A deep dive into custom clothing business

by Karen Alberg Grossman
Nicholas Hansen

Nicholas Hansen founded Nicholas Joseph Custom Clothing in Chicago in 2005. A technology consultant with Deloitte, he couldn’t find shirts to fit his long arms. “We just completed our 15th year of consecutive positive growth and have the strongest and largest team yet,” he explains, now hoping to pick up additional clients from nearby Trunk Club stores that are closing. His topline custom suits open at $2,795, made in Chicago; his entry-level made-to-measure starts at $895 (imported) and true bespoke shirts start at $119. Here, a deeper dive into this business. 

Q: How has your business changed over the past decade?

A: The custom clothing business has changed considerably since the rise and fall of slim suits over the past 10 years. Between 2017 and 2019 we saw custom/made-to-measure jackets increase 70 percent, with dinner jackets and zip-up inserts both strong sellers. We actually have the zip-up inserts made locally: it was that important to expand our offering when our made-to-measure company couldn’t produce it. Our wedding business has also increased greatly: I like to double down on what works so we added a wedding weekend package which includes a rehearsal dinner outfit, which has sold very well.

Q: How is your business impacted by all the cheap “custom” clothing now available online?

A: I think it’s is positive for independent custom clothiers: it increases visibility and awareness of custom, allowing potential clients to envision the dream custom experience and seek it out (after a disappointing entry-level experience). Of course, it’s negative for those sellers who haven’t invested in consistent training of top talent.

Q: Other than suits, jackets, and shirts, what are the new opportunities in custom?

A: At the moment, I’m passing on custom/bespoke footwear and denim since the ROI isn’t there. Even if a pair can retail for $600 at keystone, if it takes an hour of a designer’s time, we can easily sell 10x that in a custom clothing package. For that reason, we sell jeans and footwear from recognized brands like Paige and Magnanni, with minimal alterations available for denim and none for footwear. (Thanks to Dave Welch from B*Spoke in Orange County for that advice when I met him in Italy during a Gladson top sellers tour of Italian mills. Besides seeing the mills, the country, and sharing amazing food experiences, the information exchange among peers was priceless!)

Q: Would you share some marketing ideas that have/haven’t worked for you?

A: We haven’t yet tried collaborations, but in February’s MR “Influencer” article, I second the statement that influencers who are constantly asking for free product will fail. Celebrity posts don’t demonstrate ROI, but might help build the brand. One of my favorite social media developments in recent years is Instagram highlights, where we show clients and prospects New Arrivals photographed in a consistent way. We also include that feed on our website, since many high-profile custom clients are still not on Instagram. We’ve always had success with our referral program, comp’ing a custom shirt to those who refer a first-time custom suit client. (One young guy got 13 free custom shirts this year by referring each of his friends getting married!)

Q: What’s needed for a successful trunk show?

A: We just hosted our first out-of-town trunk (St. Louis) and it doubled my expectations (even though dreary weather caused half of our appointments to cancel). We hope to do these monthly. During this one, I met many business owners whom we’ll partner with to build our audience in the future. Prior to this first on-the-road trunk show, I focused on seeding our network, advertising locally, and hosting an approachable, non-selling ‘meet and greet’ in addition to reaching out to a few dozen clients from the area who no longer have to travel to Chicago to see us.

Q: Some say we’re in an anti-fast-fashion moment, that young customers are all about sustainability, buying fewer but better garments. Do you agree and if so, how do we capitalize on this trend?

A: Regardless of trend, best practice in custom clothing is to slowly replace a client’s wardrobe (usually a mix of fits, styles, and colors) with a well-curated, inter-changeable wardrobe, which always has a lower footprint than what was there before. It’s a win-win-win for the client-seller-and environment, right?

Q: To what extent are synthetics/tech fabrics becoming important?

A: It’s ironic because when I started the business, synthetic was a dirty word. Now it’s just “tech” and it’s wonderful for ease of movement and a faster fit, garment care, and creating loyal clients for a specific mill or collection. My team and I are looking forward to a new four-way stretch shirting book arriving soon.

Q: Describe your best sale ever.

A: This happens a few times per week! The best sale ever is when a client demonstrates his trust by purchasing a large follow-up package during his first fitting of his first trial order. This tells me we’ve hit the mark with customer experience, knowledge, communication, fit, and product. Go, team!

Q: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since you’ve been in this business?

A: Hire experts, over-communicate (deliver bad news fast – if there is any), and double down on what works – be it a certain type of training, advertising, or hiring. Also, invest in your team: they will ultimately make or break your business, no matter how great your product is.

Q: What do you see as your greatest challenge, and opportunity, moving forward?

A: We’re growing faster than ever right now and experiencing the challenge of scaling any business – trying to consistently deliver an enhanced customer experience while introducing new team members and products.

Opportunities involve doubling down on what’s working, and what’s most valuable to us: always improving client experience, communication, and product; building and retaining our biggest asset – our front-line team; and consistently training and aligning with top vendors, like Gladson, a key part of our growth over the years. That approach seems to make everyone happy!