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Q&A: Combatant Gentlemen CEO Discuses Move to Brick-and-Mortar


Stroll by the new Combatant Gentlemen store in Santa Monica, California, and you might think it’s an outfitter of Bondian self-defense gear for bespoke men in turbulent times. In fact, it’s a ready-to-wear suit store for young corporate commandos hoping to pass muster in boardrooms on meager salaries. (Suits range from $165 to around $320.) It’s also the first permanent brick-and-mortar outpost of the vertically-integrated, fast-growing online menswear brand, which was founded in 2012.

[quote-from-article]Combatant Gentlemen CEO and co-founder Vishaal Melwani spoke withChain Store Age(Retailing Today's sister publication)editor Al Urbanskiabout his first store, omnichannel marketing, and the importance of fine wool.

The first question has to be about the name. Combatant Gentlemen?

The brand was started by me, my cousin, and my best friend. We looked at our friends graduating B-school and law school and moving to the city. They have an alpha male approach — aggressive, know what they want to do and what they want to achieve. They look at themselves like fighters, fighting their way to the top. At the same time, we were watching a lot of Entourage and Ari Gold fit the mold of what our customer aspires to. This guy looks good and gets everything he wants.

Where do young men stand with fashion today? You see hipsters with beards and tattoos in the workplace instead of suits and ties. Is it very different by occupation?

Yes. We’re in corporate essentials. Classic styles are what our guys are looking to get. The navy suit is our best seller and it’s because we’re getting our guys at the most insecure moments in their lives. Everything’s a new experience. Monetarily, it’s really tough and they want to look the part and dress the part.

There are other concepts like yours, one where the company provides a design consultant who measures the customer.

That’s not us. We advise them to get a good tailor, but we’re ready-to-wear. For us, the fast fashion world wasn’t getting tailored clothing right. They’d have a nice suit, but it was glued and kind of a piece of junk. And if you went into a J. Crew or a Boss it was about $800. We do 100% wool suits, using the same mills as some of the bigger players — Barberis, Marzotto, Tollegno. They’re happy to get their product on people at an earlier stage in their lives. We did a blind suit test at South by Southwest, unlabeled a Hugo Boss and one of ours, and 90% were picking our suit as the $800 suit.

So far, you’ve built your business online. What’s your brick-and-mortar strategy?

As we’ve scaled we’ve done pop-ups in New York, L.A., Boston. We saw we had the ability to interact with consumers on a content and a lifestyle basis, so we’re opening our first store, a boutique, in Santa Monica. We’ve also seen that we can covert at a rate seven times higher than we can offline. Stores have always been a part of our plan. I grew up in offline. My parents were the first and only franchisees of Versace on the West Coast. My dad was a master tailor. I apprenticed under him and then went to work in Japan in supply chain.

What’s the plan for geographic coverage?

We’re going to start on the West Coast and move East. New York City is 31% of our online customer base, but rents here are not cheap. So we’re being very disciplined with growth. We’re not going to be as explosive as some other startups. We believe we should be running profitably, and we believe in tests. We see six stores by 2017, going to Chicago, D.C., Boston, and then New York and Houston. Everywhere there is a big finance population.

Do you see yourself as a brick-and-mortar brand in the end?

No, we believe we are the full omnichannel package. The website will always lead the way. It can reach a mass audience that 10 stores can never do. We don’t see our stores as just a place to make sales, we view them as places to have social and networking events. We know when our guys’ interview season is, when bonus season is, and we’ll have events to address those occasions.

Both e-coms and stores continue to struggle with omnichannel. What’s the secret, do you think?

Online companies are used to doing a high volume of sales with no rent or staff, so stores are a whole new world for them. Then if you look at Macy’s, they’ve got 40,000 skus. Startups have the understanding that you have to do everything really, really fast. But we think you have a lot of responsibility for doing it right. We’re always testing to see where something is broke and where to fix it.

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