Suits With Soul
Shopping for men's suits can be intimating. But it doesn't have to be, says Fokke de Jong, the founder and CEO of Suitsupply. The new store in West Ave — the Amsterdam-chain's ninth in the United States — aims to be entertaining while offering a large selection of European-cut suits at reasonable prices.
"It's a very focused concept; we say we do everything that has a jacket on — (that's) the common denominator. It can be a casual jacket, for Friday, Saturday or Sunday afternoon, or for a more formal occasion or to the office — but everything that goes around the more elegant part of men's fashion," de Jong says.
At the front of the store is an open space where a tailor does alternations in full view of customers. "That's what we do, so we want to show it off."
Located above Tootsies on the second floor of the mixed-use center, the store is light and airy, with lots of windows, bright oversized photographs of men in suits, floor-to-ceiling walls displaying shirts and ties, curving rooms with hundreds of suits and comfy sofas and chairs scattered about. High-energy music compiled by de Jong plays throughout the store. "I like to have the dance-on-the-spot kind of music, not too wild, but for a store," he explains.
A series of mirrored private rooms in the back allow customers to try on clothes, some which can be pre-selected by a spouse or companion on a previous visit and held for the potential client's arrival.
At the front of the store is an open space where a tailor does alterations in full view of customers. "That's what we do, so we want to show it off," says Suitsupply market maker Nish de Gruiter, who estimates that 60 percent of suits are altered while customers wait. "It's instant gratification."
De Jong, 39, got in the suit business as a college student when he hosted "tailoring parties" on Friday afternoons for students and employees who worked in the campus offices in the Netherlands. He soon realized that men were eager to buy good-quality suits, and came up with a business plan to manufacture the suits himself instead of buying from a middleman. He noted there were really expensive suits and really cheap suits, but not much in the middle.
"What you get is a very fine garment that feels like you're wearing pajamas, but you're actually wearing a suit."
He opened his first Suitsupply store in 2000 and it has since grown to 48 stores worldwide, with major expansion to the United States and Asia. All suits are designed and manufactured in-house, with such details as hand-stitched sleeves, interior linings made of cotton and horse or camel hair, working buttonholes at the wrist, a breast pocket in a bow shape that follows the curve of the body, and a "dinner split" in the back of the pants to allow more room at the waist after a big meal.
"I have always been in love with all the detailing and nice cuts and tailoring," de Jong says. "And to do that you have to make suits in a very specific way. You can't just make the jacket a little smaller. The suit must have something on the inside to give it structure and form. What you get is a very fine garment that feels like you're wearing pajamas, but you're actually wearing a suit. It's slim-fitted, close to the body. But you also feel comfortable."
"You can only achieve this from using this kind of craftsmanship. It cost us years and years to set up our own factories. But at the end of the day, we managed to put that soul into our product."
A large selection of suits, in sizes from 34 regular to 50 long, come in three basic price levels: the Blue collection starts at $399, the Purple collection begins at $469 and the Red collection ranges from $639-$999. Bespoke suits are available for $1,000 up, but the main focus is on ready-to-wear, de Gruiter says.
Casual jackets start at $399 with a large selection of outerwear starts at $469; a basic tuxedo runs $469.
The chain doesn't have sales but says it keeps prices down by manufacturing its own product and locating stores away from shopping malls, where rents are more expensive, de Grutier says. "It's all (the same) year-round because prices are lower than average," he explains.
When looking to expand, Houston was a natural, de Jong says, because the company already has a loyal Internet fan base here. "We have a good group of customers, which is always a good indicator," he says.
"Size doesn't matter as long as it fits well. It's all about making sure the proportions are right and there's balance in your look."
De Gruiter insists there is no target audience — "Everybody wants to look good, especially in Houston," he says — but judging from the opening night party earlier this month, men between the ages of 25-40 are the obvious focus. They are fashion-conscious and the prices fit into their budget.
The Suitsupply duo say they have noticed that there isn't a lot of difference between how men in Houston view fashion compared to their counterparts in other large cities. Everyone travels so much now and reads the same fashion blogs, so regional differences have lessened. "What we see (in Houston) is people are interested in fashion and are a lot more knowledgeable," de Jong says.
But aren't Texas men bigger? "Size doesn't matter," de Jong says, "as long as it fits well. It's all about making sure the proportions are right and there's balance in your look."