The Keys to a Bespoke Apparel Experience
There was a time when everybody made their own clothes or had them made by a tailor or seamstress. You had only a few things in your wardrobe, but they fit you perfectly and were made to last. Fast forward to today, we’ve got ubiquitous, cheap, fast clothing in abundance but there’s a wave rising up in the world of fashion and its name is personalization and it signifies a change. It’s not always pertaining to tailoring per se, but the idea that clothes are made especially for the individual is one that’s resonating again.
Today, we speak to part of Canada’s first family of fashion, Tamara and Jordin Mimran, who are joint managing directors at Impeccable Clothing Company, parent company to Alfred Sung Bespoke, about why made-for-you is experiencing a renaissance and what that means for fashion brands and retailers.
Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda and you’re listening to Think Retail. Back when my grandmother was young, everybody made their own clothes or had them made by a tailor or seamstress, you had only a few things in your wardrobe, but they fit you perfectly and were made to last. Fast forward to today, we’ve got ubiquitous, cheap, fast clothing in abundance but there’s a wave rising up in the world of fashion and its name is personalization and it signifies a change. It’s not always pertaining to tailoring per se, but the idea that clothes are made especially for the individual is one that’s resonating again.
Today, we’re speaking to part of Canada’s first family of fashion, Tamara and Jordin Mimran, who are joint managing directors at Impeccable Clothing Company, parent company to Alfred Sung Bespoke about why made-for-you is experiencing a renaissance and what that means for fashion brands and retailers.
Thank you so much for being here today. Can you tell us about the Alfred Sung brand?
Jordin: Absolutely. The brand Alfred Sung was started by Alfred–the designer–my father and our uncle back in 1980. My father had started a dress company with our grandmother, and they had some extra fabric and were looking for a new designer to help them design these fabrics. Alfred at the time was illustrating for a fashion magazine. And so, they found him in his little shop in Yorkville, in Toronto. They saw him up until all hours working, they were very impressed by his designs and with what people were saying about him in the city. So they decided to recruit him as their designer and they brought him in for a meeting. At first, he didn’t really want partners, he was happy with his little shop. And then he saw my grandmother draping in sort of the old French style, and he immediately said, “Oh, I’d like to work with her.” So my dad said, “Well, that’s great, that’s our French couturier from Paris,” and you know, there’s no way he was going to say “That’s my mother.”
Tamara: “That’s my mother from Casablanca.”
Jordin: But that was sort of the beginning of Alfred’s relationship with our family, the Mimrans. And over the course of maybe three years, they were able to build the brand through department stores, through their own wholesale business into what, in 1983, Maclean’s dubbed Alfred the new King of Canadian fashion. So that was a big achievement early on in his career. And then what our father Saul did, he decided to take big ads in American publications like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and that really cemented Alfred’s reputation in North America. You know, as Canadians, we have a great respect for Canadian designers, but we really appreciate them once they go outside of our hometown and our country.
Melinda: We’re always rooting for that.
Jordin: Yes, that we can take it globally. So that’s what they did. And they were able to put the brand into major department stores there like Saks, Bloomingdale’s, Bergdorf. And within a couple of years, they were ready to launch the first fragrance. And so, over the years–starting in 1986–Alfred has released 13 fragrances to the world, really great achievements. And its sort of cemented the brand as a real heritage label in the fragrance world.
Through this, through the ‘80s and ‘90s, Alfred continued to design his ready to wear collections and got a lot of acclaim on the runway in New York and Toronto. He then ventured into bridal, and that’s another big category for us. For many years we did a bridal gown, that was a signature piece for that part of our brand universe. And the bridal gown gave way to bridesmaids’ dresses. And now we actually… we do a really great business in bridesmaids’ dresses that have sort of transitioned into party dresses. So, it’s gone beyond the event, it’s for all sorts of special occasions and the dresses are so great and simple and modern that they can be versatile.
Tamara: I think you’re at the ‘90s now, right?
Jordin: Yes. Tamara why don’t you continue this story and tell us a bit how we got into the mass world.
Tamara: So, I guess Jordin and I came in in the 2000’s. When we came along there was a big trend to go towards mass direct-to-retail deals with big brands. We wanted to reach the mass customer base, we wanted to provide them with clothing that we were proud of, that was approachable, that was affordable because it was mass. And we called it the democratization of fashion. And Jordin and I worked on that a lot at the beginning of our careers through Zellers, The Bay, Sears, Mark’s, Moores, we had different direct to retail partnerships and relationships. And that’s what we spent most of our time on, whether it be women’s fashion, women’s fashion accessories, home fashion, and by that, I mean bed and bath, furniture.
Jordin: Even outdoor furniture.
Tamara: So that was a trend at the time, a business trend where we did direct-to-retail deals for the mass consumer.
Jordin: And it was about a price point and the democratization of design was the big term during those years.
Tamara: And that took us right up to about last year when we started seeing this shift in the marketplace. And we weren’t happy with creating so much product and it was all about getting as much quantity out there as possible with the low price. And although we were still proud of the look of all of our garments under these lower price points, we weren’t proud of how much product we were putting in the marketplace.
Jordin: And just to interject, I think we were also proud that we were addressing so many Canadians.
Jordin: With the fast fashion movement, yes, it’s contributing to waste in the world. You know, there’s all these issues with fast fashion now that are problematic, but on the other hand, we’re able to offer really great designs and beautiful clothing to Canadians who might not be able to afford some of the earlier collections that Alfred was designing.
Tamara: With the democratization of fashion, came excess of goods. So, we got to a point with our brand where we wanted to pull back and say, “Where are we now? Where do we want to go from here? What’s happening in terms of the business landscape of the apparel business? What are people caring about now?” Consumers really want to connect with the brand, they want to have experiences with brands, and they want things–I mean, the whole topic today– made just for you, they want to have it feel like it’s somewhat personalized to them. And we really wanted to go back to our roots as a brand. And as Jordin explained, Alfred Sung, the brand originally dressed that working woman of the ‘80s, and that’s where he became famous as a designer and the brand became famous in itself as a brand name.
Jordin: Back to the working woman of the ‘80s, that was a pivotal moment for the brand as well and we really want to talk to that new emerging workforce and this whole trend that’s happening right now with women’s empowerment. And giving them a suit or a work wardrobe or an evening wardrobe that really fits their lifestyle.
Tamara: Makes them feel empowered.
Jordin: Like your power suit should empower you and not the other way around.
Melinda: So, this new concept that you’re developing, this Alfred Sung Bespoke, can you tell us a little bit more in detail exactly what that’s about?
Tamara: Yes, absolutely. So first, a client comes into our showroom, right now we have one showroom in Toronto and it’s at Bathurst and Dupont, 1100 Bathurst. The client would come in and see one of our stylists there. Our stylist would get to know the client, find out their current wardrobe, what they’re looking for as well as take all their measurements. We take 36 points of measurement and six posture points. We’re measuring the slope of your shoulder, like if your arms are a little forward or backward. And then all your different measurement points to customize a blazer, a suit, a shirt, a silk blouse that best suits what you’re looking for.
Jordin: No pun there.
Tamara: Yes, yes. Then two weeks after that, the client is called back to our showroom or our styling staff can go directly to you and a second fitting happens. Because we take so many measurements, there’s a really high probability that the suit will be perfect, and you’ll walk out the door and it’s great. If not, we take care of all alterations and it’s part of our process to have alterations. And it’s really exciting because the customer can pick their buttons, their lining, their different cut. Like today I’m wearing a jacket, I know no one can see me, but I can describe it.
Melinda: Please do. Yes.
Tamara: It’s a seven-button blazer. It’s double-breasted but it has a one-button closure. So, I mean there’s all different sorts of styles that you can pick from. We have lots of samples in our showroom. We have books that show different styles and sketches. So it’s a fun process for the client to kind of go through and make something that’s theirs and hopefully be really happy with it and wear it for a long time because these suits are made to last and that’s what we’re also very proud of, the quality and the craftsmanship.
Jordin: Yeah. And the convenience is also a major selling point of this new concept because customers, once their body measurements are in the system, they can just call us and we can make recommendations for their next purchase or we might get to know them well enough that we know what’s in their wardrobe already and we can recommend what to add to their wardrobe. A lot of customers we’re finding–they’re building a trust with one of our stylists so they can go back and just say, “You know, I’m going to this kind of an event, what would look great on me? Or what kind of new fabrics do you have now that might suit this particular event in my life or just for every day, for work. I’m looking for a couple of blazers.” And the stylist client relationship is very important.
Melinda: Traditionally, for men, getting a nice suit has always meant getting one custom made but for women that hasn’t always been the case. First of all, why has this been more for men than women? And why do you think it’s resonating more with women now?
Tamara: I think that women have always had this service for dresses. They’ve always been catered towards for the big ball they’re going to and they have that dress option. But now women are really working their way up the corporate ladder, starting their own things, being entrepreneurs and we want to be taken seriously, we want to be sitting at that table and look just as good as the man across the table wearing the bespoke suit. And I think that that’s why, I mean, women have had the option for dresses because I guess that’s where everyone thought that they were only going. Now, it has been a while for women to be in the boardroom and I am surprised that it’s taken this long to offer this service but here we are and we’re glad to be offering it now. And I honestly, I really enjoy the female customers, it’s fun to pick all the different styles of female blazers and female pant fits and all of this because there’s a lot more variety that you can do with a women’s suit than you can with a man suit.
Melinda: Thinking about personalization just a little bit more broadly, you can go into a Levi’s store and get Levi’s to make a pair of jeans just for you. Nike lets you go online and you can make your own Air Force 1 in your own special colors. What is driving the desire for more personalized items just across the board?
Jordin: I think people want to be involved. I think they want to have their thumbprint on that piece of apparel that they’re wearing. And made to order is becoming huge and I don’t think it’s going anywhere. I think we’re just starting to see the beginning of it. And on the casual side, we’re seeing a lot of it. But we noticed that we’re not seeing it on the tailored side. And so that’s another reason that we entered this business.
Tamara: For ladies.
Jordin: For ladies especially. But people really want to have something that’s theirs. It’s even a bit of a conversation when you’re meeting new people for the first time, you know, like, “Oh yeah, I’ve got my initials monogrammed” or “I picked this specific shade.” And you know, there’s nothing worse than walking into a room, especially if it’s like a board room or an office setting and wearing the same thing as somebody else, right? So, particularly for those in higher-powered positions like CEOs, they want to have a unique wardrobe, and so we want to outfit those types of individuals who seek the personalization and customization.
Melinda: Do you think there’s a little bit more confidence just generally speaking about choosing your own style? Do you see that happening?
Tamara: Oh yeah. I think people know what they want these days and it’s great. They come in and they say, “Okay, well, I want this cut but listen, I want it in the bright pink.” What makes it also really great as business owners is that we can make garments specifically for these people without having to worry about, “Oh, are we just cutting all black this season because that’s all that sold last season?” You know, “are we going to go into these riskier colors because it’s trending, but oh my God, it could kill our whole business.” Right? So, you can give them everything their heart desires with all these options.
Jordin: We try and narrow, it becomes a little bit too much.
Tamara: It becomes too much. But, yeah, can we give them all of these options without having to have the insane amounts of inventory and then at the end of the season have to knock down the prices and try to sell out colors that were maybe too risky. I mean that inflates the price to the consumer in the end, right? Because you’re just working in those markdown dollars and all of that. So, for us, this is just a cleaner way to do business because everything you make goes right to the customer as an end-user, it’s lovely.
Melinda: If we’re thinking about anything that’s going to be custom made even if it is just that pair of Levi’s, it’s going to come at a higher price point. It’s not like the ‘80s, the economy is–maybe people are a little anxious–why are people willing to pay a little more right now, because it’s kind of counter-intuitive?
Jordin: Well, I think it goes back to “you pay for what you get” and when it comes to custom apparel you’re really getting an investment piece that’s going to fit you like a glove, so you have to be able to wear it over and over, the quality is there. So, you’re talking about a much better-constructed garment. We’re really appealing to a customer who wants that kind of thing, back to your other question, they really want something special, so they’re willing to pay a little bit more for it. And if they can wear it over and over that’s a bonus, I think.
Tamara: There’s still going to be that customer that is always going to need to shop on sale and find that discounted item. But we really do think that there’s more and more of those customers coming out there that really want to buy less, buy better and think more about every purchase, which is kind of where we come in. We want to sit, and we want to think about your wardrobe. How are you using every piece to its best efficiency kind of thing? How do we build a wardrobe that’s easy and efficient to dress in the morning? There’s nothing I hate more than getting ready and having so much in my closet and nothing to wear.
Tamara: That’s the worst thing for a woman. We’re out buying all these trend pieces all the time but what am I going to wear on Monday morning? So, that’s where we want to come in as a brand and as a clothing concept is to build that wardrobe and to get her outfitted in a really beautiful, thoughtful and modern way.
Melinda: You’re leading perfectly into my next question, which is about sort of a less is more philosophy that’s driven quite largely by climate change, or you could think about Marie Kondo, like if it doesn’t spark joy then it shouldn’t be in your house. It sounds like it’s part of your brand philosophy when you think that’s driving people to this as well?
Tamara: Absolutely. Absolutely. We want to make sure that people think consciously about what they’re buying, that they’re making investments in stuff that they’re going to use and they’re going to use a lot. We want them to wear out their suits till they come and get a new one because we don’t want them in a landfill until they’re absolutely ready for a landfill. I think it’s the modern way of thinking and I think that people are starting to shift to that. Even you can see the direct to retail or the vertical retailers, like Zara and H&M, all of those guys are trying to find the shift and how we’re going to answer these questions for all the waste, right? And the sustainability question. And although we use 99 percent natural fibers in our clothing, manufacturing brings waste and it’s not like our clothing is made from recycled materials, but we do think that we’re somewhat giving our part by saying, “Okay, let’s invest and let’s buy smart.”
Melinda: Well, like you also mentioned earlier, not mass-producing stuff that you don’t know where that’s going to end up if people don’t buy it in the end, right?
Jordin: Yes. And we’ve heard something like 30 percent to 35 percent of all clothing produced goes directly into a landfill, doesn’t go into people’s closets, doesn’t get purchased. So we believe if something is made for that customer that they’re going to wear it, if it fits them and it’s got their initials in it, then it’s going in their closet, they’re going to wear it, they’re going to love it hopefully. And, you know, we’re going to continue to try and reduce our waste and try and reduce our production to just what’s needed, and that’s our contribution. We’re also big supporters of Tree Canada. So, we give to the reforestation project where they’re planting trees across Canada because, you know, you have to do something locally as well.
Melinda: Absolutely. So how do you see the customer experience changing to accommodate bespoke offerings within the digital and physical space? How does the customer experience have to change to make that happen?
Tamara: That’s a really good question because we’ve been, I wouldn’t say struggling with it ourselves, but we’re evaluating it at this point. As Jordin said, we’ve kind of gone through the past six months in our prelaunch phase of Alfred Sung Bespoke understanding who our customer is, outfitting a lot of people, a lot of great customers.
Jordin: Different kinds of people too, and getting a good range of different body types, different personalities as well.
Tamara: Different shopping habits.
Jordin: Right. And getting to know all of them personally.
Tamara: So that’s been really great. Right now, you have to come to our showroom in order to get fitted or we have to go to you, and we need to hand-measure every client before they can purchase a suit. We’re not comfortable yet with any online digital measuring, we’ve done the research.
Jordin: We want to go there, maybe in a year or two once the technology catches up or we find the right mix, we’d want to digitize some of that process but right now to ensure the perfect fit…
Tamara: We need to hand-measure. But we do feel like we’re getting something special by having customers come to see us or going to see them one- on-one where you’re totally missing that mark completely online. Where our customers do, some of our repeat customers do really like to be able to call us and just do the ordering quickly and do that convenience.
So, I think one of the next steps is to be able to do the reordering system and have our profiles online and so that customers can reorder once they’re measured. That’s our next step that we’re going to do pretty soon. And that’s a pretty easy, understandable step where you combine the digital and the bricks and that omnichannel shopping experience. And then eventually, again, with the digital measuring.
The easy answer of it just being brick and mortar or online is over these days. People want both, people need both. They need the experience, they need the physical and they need to be able to have that convenience and also that comfort level to pre-shop, to look through things to make sure they’re not caught in a situation or they waste their time by going to a store that they’re not interested in. So, we’re aware of all these things, we think we are and we’re working towards really streamlining the digital and physical experiences so that it’s really circular and they can go through it easily without sacrificing fit at all because that’s our most important thing right now.
Melinda: Now I’m going to ask you to take off your business owner and fashion designer hats and be a customer. What would be your top three things that you would look for in a bespoke experience? I’m going to ask Jordin to go first.
Jordin: Well, I think number one is the obvious: service. You’ve got to have great service. From a customer perspective, I want a stylist who understands me, who has great taste and knows how to offer the right cuts and the right fabrics for the season.
Tamara: I would want a beautiful space to walk into. If I’m going to waste my time–not waste my time–but I’d like to spend my time going somewhere, I want.
Jordin: It’s true, a lot of our customers don’t have that time.
Tamara: They don’t have that time, they’re in high-powered positions. I want a place where I’m comfortable, where I can go in, it smells good, it looks good, the aesthetic matches whatever they’re selling. Like if they’re selling $1,300 suit, which is what our suit costs, Canadian, would want the place to look that good. So that would be important to me. And being able to be comfortable because being measured, it’s a personal thing especially with these many measurements, so you want to feel that comfort level that people are caring of what’s going on. It’s almost like a doctor-patient relationship, right? It’s very personal. So that’s important.
Jordin: So service, beautiful environment and I would say convenience is a big one.
Tamara: Convenience. And that’s the experience and then there’s the garment.
Jordin: Convenience on the garment side, you’re talking about three weeks to get a bespoke experience is really incredible. That’s something we worked really hard to achieve with our manufacturing partner. And with a regular bespoke experience, if you were to go to Savile Row, the upper echelon of bespoke suiting for men, you’re talking about six months maybe to get your suit.
Tamara: And significantly more dollars.
Jordin: And significantly more dollars, right? Maybe I’m comparing two different levels of bespoke but for us offering our customers the ability to receive their garments in three weeks and the convenience of us delivering direct to them at their home or their office, you know, it’s all about convenience. So, we want to offer that seamless service to them and make sure that they’re comfortable and they love the clothing that they get and that they come back.
Tamara: As a female bespoke customer, my husband would go and get his suits made and whatever, and I would go in and sit there and kind of watch and be like, “God, I want to do at least like a shirt. I want to do something.” But I didn’t have the confidence that these male tailors would be able to get the up-to-date styling that I was looking for. I think I did like one shirt when he had a Hong Kong tailor come into town and I got one shirt done and it had like darts all over the place and it wasn’t right. And what’s interesting at our place, now, I’m kind of taking off my customer hat and I’m just talking candidly about our place, you can see the different feminine styles that we have. We have the looks out there. So, we’re hoping to build that confidence with a female customer that we’re not a men’s only shop. We understand what women want to flatter their body and the up-to-date styles as well.
Jordin: Even the word bespoke, you know, works really well for men but for women, I don’t think it has the same cachet. So we’re trying to use a “couture tailoring” as a more female-focused word to describe the service. But coming full circle, back to the beginning of our conversation, we’re really excited about this bespoke offering. Our only apparel component right now is the Alfred Sung brand. So, as we mentioned, we exited all of these direct to retail affiliations that we had and we’re really focusing on this customized approach for the brand. And we really think it has legs to take us into 2020 and into the future.
And, you know, look out for us, we’re going to be opening some popups in Toronto this new year, in 2020, and some retail spaces throughout North America in the future. So, we’re very excited about it.
Melinda: Thank you so much for joining us.
Tamara: Thanks Melinda.
Jordin: Thank you.
Melinda: Just to summarize, the key elements Jordin and Tamara think are important to a personalized apparel experience. The first on their list would be a beautiful space. Of course, if you’re paying a little more, you’re going to want a little more out of the entire journey, especially the physical store. Secondly, excellent service including a really great understanding of the customer and what they want, that’s a universally important piece that some brands are doing really well while others have a way to go. And then there is the modern-day imperative: convenience. How do you make it easier for the consumer? That’s such an important question brands always need to think about. Lastly, they both mentioned confidence, empowerment, and individualism as being at the emotional core of the Alfred Sung brand experience.
The emotional value of a brand is so important to understand because, at the end of the day, you can get a suit almost anywhere, but confidence and empowerment is a lot harder to come by. We’ll link to the Alfred Sung website in the podcast description for those looking to learn more. Thanks for listening.