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Monday, November 2, 2015, 10:16

Brands to suit your budget

By Wang Zhuoqiong

Labels like Suitsupply are stitching up an online-offline strategy to clothe middle class, Chinese executives with a touch of style

Brands to suit your budget
A customer is measured for a suit at a Suitsupply store in Shanghai. (Provided To China Daily)

You are 38 and a jet-hopping globe-trotting manager at a multinational company. You want to look natty in a suit at work so popular brands will not do because your juniors may be wearing the same brand.

But you still can't afford uber-luxury labels - think Ermenegildo Zegna - because the price tag is out of your range. So, what do you do?

Well, if you are Gary Wu, a senior manager in Shanghai, you will look for an in-between brand, neither ordinary nor super-expensive, something that is good value for money, with an emphasis on detail.

In short, you will happily settle for Suitsupply, the European men's fashion label.

"Finding the right suit that really fits my waists, arms and legs can be a headache," Wu, who is 1.75 meters tall and 70 kilograms, said. "At 40, you want to wear clothes with style that are made from quality fabrics just for you."

Suitsupply has been targeting middle-class, well-educated, travel-bound consumers for a while now.

Founded in 2000, the company has grown to more than 60 stores across prime European, American and Asian cities such as Milan, London, Zurich, Amsterdam, New York and Singapore.

"The Chinese market is getting more mature and customers here are getting very informed," Fokke de Jong, founder and chief executive officer of Suitsupply, told China Daily in an exclusive interview.

At a Suitsupply store in Shanghai that opened this summer, Jong looked around, absorbed the scene, and said: "Customers in big cities in China are looking beyond usual logos for high-quality products." And, in the months and years to come, such customers could constitute a huge market, something Jong wants to tap into. Between 2009 and 2013, sales in the Chinese menswear market grew by nearly 15 percent, with total market value increasing by 73.6 percent to 430 billion yuan (US$68.25 billion).

Still, according to Mintel Group Ltd, a United Kingdom-based consultancy firm, growth in the Chinese menswear market remains slower than that of the womenswear sector.

There is probably a reason for it. "Chinese customers are tired of getting ripped off (by luxury brands)," Jong said.

For many Chinese executives, there is a desire to wear decent but affordable formals.

A Suitsupply piece has a price tag of 2,480 yuan, while premium varieties cost up to 6,180 yuan. Bespoke suits start at 6,480 yuan, and will take up to five weeks to materialize.

Brands to suit your budget

Suitsupply imports raw materials and fabrics from Italy, and makes about 40 percent of its output in China.

According to a survey last year by Mintel, more than 75 percent of men polled agreed it was important to look well-dressed as it reflected their persona and level of education. And more than half agreed it was important to keep up with the latest trends.

But the chase for must-have fashion, especially at menswear stores, can easily punch massive holes in the wallet. Online shopping, known for its bargain price sales, can be an alternative, Mintel research highlighted.

Even so, Suitsupply has performed well not just because of its Internet presence. It also has "different" bricks-and-mortar outlets.

Run as a vertical model in the mold of major brands such as Zara and H&M, the company is looking to increase its market share.

"Tailoring always feels very established," said Jong. "We have a more unsystematic approach to it. We convert interesting big spaces like an old church, a penthouse office or a big Soho loft into a comfortable and relaxed environment for our customers."

True to that philosophy, Suitsupply has transformed an old building in a traditional Shanghai alley into a boutique complete with bold colors and antique furniture.

Jong said having one's own space works out cheaper than putting up a store in a mall or shopping center.

Another aspect of the Suitsupply strategy is to not to advertise in glossy magazines or on billboards. Instead, the firm relies on customers' recommendations and reviews.

It also believes in spending liberally on training for its in-store sales people. For instance, the staff at Suitsupply's new Shanghai store were flown to the Netherlands for three-month training.

That sort of investment, Jong said, is necessary because "men shop differently from women". Well, women browse around, he added. "Men are more specific. That's why it is important for us to have locations like this."

Jong plans to open a few more stores in China. Suitsupply is looking for suitable places in cities such as Chongqing and Chengdu. But the focus remains strong on its online channel.

According to S&P Consulting on China Apparel Market Report 2013 and 2017, customized clothing is a natural trend for the apparel industry in the country, where consumers have grown increasingly aware of tailoring services.

Customized men's suits online have drawn more attention and investment. IWODE Trendy Tailor, an online-and-offline store offering customized service to customers in Guangzhou and Shenzhen in Guangdong province, is a prime example.

The platform recruited more than 100 fashion advisers to tailor men's shirts and plans to expand their current 30 experience stores to 50 cities.

According to IWODE, tailoring services attract and retain customers. Once they supply measurements, the data is stored and clients only have to choose fabrics and styles next time they are shopping.

CITYSUIT, which received 3.6 million yuan funding from the Shenzhen-listed company Zhenjiang Saint Angelo this year, also offers customized clothing services for men.

As well as an online site at lecaimall.com, CITYSUIT operates in 13 regions in Beijing and Shanghai with a focus on businessmen aged between 30 and 40 years old.

"Chinese suits are made along the lines of traditional European suits with jacket, vest and trousers, but are nipped in at the waist and shoulders to fit slender figures," said Bian Xiangyang, a professor who specializes in apparel studies at Shanghai Donghua University.

In 1896, the first homegrown Chinese tailor, Hechang, opened on North Sichuan Road in Shanghai. More shops run by Zhejiang tailors quickly followed.

Bian added that another wave started up in the following century, led by Baromon, a well-known Shanghai suit brand.

Meng Jia, a men's clothes designer in Shanghai, said: "I remember my grandfather telling me that every man walking down the streets in old Shanghai wore formal suits, even shoeshine boys."

Yu Ran contributed to this story.

wangzhuoqiong@chinadaily.com.cn

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