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Jamal Motlagh of Acustom Apparel understood that most guys don't find the process of shopping as enjoyable as women do, especially when it comes to denim. "The buying process and the shopping experience is terrible," he said. "You go to a store to find every pair in your theoretical size. Half of them don't fit, half don't look good, and you spend an hour to two to find one pair of jeans."
The Harvard Business School graduate knew that the answer lied in bespoke, but the cost of traditional tailor-made denim is prohibitively expensive. However, by using a 3-D body scanner to take measurements, "it takes out the old-school patternmaker, who is the number one reason why bespoke denim costs [so much]—because his time is so valuable."
This takes the price of Acustom Apparel's jeans down to $225, and also lowers the price on the shirts, suits, jackets and more that Motlagh also offers. Read on to find out how he turned the typical "by appointment only" tailoring process into a retail experience on West Broadway and whether he'll ever expand into offering women's bespoke clothing.
First of all, where did the name Acustom Apparel come from?
Facebook, of all things. Crowdsourcing is great. Originally, we were named Fitted Fashion Incorporated, which is still my legal business name. But Acustom Apparel came about because my cousin just wrote "Acustom." I didn't love it, but it hit all of my boxes, per se. And we added the "Apparel" later—that made it click, and it wasn't really until I put the sign on the street—where people could just walk by and look at the sign and look at my product and come in—that I truly loved it.
How did you go about creating a 3D body scanner?
I started talking to professors who were using body-scanning technology to do research. I connected with the company that made these machines, and they connected me with my co-founder [Charles Tse]. He's a physicist and mathematician, and along with a professor in patternmaking and a computer scientist, he developed our digital bespoke process that takes measurements.
So how does it measure a customer?
There's 14 of these depth sensors in here—they're the same as an XBox Kinect. A client would come into the changing room and strip down to their underwear, and then we take two sets of scans. In the first set, we tell a guy to relax so we can see his natural posture. And in the second set, he hangs on to these handles and gets scanned, [so that we're] able to see under the arm and all that. Each set of scans takes about seven seconds, and there's a break in the middle while the computer processes it, and during that time a stylist is out here putting in information and making sure the scan came out correctly.
We also do a jacket fitting and have one of our stylists have a conversation with you about how you like your clothing. Because even though the body scanner gives me 200,000 data points of very precise, within-a-millimeter measurements, how a specific guy likes to wear his jackets or his pants or his shirts is different per person.
You started out as a by-appointment only studio. How did it evolve into a store?
Our studio was old school. "Here are 200, 400 swatches, here are a hundred lining options, and let's sit down for an hour and design your product." I realized that a lot of guys don't like that process because it requires too much imagination. I also realized that while I gave all these options of customization, 80% of them deferred to me. Is this lapel better? Should I do straight pockets or slant pockets? It didn't allow them to take risks—they stuck to blue and checked blue [shirts] because that's what they knew.
So while we scaled the business on the back end with the scanning technology, we wanted to scale it on the front end—making it more welcoming and familiar, and that's what this store really is. Instead of swatches, you see full products, so you can see what the base product is going to look like. There are still all the customization options, but now you can get a guy in and out of here in 15 minutes. It's quick, but they know what they're buying and they got to see it and feel it and it was cool.
Where did you initially start looking for retail spaces?
I looked in pretty much every neighborhood under 23rd Street. I knew of this space—it used to be a sandwich shop, but they got kicked out. The next day the sign went up, and three days later I had a lease signed.
Why did this one work out?
I love this space because it's the exact size we needed, and the rent was more reasonable because it doesn't have a lot of storage space, which is fine for our business model because everything is a sample. I also love that it's on a good shopping street, especially for men. People like my clients come through here, and a steady stream of tourists come through here, but it's not crazy like Broadway. It's also around the corner from my studio.
So then how did you design this space to create the retail experience you wanted?
Essentially, we wanted an open and clean space that matched a bit of the old world with technology and sleekness that matches the 3D body scanner. I really wanted to center the experience around the scanner—it couldn't be in the middle of the room, just for practicality reasons, but I wanted it to be a focal point of the experience. So we created a case from a material typically found on kitchen countertops, and then this wall can change.
Aside from that, we really wanted the racks to do most of the talking, because it's a lot of suits and jackets that look good on racks. We wanted the shirts to not just be folded up—we wanted people to be able to interact with them. And we wanted to show the denim in an interesting way. What's helpful when you're buying custom clothing is knowing what the different fits are, so you see all four of our fits with all four of our washes.
And then one of my employees came up with the idea of framing products, so we had these custom-made by some people on Etsy. That one has all the different custom collars, and this one has our Cut Club policy.
What is the Cut Club?
Everything has a secondary price called the Cut Club, and what that means is that once we've made you one of these products and you've accepted its fit, the price drops. Now your pants are $30 cheaper because I know exactly what your fit is and I don't have to worry about tailoring.
And what are your original prices for these items?
One of my goals was to democratize the cost of custom clothing and compare it to a traditional retail brand, like Hugo Boss or Ralph Lauren. I had gone to enough men's clothing stores and seen $200 button-down shirts that are just pre-sized.
Our denim is from Cone Mills in North Carolina, which is the same place that pretty much every premium denim retailer uses, and they start at $225. The washed chinos are $149. Shirts start at $149 and go up from there—the Italian fabrics are $169 or $179, and each shirt can have contrast options to make it pop for $20 extra.
Our cotton suits go for $600, and our entry-level wool suits are $850 and go up to $1,500, depending on fabric. Everything is sold as a suit separate, so some jackets are made to look more like blazers.
And people love our wool cashmere winter coats. They're massively thin, but massively warm. I've been wearing this coat through the polar vortex. We made a bunch of overcoats in different lengths for $739—most places are selling them for $1,500, and you can't [customize them].
Would you ever expand to womenswear?
So funny enough, we started with women's denim. It's ten times worse for women to buy jeans because they have ten times more complex bodies and ten times more pairs of jeans to choose from. There are so many different body shapes that it's really hard to nail it for each person, and because tightness is an aspect of the clothing that's important, it's hard to quantify that for you before I make the product.
So with a custom product, you get it in, and customers are like, "I want it to be tighter," or "now this is too tight," and you have to remake the product. So this started getting really expensive—I didn't want to be a company that charged $400 or $500 for denim.
We'd have to ask women to come in two or three times to do fittings and spend a bunch of money and time. That would be a great high-tier luxury product, but it's not the game-changing experience I wanted to do.
What's in your immediate future?
We're looking into other locations. We're thinking DC, but I could easily do an Upper East Side store. I think there's a lot of benefits to building another store in the city, but I also want to test other markets. This concept in a smaller city could probably make a bigger splash. It's important for us that we're born and raised and shaped in New York, but I think that other places are ready for the menswear revolution to happen.
In this space, we're going to put a bar car up to offer drinks and hang up customers' coats and stuff like that. And I want to put some iPads around to market more stuff, like new products or sales. There are cool colors, like that red-colored tux-like jacket that sometimes gets lost in the racks.
We're also building out e-commerce. So once you have been measured physically and we have your data, instead of having to come back to the store to buy four more shirts, you can just go online and order them.
What if someone gains or loses ten pounds?
I had a client buy a bunch of clothing, lose a bunch of weight, get more clothing, and then say "Hey, this is really big." And I'm like, "You gotta tell me!" That's not on me to know when they're losing and gaining weight—the onus is on them.
· Acustom Apparel [Official Site]
· All Better Know a Store Owner Posts [Racked NY]