Fokke de Jong is a disruptor.
The founder and chief executive officer of Suitsupply has managed to shake up the status quo in men’s tailored clothing retailing by offering an affordably priced product in a cheery and colorful environment that has made the industry sit up and take notice.
Calling his brand one of the “best kept secrets in the U.S.,” de Jong has quietly opened 100 stores around the world and 35 in America in major metropolitan areas. The privately held Amsterdam-based company will continue to expand its reach as it works to revolutionize the “boring” men’s suit industry.
Eighteen years ago, De Jong founded Suitsupply out of a trunk while he was in college and his first sales came when he visited offices and convinced the secretaries that the men in their firms needed a wardrobe upgrade. “They generally always agreed with me,” he said.
That sideline business got him through school and provided a little pocket change, but it also taught him the ins and outs of the tailored clothing industry. Find a factory, create a product, exhibit at a trade show and hire an agent to present your brand to department stores — that was the model.
“It looked like the perfect business for some disruption and some vertical-ization,” he said.
Since it was at the beginning of the online revolution, de Jong launched Suitsupply as strictly an online play. But most men weren’t quite ready to buy suits online so the company also opened a few stores in unconventional locations, such as alongside highways. “This was omnichannel before the word omnichannel was even invented,” he said.
The company started expanding throughout Europe and made the jump across to Atlantic to the U.S. in 2011. De Jong recalled that when he explained his concept to Americans, they were skeptical.
“I was explaining to people that we make this beautiful product — all Italian fabrics, handmade, tailors in every store. They said, ‘That’s nice, what’s the name?’ I said, ‘Suitsupply.’ They said, ‘That’s an awful name.’ I said, ‘Think of it as the Standard Hotel: it’s not a motel somewhere next to the highway, there’s actually nothing standard about it.’ And the same goes for Suitsupply.”
While the name might have still have its detractors, that hasn’t stopped the company from growing. Although online still represents 30 percent of the company’s sales, it’s retail where the brand shines. Off-the-rack suits start at $399 and go up to around $1,000. Made-to-measure is also offered starting at $1,100.
Suitsupply’s company-owned stores are located in large metropolitan areas including Milan, Shanghai, Beijing, London, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. “We strongly believe in stores,” he said. “Whenever we open a store, we always see it cannibalizing our online sales, so people want stores for our product.”
Looking ahead, de Jong said Suitsupply is on track to open another 35 stores this year.
He said the company remains “very execution-focused” and operates under three separate pillars.
The first is vertical integration. Suitsupply designs, manufactures and distributes all of its product and employs its own patternmakers and technicians in the factories where it produces its lines. “We started to reintroduce techniques that were almost extinct in tailoring where you use thin layers of cotton reinforced with horsehair without any fusing, so you can make a jacket or a suit that is really tailored, but comfortable because all the seams are thinner,” he said. “It feels like pajamas.”
This attention to detail also helps Suitsupply in its corporate social responsibility efforts. Because its people are in the factories all day, they will immediately see if any violations are occurring and can speak out.
The second pillar is word-of-mouth marketing, he said. “We have almost never spent money on marketing and we’ve managed to be a profitable global brand,” he said.
He pointed to the company’s newest store, a 10,000-square-foot unit in the middle of Sydney, Australia where the company had experienced strong online business. On opening day, some 2,000 people turned out at the store. “That business really hit the ground running,” he said.
The third and perhaps most important pillar, he said, is the company’s “destination location strategy.”
When he started, de Jong said, “we didn’t have money to go into high footfall locations, so we got creative. People will come out and find us so it’s crazy for us to be between all the usual suspects and pay high rents. It also allows us to create very exciting, enticing store environments.”
Case in point is the villa in Shanghai, the rooftop location in Chicago and a residential home site in Old Greenwich, Conn.
Now that its strategy is established, de Jong said he’ll continue to work to “not wind up in the brand graveyard.” He believes that being “relevant, reliable and contemporary” are the tools that will lead Suitsupply to further growth.
Tailored clothing continues to be relevant, he said, despite the naysayers.
“The death of the suit has been predicted as long as I’ve been in this business and they said we’re all going to go to work in hoodies and sneakers,” he said. “But we just opened a store in Silicon Valley in San Jose and it’s doing great.”
Recently, Suitsupply has begun dabbling in the women’s business, opening a handful of Suistudio stores in the U.S. and Europe. These units operate under the same fundamental premise as the men’s stores: offer high quality tailored clothes that fit well.
The fact that women can have their clothes tailored immediately — something men have been doing for decades — has proven a true selling point. “It’s a differentiating experience,” he said.
Even so, men’s continues to be the driving force for Suitsupply.
De Jong admitted, “Tailoring in essence has always been a little on the boring side — everybody takes themselves hugely seriously in that business and the message a lot of tailoring companies send out is a message of conformity, which is not that exciting for a lot of people to relate to. So we say: Don’t just fit in, find your own perfect fit. And that also gives our brand a lot of runway and a lot of energy for future growth.”