Fashion retail gets a high-tech makeover
Although the classic image of the Los Angeles area’s $46 billion fashion industry is underpaid workers hunched over sewing machines in sweatshoplike environments, Combatant Gentlemen represents a new guard of businesses that are modernizing the way fashion is sold.
The Orange County Register
SANTA ANA, Calif. — The quintessential technology-startup vibe is on display at the Irvine headquarters of Combatant Gentlemen, a direct-to-consumer premium menswear e-tailer.
A rubber horse head sits atop a mannequin, dressed in one of the company’s finely tailored suits. One of the prized office possessions is a fitting-room mirror — the result of a recent hackathon — that displays prices and has an embedded Microsoft Kinect camera to allow your mom to give you a second opinion (and maybe buy it for you).
“We want to be the bad-ass version of Men’s Wearhouse, and disrupt fashion in the suit-making world by providing modern cuts at affordable prices. We call it retail 3.0,” said Combatant Gentlemen co-founder and CEO Vishaal Melwani, a third-generation tailor whose family ran Versace boutiques in Vegas for nearly two decades.
Although the classic image of the Los Angeles area’s $46 billion fashion industry is underpaid workers hunched over sewing machines in sweatshoplike environments, Combatant Gentlemen, which Melwani describes as a fashion-tech company, represents a new guard of businesses that are modernizing the way fashion is sold. These companies are leveraging the region’s strengths as a hub for fast fashion, international sourcing, and tech-savvy retailers.
The company exercises unusually tight control over its supply chain, including owning 62 sheep that provide wool for its wool suits, and planting its cotton crops in India for textiles.
The company’s chief technology officer, Scott Raio, has built “Tower,” a bespoke cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that seamlessly communicates fluctuations in demand immediately to suppliers in Italy, Ecuador, China, India and Los Angeles. That cuts down on back orders and missed sales.
“Our site is hooked up straight to our factories, and the second an order hits it connects to suppliers. When we hit, say, 80 units left in navy suits, it automatically triggers an order for 200 more,” Melwani said, noting that the plan is to eventually license the technology to other e-commerce companies.
By tying production at its factories to real-time data, the company can whittle down prices on premium dress shirts to $25, suits to $160 and premium selvage denim to $70.
More important, the company can be even more responsive to customer demands.
“The most important role of technology in fashion is to speed up the delivery process and increase transparency in the supply chain,” said Ilse Metchek, founder and president of the California Fashion Association.
“It used to be you would buy things in advance. You would hold hundreds of grosses of buttons, you would hold every conceivable color of thread. No one wants to hold inventory any more. You’ll go out of business.”
Some big investors have been encouraged by the results. The company has raised a total of $2.2 million from groups that include the VegasTechFund (led by Zappos’ Tony Hsieh); William Morris Endeavor; David Marcus, current president of PayPal; and Tom Ryan, former CEO of Threadless.
The 2-year-old company already has amassed a customer base of more than 300,000. Melwani said the return rate on the 44,000 suits it has sold is a mere 4 percent, due to a proprietary online sizing algorithm that predicts suit sizes with 98 percent accuracy.
Revenue in 2013 hit $4.5 million and is expected to grow by 200 percent this year.
“This is a technology-enabled brand, and we’ve invested more money in technology than anything else,” Melwani said. The 22-person staff includes four full-time developers, one specifically hired to help release Haberdash, an app to facilitate on-demand tailoring services. It launches this summer in San Francisco.
Of course, today’s best fashion brands engage customers. The team produces an educational Web series and mines Facebook data, endlessly polling customers about new product lines.
“Our data has shown that if you put more up, they will buy,” Melwani said.