Blank Label’s Brick-and-Mortar Leap

Fan Bi, CEO of Blank Label

When launched in 2009, it set out to redefine notions of custom-tailored menswear, long the purview of the luxury market, by offering bespoke garments at affordable department store prices.

The startup took things a step further by updating the custom concept with a very 21st century, crowdsourcing twist: It offered shoppers a hand in the design of the merchandise by allowing them to pick their own details — from the cut of a shirt to the lining of a collar.

Blank Label is now bringing the disciplines it honed online to the offline space, and has opened two inventory-free, appointment-only stores under the Pattern Room banner in Boston.

The retailer designed the two stores to be intimate and upscale personal-shopping experiences, where menswear specialists hold one-on-one fittings with shoppers, coming up with personalized patterns for custom-made shirts, trousers, suits and sports jackets.

Fan Bi, 26, CEO and co-founder of Blank Label, spoke with Chain Store Age contributing editor Barbara Thau about the company’s expansion to brick-and-mortar retail and its vision to make “custom the new standard.”

Who is Blank Label’s target audience?

Any man who cares about himself, which brings in a broader range of clients than we originally anticipated. Most of our customers are 28 to 45 years old and wear dress clothes five days a week.

What is your main value proposition?

Men shop at Blank Label because off-the-rack clothes don’t fit them well. We offer clothes that fit well, and we try to do it better than anyone else.

Who do you see as your primary competition?

We think about competition as where most of our customers today are coming from, which is off-the-rack staples, including Brooks Brothers, Nordstrom, Thomas Pink and J.Crew.

Year-over-year, Blank Label’s total business doubled in sales and the company plans to ship 30,000-plus custom garments in 2014. To what do you attribute the growth of your e-commerce business?

We are certainly a product of our times, which is that men are just more conscious of how their clothes fit — more so than ever before. But the rest is about building an excellent product and experience.

Custom manufacturing is a very difficult problem because it’s both on demand and has orders of magnitude, with more permutations than traditional manufacturing. And it is our ability to stay on top of executing this that has enabled us to deliver on our promise.

Blank Label calls its new Pattern Room stores one-of-a-kind, menswear speakeasies. What’s distinct about the concept?

Each Pattern Room is hidden from plain sight in that it’s purposely tucked away from the main commerce streets. Since clients are allowed in by appointment only, we guarantee an experience that focuses exclusively on the needs of our client.

Also, our Pattern Rooms bring the Old-World tradition of haberdashery forward. Upon entering, clients find themselves in a room filled with luxury fabrics and vintage furniture. Shortly after, they are greeted with their drink of choice; aged Scotch is often requested. Some think of it as a private lounge, and at least for the next 45 to 60 minutes, the space is whatever the client wants it to be. During this time, a menswear specialist collaborates one-on-one with the client to build out entire looks. Our specialists, who are best-in-class from Saks, J.Crew and SuitSupply, make it their goal to learn about each individual’s lifestyle, fit and style preferences.

Through all this, our mission is to provide clients with a remarkable menswear experience.

The first Pattern Room store (in Boston’s Bay area) generates $100,000 in monthly revenue and $1,333 per square foot in annual revenues. To what do you attribute this?

We offer a very compelling product, experience and price point. Seeing the merchandise firsthand, feeling it and trying on sample sizes gives our clients confidence these are garments they’ll absolutely love, which is why our average order value in a Pattern Room is more than double that for online orders.

Men are also at a new height of social consciousness around the subject of fit. Five years ago, they would not look down at their shirts and think they were baggy, that their jeans were not slim enough or that their jacket was slipping off their shoulders. So a large part of it is timing — we are solving a big problem for men.

Now, thanks to the fitting and styling expertise of our menswear specialists, men feel like they are in the know and are actually happy to tell their friends and colleagues about us. They aren’t asking, ‘Have you been to the new Brooks Brothers store that opened?’ Instead, they’re saying, ‘I know a really cool speakeasy, and I can refer you.’

We just celebrated our Back Bay Pattern Room’s one-year anniversary, and month-over-month sales have grown 10%. In June, we opened our second brick-and-mortar location, in Boston’s Downtown Crossing area, and by year-end we expect that location to generate six figures in monthly revenue.

What differentiates your brick-and-mortar concept from, for example, Bonobos, another menswear retailer that began life as an e-commerce merchant?

I have a ton of respect for what Bonobos has done, and I think they are another contributing factor to this heightened consciousness for men around fit. But there are ultimately two major distinctions between our Pattern Rooms and their Guideshops. First, they are still an off-the-rack solution, and we ultimately believe off-the-rack doesn’t work for most guys. Why take a taxi if you can take a private car, like Uber, if it’s the same price?

Second, all of our clients work directly with dedicated menswear specialists who truly get to know them and their needs: Think Alfred to your Bruce Wayne. Bonobos Guideshops do have appointments, but each Guideshop still predominantly works using the ground-level foot traffic, a traditional retail model.

Blank Label has plans to open six more Pattern Room stores by 2016 on the East Coast. How big a brick-and-mortar presence do you envision?

We envision a world with 100 Blank Label Pattern Rooms, a world where custom is considered with the same ubiquity as off-the-rack, then ultimately overtakes off-the-rack. That’s why our vision is to make custom the new standard.

Has Blank Label considered entering into agreements with more established retailers, similar to what Bonobos has done with Nordstrom?

I do not think our brand lends itself well to bigger retailers or department stores. Our customers very much value the exclusive, speakeasy-style experience, which would be hard to replicate in shared locations.

Much of our value proposition is tied to the experience and fit expertise provided by our menswear specialists. Nordstrom should be given a lot of credit for its adoption of younger brands, but ultimately we believe that in order to deliver on our mission and vision, we need to be controlling the experience.

What has surprised you most about operating physical stores?

Hiring the best people is always challenging, but that has been exceedingly true for our Pattern Rooms. Many people in traditional retail, even from top brands, are desperately looking to leave the industry and are terribly disenfranchised. We’ve been fortunate we have been able to find good talent, but have also had to go elsewhere for menswear specialists. For our Pattern Rooms, we’ve also sourced talent with backgrounds in legal services, personal care and journalism.

Do the stores attract a different customer than the online site?

The one difference is the client shopping online is looking to solve a very specific problem around shirt fit, whereas our client in-person is looking to learn more about improving his menswear game. Since we do suiting, chinos, sports jackets and trousers in our Pattern Room, he can be styled top-down.

What’s next for Blank Label?

We will be looking at Washington, D.C., as our next city and expect to open in early 2015, followed by Charlotte, North Carolina. We are also working on a few new interesting product lines, which will launch later this year.


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