By  on August 27, 2009

California luxury brand Robert Talbott is finally adding suits to its lineup, fulfilling a long-held objective of brand president and chief executive officer Richard Cohen.

“Ever since I joined the company, I recognized that in order for us to be a complete American brand, we had to be in the tailored clothing business,” Cohen said. “It’s the next and natural step for Robert Talbott and our customers.”

Highlighting the company’s focus on domestic manufacturing and American heritage, Talbott tapped venerable Southwick Clothing to produce the line of suits, sport coats and trousers. The Massachusetts-based manufacturer, which was recently purchased by Brooks Brothers, will make Robert Talbott tailored clothing at its new facility in Haverhill, Mass.

“Made in America to us is a cornerstone of our business and theirs as well,” said Brooks Bros. senior vice president of manufacturing Joe Dixon, who also manages the Southwick label. “We see this as a great relationship and opportunity.”

But in a move that underscores the current realities at retail, the program will be offered only as a made-to-measure service — at least at first.

“Retailers are not waiting for the next tailored clothing brand to stock,” Cohen said. “There are inventory concerns, price pressures and margin concerns that we had to take into consideration.”

The company decided a made-to-measure program, which requires no inventory commitment and few up-front costs, would be more readily accepted by risk-averse retailers.

“Would we have launched this way two years ago? Probably not,” Cohen explained, adding he’s planning to make off-the-rack tailored clothing available down the road. “But you have to react to market conditions, and you have to be creative.”

Though Cohen declined to disclose sales targets for the program, he said 50 specialty stores have already signed on to the made-to-measure program, which will roll out in some stores as early as next month. Cohen added the company is also in talks with both Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Starting at $1,200 and averaging $1,500 for a half-canvas suit, Robert Talbott tailored clothing also reflects shifts in suit prices. Before the crash, $2,000 was an acceptable starting price for any luxury suit, and $5,000 suits were not outrageous.

Cohen sees those days as over. “The consumer is afraid to spend that kind of money; retailers are wary of holding those kinds of goods. It is difficult to justify those prices today.”

With the launch, Robert Talbott will face off against European brands with established suit businesses as never before. It’s a challenge Cohen welcomes. Since starting at Robert Talbott as a consultant in 2006 — he took an equity stake in the company a year later — Cohen has articulated his desire to turn his “sleeping jewel” into a major men’s wear brand.

Though he will face notable competition in the suit department, it’s familiar territory for the executive, whose résumé includes a stint at Ermenegildo Zegna, where he is credited with growing the brand’s U.S. business from $13 million to $200 million — largely on the back of its successful tailored business.

“What I learned at Zegna was that tailored clothing created brand loyalty,” Cohen said. “Customers walk around and show off their suits. It’s a crucial category.”

However, the Robert Talbott made-to-measure suits will reflect the brand’s history as a neckwear maker. Tie silk will line the under-collar and jacket interiors, and unlike the traditional natural-shoulder garments made at Southwick, Robert Talbott jackets will be constructed with a bit of structure and a “sexy but comfortable” silhouette.

The made-to-measure program, which includes some 600 swatches from the likes of Scabal and Loro Piana, will be headed by Jared Kerman, who worked with Cohen at Zegna and Nat Nast.

The launch will be marketed primarily through a series of in-store trunk shows, where the new clothing will be sold with the brand’s existing custom tie and dress shirt programs.

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