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The Compass  /  Suits  /  Why I Started a Custom Clothing Company

Why I Started a Custom Clothing Company

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Raise your hand if this has ever happened to you: You look at a photo of yourself taken a while ago and you see a dude staring back at you with terrible style. I mean, absolutely atrocious, WTF were you thinking? style. OK, you don’t actually have to raise your hands, that would make it hard to scroll down, which is important because I’m about to keep you from ever looking like a scrub in a photo again.

Sadly, I’ll admit to being one of the people with my hand raised. Worst of all, the photo I look back and cringe at? It’s from my wedding. In fact, I’ve reached the point where I have a hard time looking at the pictures from the wedding because all I see is how bad my outfit looks. There I am, beaming from ear to ear, so proud of my accomplishment (my wife is a real catch!) and looking like a scrub in a suit that’s clearly way too big for me.

Today, I run a custom clothing company and dishing out style advice to men is a significant part of my work. So how does the co-founder of a stylish menswear brand end up looking at his wedding pictures in shame? Well, I didn’t always know the key to dressing well.

I didn’t come up in the tailoring world. No old Italian grandpa who mentored me in the ways of sartorial wisdom. No years of study in the fashion program at some university. I was never a designer on Project Runway.

“…The photo I look back and cringe at? It’s from my wedding.
In fact, I’ve reached the point where I have a hard time looking at the pictures from the wedding because all I see is how bad my outfit looks.”

Like most guys, I equated dressing well with wearing designer labels and thought that the clothes that looked good on a model or on a mannequin in the store would make me look equally good when I wore them. And most importantly, I overlooked the basic element of great style, the foundation on which everything in the stylish man’s wardrobe is built: the fit of his clothes.

Then a friend opened my eyes to a new world and unlocked the secret to getting a great fit with custom made clothing. That friend went on to become my business partner and started Black Lapel with me, but at the time he was just a guy I knew who had some fabric and some tailoring contacts and was experimenting with making custom suits.

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The author, Derek Tian (left), with Black Lapel Co-founder, Warren Liao (right) in the Black Lapel co-working space, January 2012

For years, I’d been working in finance wearing so-called tailored suits to work. Surrounded by men in loose fitting, frumpy suits, I took it as a fact of life, that this was the only way to dress for work. But when I got my first suit custom made for me, everything changed.

The first change was my outlook. I hadn’t ever experienced pride of ownership in my clothes before. Having something cut for me, built on decisions I made about how I wanted it to look made this feel like the only thing in my closet that was truly mine.

So when I put it on and looked at myself in the mirror, I got an instant boost in confidence. The fabric was dark, solid and conservative, the kind of fabric most of my colleagues wore, but I looked 10 times better. It was amazing to see what a difference a flawless fit could make.

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With a little extra pep in my step, I walked out the door ready to conquer the day. And what a first day! I was on the receiving end of so many smiles from perfect strangers, I lost count. Perhaps it was the flattering suit or perhaps it was the confident smile the suit helped place on my face that triggered smiles in response but let’s just say it was a virtuous cycle. Even my wife looked at me differently. She joked that I looked so good in the suit, it made her simultaneously want to tear it off of me and keep me in it all the time.

My custom clothing life had begun and I was hooked. I had some more custom suits and a few custom shirts made and started accumulating knowledge of menswear in general and custom clothing in particular. With every order, I knew more and I got better results.

My clothes had gone from basic necessity to something I took pride in. Dressing well had become a full-blown obsession. I gathered pocket squares by the dozen, built outfits with as much attention to detail as the financial models I was building for my job. And at work, I became the guy in the office that the other guys looked to for advice about clothes.

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From there, my growing hobby began to look more and more like a calling. We realized that if more people saw the improvements to their style a flawless fit can deliver and learned a bit about outfit-building along the way, they’d have the same empowering experience I had. That was the beginning of the custom clothing company we started. We set out to change the way men get their clothes.

We’re getting there, one custom suit at a time. With each order, a new guy gets to see how a small change can make such a big difference. And another virtuous cycle of smiles begin. Check out how Black Lapel helps create smiles.

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The author photographed, from left to right, in December 2011, January 2013, May 2014 and August 2015.


See The Black Lapel Collection Here


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