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Custom clothier tries a storefront

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/03/16/08/1bl8NZ.Em.138.jpeg|318
    TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
    David Watkins at Abbeydale, a custom menswear shop in uptown Charlotte Friday, August 29, 2013. Abbeydale opened in uptown several months ago. Watkins started his business in 2007 as an appointment-only designer who went to people's houses. But as the economy as grown and his word of mouth business has too, he was able to get a storefront in the heart of uptown. TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/03/16/08/nOP3G.Em.138.jpeg|197
    TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
    Colorful ties are displayed at Abbeydale in uptown Charlotte Friday, August 29, 2013. TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

More Information

  • A look inside Abbeydale
  • A custom experience

    Whatever business you’re in, custom-clothing designer David Watkins offers these tips to win customer loyalty:

    •  Show, don’t tell: Let the customer see, touch, feel. Most men don’t know the fashion lingo, Watkins says. So rather than simply describing the different kinds of collars his tailors could put on a shirt, he leaves out a table full of samples that they can try on.

    Engage early: Break the ice with a new customer. Watkins has new customers take a funny iPad survey that gauges their current style level (novice, confident or connoisseur?), age (James Dean, Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt?) and wardrobe needs.

    •  Start small: Watkins says his business is built on relationships. Most of his loyal clients started by buying just one custom item, but as they grew to trust Watkins, they let him develop more and more of their wardrobe.



David Watkins sells his custom clothing with a disclaimer: Try it once, and you’ll want a new wardrobe.

He’s living testimony of that.

Watkins started his custom line, “Abbeydale,” named for the east Charlotte street he grew up on, in 2007.

At the time, he had a clothing-design studio in Plaza Midwood, one success story (a gray plaid suit he’d made for his dad), and a by-appointment-only operation.

After five years – and a recession – he’s got a storefront of only private-label wares on West Fourth Street uptown and a clientele that includes executives, professional athletes and politicians.

His clothes have a classic aesthetic that leans toward European. His suits are slim-fitted – not boxy and baggy like many American suits, he says – and many of his jackets have little to no lining.

His inspirations range from tuxedo-clad James Bond to crisp, classic military uniforms.

At Abbeydale, basic custom suits start at $1,050. Shirts at $175. Ties at $125. And a custom pair of jeans – constructed from Greensboro denim and sewn in Richmond, Va., – start at $245.

It’s still a small operation: The store he opened three months ago is only 800-square-feet and located beneath a parking deck. He has only one employee, and his client base swells slowly, not explosively.

But Watkins and Abbeydale are at the center of a growing fashion trend: renewed demand for custom clothing.

Shoe giants Converse and Nike offer their customization plans that charge customers from $10 to $100 to create the exact shoe they want.

And there’s a new crop of websites offering made-to-order clothing. True&Co.com (bras), eShakti.com (tops, dresses, pants and wedding attire) and CarrieHammer.com (work wear dresses) all cater to a female clientele.

But analysts say many consumers still haven’t been able to replace the need to feel clothes, to see themselves as more than a sum of measurements and to have a clothier they know who has their own personal touch.

And that’s what’s making success stories out of younger designers such as 38-year-old Watkins.

‘Who you want to be’

Charlotte has long been home to a number of locally based menswear retailers also offering custom clothing, including Paul Simon, Taylor, Richards & Conger in Phillips Place, and Fairclough and Co.

Renowned local clothier Bruce Julian – cousin of Chapel Hill-based fashion designer Alexander Julian – opened the Charlotte store bearing his name in 1977 and has been in the Arboretum Shopping Center for the last 15 years.

Some of his clients have come to him for decades. But, Julian adds, “what I’m seeing growing in the Charlotte market is the younger guy that reads about (custom-made clothing), heard about it, likes a trim fit, and that’s the only way he’s going to get it – from custom.”

Watkins agrees. He says foot traffic in front of his uptown spot has attracted a number of first-timers to his shop.

“Corporate clientele are the bulk of my business,” Watkins says. “There’s usually a purpose around the shirts they’re buying and that’s usually because of work.”

So what he likes to do is help a man with the tuxedo he needs for a wedding or that classic navy suit he needs for a presentation. And then, once the customer sees the value in his truly “tailor-made” wares, Watkins helps fill other holes in his wardrobe.

But before wielding any pins and measuring tape, Watkins gets to the root of what many custom-hunting customers want: to refine their personal brand.

“I ask them ‘Where do you want to be in five years?’ ‘What job do you want to have?’ ” Watkins says.

He lets their replies guide his clothing choices.

Watkins was once a newcomer to fashion. Before Abbeydale, he sold radio advertising and then founded his own ad agency. Only after a stint with national custom clothing company Astor & Black did he have the confidence to go it alone.

‘Hyper-individualism’

Ted Zoller, an associate professor at UNC Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and the director of the university’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, says Watkins’ brand of personal digging is critical to the custom-clothing industry.

He attributes some of the increased demand for custom clothing to a backlash over outsourcing. Someone who has the disposable income to spend $700 on a designer dress might find they now get more satisfaction out of commissioning a custom dress at a comparable price, he says.

But, Zoller adds, perhaps the biggest reason behind the new affinity for customized – whether it’s on handmade craft site Etsy.com, or in a menswear shop – is “hyper-individualism.”

“People want things more personalized,” Zoller says. “Every town in America has a Brooks Brothers ... a (Jos.) A. Bank. They’re homogenous ... they’re outsourced. They’re one-size-fits-all. Whereas, (Watkins) has found a niche around people who want ... to create an identity and statement around their style.”

There’s also a desire to be involved in the production of a product. That builds what he calls a “value proposition.”

He cites a successful denim store in Raleigh where jeans are made to order, on-site, for about $100 more than they would be in a store. Even crowd-sourcing sites like Kickstarter.com illustrate the trend, he says. “There’s a certain pride in knowing that they were part of the design process.”

Bruce Julian, who runs the Arboretum store, says in recent years he’s seen customers looking for ways to personalize beyond just fabric and fit.

Three years ago, he started offering specialized lining made with his wife’s screen printer for an extra $75.

One man wanted the lining of his wedding tuxedo to be photos of their first kiss. Another wanted photos of Elvis.

“The stranger the better, in my book,” Julian says. “It’s got an excitement factor to it. ... We’re both seeking that custom nirvana.”

Watkins echoes that sentiment in a video posted on his website, houseofabbeydale.com. He discusses his vision for the company, and for personal style in America.

“We’ve seen a lost sense of personal brand,” Watkins says in the video. But, “when people get a sense of themselves and realize the impact dressing well can have on their lives, their relationships, their careers, it’s like a light bulb goes off.”

McMillan: 704-358-6045 On Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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