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Interview: Max Schmidt
STYLE
Interview: Max Schmidt
Detroit's 1701 Bespoke aims to launch a one-on-one virtual tailor, making custom suits for men
by Fiona Killackey
on 19 August 2013
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A quality, individually tailored suit is perhaps one of the few things to have escaped the tsunami of online shopping. Although, according to Max Schmidt and Tom Daguanno, the Detroit-based duo behind 1701 Bespoke, men will soon be able to experience genuine "one-on-one virtual tailoring," allowing them to simply click and buy a suit—tailored perfectly to their shape—online. CH met up with Schmidt to discuss modern men's styling, changes to the city of Detroit and just how 1701 aims to get the perfect "virtual" fit for their customers.

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Detroit and suits: Not two things you'd necessarily pair up, yet you've named your entire brand after your hometown. Tell us more about this decision?

A lot of people only hear the bad coming out of Detroit—and believe me, there's a lot to talk about—but there are also a lot of amazing things that are going on in the city that tend to be overshadowed. In the past couple years, the city has undergone a massive transformation, and tons of young professionals have moved downtown to work with companies that have recently opened offices there, like Facebook, Twitter, Quicken Loans, and Amazon. Ironically, there has never been a time where there's been more optimism about the city than now.

We chose to name ourselves after the city because we believe there is a certain authenticity that comes from Detroit that we wanted to reflect in our brand. We're a city of hardworking people that never give up. We're not Paris, New York or London. We're from Detroit and we're proud of that.

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What are your backgrounds? Were you both working in fashion prior to 1701?

We've both been enthusiasts of fashion and design for as long as we both can remember, but it's nothing like launching our own clothing line. Tommy has been involved in design and film in Detroit for about seven years and I have been involved in small businesses since 2009—running an internet company specializing in small business expenses.

We teamed up to form 1701 when Tommy decided to get married—I was his best man and we were looking for options other than tuxes for the wedding party. We knew what type of quality we were looking for but couldn't find a vendor in our price range. So, we started looking around at how other custom shops made their suits, and we found a way to streamline the process of getting fabrics, from mills like Ariston, Loro Piana, Vitale Barberis Canonico and Zenga, into the hands of master tailors that were also making the suits we saw in GQ, and not marking up like every other clothing brand out there.

After the wedding, we started making suits for ourselves and for some of our friends. Then word started spreading and we began making suits for businessmen, doctors, bankers, and a fair amount of wedding parties. It was through the wedding parties that we were able to get the experience of coming up with a perfect fit over the internet.

With work attire becoming more and more casual, the need for men to own a suit—let alone, more than one—has decreased dramatically. Why did you decide to start up your own business in such a niche market?

We started making suits because it's something we're passionate about. When someone puts on a handmade suit for the first time after wearing something off the rack, it's not just the effect of looking great, but it's the experience they have of wearing something made just for them that makes it special.

Once we realized we had the opportunity to enter in the suiting market and be able to create our own line of suits that offer an alternative to the bland, uninspired suits out there, thinking of going into another product set didn't even cross our minds.

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1701 prides itself on offering affordable suits. How can this be done while maintaining ethically sourced materials and labor?

Being able to do business in a safe and ethical way was our first concern when we decided to open up shop. That's why we chose to go with partners with sterling reputations. One of our most popular fabric lines, made by Ariston, is produced by a small family outside of Naples—they've been in business since 1920s—and our tailoring is done overseas with a publicly traded company that does a lot of work with major European brands. But our costs aren't coming at the expense of any tailors or mills—the savings come from two places: Cutting out fabric-buyers by purchasing fabrics directly from the Italian mills, and no extreme mark-ups like other clothing companies, so we can pass the savings on.


Do you cater to a customer's idea of design or do you work within certain suit shapes/styles then just tweak for each customer?

We work locally doing one-on-one consultations with clients where clients have complete control over how their suit looks. We bring out tons of fabrics that they can choose from and walk them through about a hundred customizations, from the size and type of the lapel, to the button positions, to the style of pockets, etc.

The ability to choose is mouth-watering for satorialists, so we want to keep that part of our business, but for our clients that "just want to look good," they tend to give us a deer-in-headlights look when we ask them whether they want a notch or a peak lapel, or a 3-roll-2 closure. We found ourselves making a lot of suggestions for what the suit should look like depending on the person and the occasion.

We decided that for all the clients that "just want to look good," we would design a limited-run seasonal collection, where we choose the fabrics and the customizations of the pieces, but offer them in a limited capacity to ensure the unique quality of getting a personal suit. In addition to the limited seasonal collection, we decided to offer an essentials collection all year round. The basics suits that every man should own—navy, charcoal, light gray, a black tuxedo and so on.

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How long does a suit take to make from start to finish?

Our pieces typically take 4-6 weeks, from the time you schedule an online appointment, to the time you receive the suit on your doorstep.

Why should men wear suits and do you think we're witnessing a return to that sharper style of dressing?

I'm not much of a hardliner, so I wouldn't say men should wear suits over T-shirts and jeans, but I do think men should take pride in their personal appearance because I believe it is a reflection of self-worth. It goes back to the old saying, "Dress for the job you want, not the job you have." Whether you're dressing well because you have to or because you want to, we want you to look great.

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You recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to get your "virtual tailoring" business off the ground. What was the idea behind this?

We've been working on a way to change how men's custom suiting is done over the web for a while now. We've developed a unique, hands-on approach to fitting clients that provides a one-on-one educational and fun experience for anyone looking to get a custom suit made over the web. We started our Kickstarter to help raise money to create the first of our limited-run seasonal line. It will be a range of handmade suits, jacket/trouser combinations, and tuxedos. When one style runs out, we’ll replace it with a new one, and so on.

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How does virtual tailoring work? Don't you need to see someone's body shape in the flesh to really tailor a suit?

No doubt it is more desirable to fit someone in-person versus online, but with our online fitting process, we're able to make the difference negligible. It allows us to take the accuracy a step further than other online retailers—with whom self-measuring has always caused problems. We do this by walking our clients through the measuring process via video chat, so we can see them and help make sure each measurement is done properly, just the way we would measure them in person. This, we have found, is the difference between getting a suit that fits and getting a suit that fits right.

What's next?

We've got a lot on our plate. Once we finish up the Kickstarter campaign, we'll be launching our first seasonal collection, which will involve hiring models and photographers, making the suits, and putting together our mailing kits, in addition to continuing our in-home service here locally. We're considering women's suits, but no firm plans at the moment. This is something we'll be looking at closer in the coming year. We're also planning on opening up a storefront in downtown Detroit, but that's a bit farther down the road.

For more information on 1701 Bespoke suits, check out their website as well as their Kickstarter campaign.

Images courtesy of 1701

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