results of their hard work.
But those who own the online tailoring companies say price and the convenience of the technology is what’s pulling in most new customers. A high quality, custom-made suit from a tailor or store can start at $2,000 (and go much higher). An average-quality online bespoke suit can be had for around $500, although big spenders looking for an online luxury suit can spend thousands.
“People are discovering that this is an accessible luxury item,” said Suzy Tepper, bespoke services director for Boston-based Blank Label . Over the past three years, the company has sold over 30,000 custom-tailored shirts. They are now adding suits to their product line, and busting out of the online-only model. They’ve opened a small “showroom,” on Newbury Street where men can be measured by a tailor, and they plan to expand the concept to New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.
“It’s reasonable,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s cheap. It’s definitely reasonable. We are getting a lot of guys who just never thought this was something that was within their reach.”
Although these companies are primarily located in the United States and Canada, the suits are made in Asia. Owners of these companies say what drives the cost down is low overhead. There’s no store rent to pay, there’s no sales force to employ, and many of the companies work directly with fabric manufacturers.
“A bespoke suit was something that was far more common a few generations ago,” says Karen Chung, president and CEO of online bespoke company 7 Regent Lane . “But there’s demand and interest. Our numbers keep steadily growing.”
The one drawback to the online custom suit market is that it exists mostlyonline. You can look at pictures of different styles, and some companies will send customers swatches of fabric, but with an investment piece of clothing such as a suit, some men are hesitant to pull the sartorial trigger without an opportunity to eye the actual goods first.
Companies such as Toronto-based Suitly Apparel try to make it easy for men to measure themselves with instructional videos, but CEO Matthew Krizsan anticipates that not everyone has a knack for measuring themselves. The company will reimburse customers up to $75 for alterations. Or, they’ll completely remake a suit for no additional charge if the suit isn’t satisfactory.
“Our alteration rate is low, probably around 7 percent,” Krizsan says. “But you have to expect that not everyone is going to be happy.”
Some online-only suitmakers are enticing men to try a custom-made suit by opening pop-up shops. Last month, the online retailer Indochino opened a pop-up shop just off Newbury Street with a tailor on site to take measurements. The idea is that once men have been measured, their sizes will be on record and a new suit can be ordered online any time. The traveling pop-up shop helps Indochino sidestep the expense of opening stores in multiple cities.
Online retailer Arden Reed plans to try a similar approach. The New York-based bespoke suit-maker launched a Kickstarter campaign to build a truck containing a 3-D body scanner. Men step into the truck, they get scanned, and a computer designs a suit for their body. If their Kickstarter campaign is successful, the company plans to have its truck in Boston this summer.
Carlos Solorio, cofounder of Arden Reed , says the truck will give men the chance to see product,and to get a custom suit.
“Whether it’s online or through something like a pop-up store or truck, the expectations are changing,” Solorio says. “The bar has been raised, and more men are aware that custom isn’t completely out of reach. I think it will eventually be the standard.”
Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com.