We've seen a fair amount of design entrepreneurs' websites where the "About" section is longer than the "Product" section. These folks write endless paragraphs about the excellence of their product, what the brand communicates, their classic use of materials, their design innovations. Then you look at the product and it's just...a "blah" object that you or I could make in a basement.
A company called Combatant Gentleman, or Combat Gent for short, is just the opposite. Their website is loaded up with stellar product and doesn't even have an "About" section. But ironically, company founder Vishaal Melwani has the most interesting story of all.
Melwani has pulled off the classic design entrepreneur move: Identify a hole in the market, plug it, and reap profits. If you can find an item that retails for $800—in this case, a men's suit—then figure out how to manufacture a well-made, stylish, competitive alternative for $24 to $37 and retail it for $160, then you have the foundation for success. Combat Gent launched in 2012 and has doubled revenue every year; the most recent projection had them at $20 million in annual sales.
Because Melwani and Combat Gent's story isn't on their site, we scoured the web to piece it together. What we found is that Melwani is no overnight success story, and while his training was more or less accidental, we wanted to break out 14 relevant "ingredients" to his success. While you might not be able to duplicate all of these, you can surely learn from them.
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1. Learn the Trade
"When I was seven, I started helping my dad do hems by hand in his tailoring shop in Las Vegas. As I got older, my dad gave me more alteration work to do, like closing seams, pleating, and re-pleating.
"Once I turned 13, my dad started giving me full alteration jobs. I would be at the store every day after school and every weekend until high school, learning alongside my dad and other master tailors."
2. Learn About Business, Even If You Don't Want to
"Around that time, my parents became the first franchisees of Gianni Versace and built the Gianni Versace boutique in the Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace.
"Working at my parent's boutique helped me fall in love with fashion, but funnily enough my parents were completely against me going into the family business. To them, they worked in the apparel industry because it's all they knew and they didn't consider it to be prestigious work by any means, so they were adamant that I go to college and learn a more respectable trade.
"I (begrudgingly) went to the University of California, Irvine and studied International Business, but the whole time all I could think of was that I'd rather be working and putting ideas into practice than sitting in a classroom and learning theories."
Melwani's experience as a tailor in his family's shops has given him a unique perspective both as a businessman and creative director. As a businessman, he learned the value of running a business by the numbers; as creative director, he gained an appreciation for the work and craftsmanship that goes into each product.
3. Follow Passion—and Learn About the Logistics Surrounding the Passion
"[In college] I was making custom selvedge denim as a hobby, but I was set on the law school path because I knew that would make my parents happy....
"I took the LSAT, was about to go to law school, and then...got over it. I just knew it wasn't for me; I wanted to be working in the real world. I was fortunate enough to secure a position at a top Japanese denim mill as their head of exports, so I got to see the behind-the-scenes of how raw denim is made and all of the intricacies of manufacturing and supply chain management."
4. Use What You Know to Make Money, Even if it's Not Initially in Design
[After the denim exporting company job, Melwani] went on to launch his own clothing production company called Melwani's MFG, which manufactured small batches of apparel orders in China. Typically, to manufacture in China, designers have to place orders in bulk quantities; Melwani was able to process small orders because of family connections.
In 2010, he sold the company for approximately $3 million.
"As I was figuring out my next move, I visited some friends in New York who had just gotten their first jobs out of college working on Wall Street. One morning I witnessed their daily clothing routine -- four guys in a shared apartment would gather in the living room and swap suits, shirts and ties, because they only owned a handful of each."
Melwani found the suit-swapping funny and suggested they take a trip to Men's Wearhouse, known for its convenience and reasonable pricing.
The experience shocked him. "I literally walked in and I was like, 'Oh my god!' It's like 1987 slapped me in the face." Immediately, he knew had identified his calling: To create a platform for men to buy stylish, inexpensive suits.
The seed for Combat Gent had been planted. Melwani, along with his cousin Mohit Melwani and long-time friend Scott Raio, decided they would use the access they had to factories through Melwani's family to come up with a better solution for their friends than Men's Wearhouse.
[Combat Gent sells] something simple and aggressively priced. Rather than ruminating about aesthetics, the Melwanis...spent their company's early days talking to family contacts around the world in order to figure out exactly how efficiently and cost-effectively they could produce a suit. They found wool in Italy, cotton in Turkey and India, and a factory in China where they began training seamstresses.
Since 2012, Melwani has used social media to grow Combatant Gentlemen, generating a close-knit fan base in the process. For example, a "selfie" campaign helped drive consumer engagement and sales for the apparel retailer.
"Word-of-mouth has always been a huge revenue driver for us," notes Melwani. "Guys tend to rely on other guys' opinions when it comes to making important purchase decisions. We also believed that our customers would identify more with pictures of average Joes wearing our clothes as opposed to a typical glossy fashion photo shoot. We decided to combine these insights and offer all of our customers an incentive to share their outfit with their friends. Any customer who takes a selfie in our clothing and posts it on Instagram gets a free tie. This simple campaign helped create a viral loop that lead to explosive growth in our first year of business."
"We are more focused on the supply chain than the brand's story," explains Vishaal Melwani. "The quality of the suits is comparable with a lot of the Hugo Boss stuff you can find in a department store for $800. The total cost of producing one of our suits is between $24 and $37 plus shipping and we're actually invested in factories abroad so we can be even more competitive about price."
Vishaal's honesty about production costs is a bit shocking – he says transparency is one of the services he wants to offer his savvy customers – but the numbers are even more surprising. Most run-of-the-mill suits from unknown or lesser labels cost at least $500, while Combatant Gentlemen sells its goods for $160. Vishaal explains the cost differential by pointing out that everyone in the clothing industry is always fussing about the art of tailoring and fabric choice, even though most companies work far from the cutting edge.
...Combatant Gentlemen suits are well sewn, constructed of at least 60 percent wool, and available in medium and thin fits. The suits are all black, grey, and navy. They're unapologetically middle of the road, but they look good, don't wrinkle easily, and never unravel.
Combatant Gentlemen is able to price its suits so competitively because it's taken complete control over the supply chain, significantly reducing its production costs in the process. The retailer sources wool from its own sheep farm in Italy and cotton from its own cotton fields in India.
Where typical retailers cobble together each stage of the production process from different suppliers and manufacturers, Combat Gent owns the entire supply chain. The company shears its own sheep in Biella, Italy, and then sends the wool to a 100-plus-year-old mill in northern Italy where it is turned into fabric. From there, the material is transported to Shandong, in Northern China, where it is cut and sewn by hand into suits based on the patterns that Melwani designed.
Combat Gent has built the back-end software to support that kind of supply-chain process [described in the paragraph above]. Already, there are "a few" other brands using his supply-chain software, although he can't say which. The front-end software is also pretty savvy; it allows a customer to quickly enter his measurements and get a recommendation on the right size to order.
11. Is What You're Making Necessary?
"I don't consider myself a designer because I make corporate essentials," says Vishaal. "We make stuff you need more than stuff you want."
In late 2010, when Combat Gent was still in beta mode, Melwani dropped into a fashion tech pitch competition in San Francisco. He was pushed up on stage by his friends and winged what was supposed to be a two-minute pitch. The judges -- from Gucci, Zappos, North Face and Apple -- loved the brand concept so much, they kept him talking for 37 minutes.
Combat Gent won the competition, an investment from Gucci board member Enrico Beltramini, and a spot at Beltramini's fashion technology accelerator, Ahead of the Fashion. The Zappos representative who was there also arranged for Melwani to meet with CEO Tony Hsieh -- a meeting that resulted in an investment from the Vegas Tech Fund, where Hsieh is a partner. CombatGent went on to raise $2.2 million in venture funding and now has 32 employees.
The brand is on the verge of releasing a denim collection and its tie offerings grow by the day. Vishaal occasionally has to sit down behind a sewing machine to fill the ever increasing number of orders.
"Do what you know best," he says. "Any business will involve lots of learning as you go, but you might as well pick a market where you already have some experience and a strong knowledge base. I can't tell you how many fashion and e-commerce brands fail because they're launched by business school students with next to zero familiarity with the industry they're trying to enter. Don't let that happen to you."
Lastly, this isn't a tip, but some of you are surely curious how Melwani arrived at the company's name:
Where does "Combatant Gentleman" Come From?
"It was inspired by those friends of mine who would swap clothes -- they were young, ambitious, out to have a good time, but at the same time they were striving for professional growth and respectability in their fields. They were gentlemen, but they were also aggressive and outspoken.
Around that time the show Entourage was getting really big, and when I saw this scene in which Ari Gold storms into a competitor's office and starts shooting people with paintballs while wearing a well-tailored suit that the name "Combatant Gentlemen" came to me. I thought it embodied the dichotomy that was at the heart of the brand and also the spirit of the millennial male who was our target market.