NCtrend: Suit me up

 In 2015-07

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Keith Brown arrives at Bank of America Plaza carrying a garment bag and a large leather briefcase that resembles what doctors once took along on house calls. He’s visiting a client on the 40th floor: Bryan Ives, a partner at Alston & Bird LLC law firm.

As senior vice president with high-end clothier Tom James Co., Brown has worked with some of Charlotte’s most prominent professionals for 28 years, custom fitting their clothing and ensuring they are appropriately attired for every occasion. On this day, Brown unzips the bag to display a bespoke, navy sport coat with a red windowpane pattern and matching liner. Brown points out the 1,000 hand-sewn stitches in each lapel, the water buffalo horn buttons, and the contrasting blue and red thread on the button holes. “I like that,” Ives says. After measuring for the pants to be taken in, the men admire ties laid out on a desk. Ives picks two.

Business for made-to-order and custom-tailored men’s apparel is booming nationally, and Charlotte is ahead of the trend. At Nashville, Tenn.-based Tom James, where suits range from $800 to $25,000, sales hit a record $300 million in 2014. The company is the world’s largest manufacturer and retailer of custom clothing and is on track for a 16% increase in revenue this year. The Charlotte office is performing even better, with sales 20% ahead of the same time last year. Brown declined to share specific sales figures.

High-end clothier Bruce Julian says he’s seen great growth in full custom business at his store in Charlotte’s Myers Park neighborhood, where bespoke suits range from $945 to $4,700. Julian says younger professionals simply seem more aware of custom clothing. There’s also hot demand for trimmer styles made popular by the television show Mad Men, a look hard to achieve when buying off the rack.

Brown’s customers are primarily C-level executives and professionals who are used to delegating and who have little time or desire to shop at local department stores. Business suffered during the recent downturn, as bankers worried for their jobs and sales dried up for commercial real-estate brokers, a large part of the clientele. But customers have returned. At Tom James, which also has offices in Cary, Greensboro and Winston-Salem and employs 45 people in the state, clients are typically buying fewer items but spending more per piece, Brown says. More women are also buying custom-made clothing, Brown and Julian say.

“Most of our clients can’t afford to make a mistake professionally or personally in their projections,” Brown says. “They have their attorney. They have their accountant. And they have us — their image consultant.”

Though more professionals are shunning suits, the custom business has benefited from an unexpected side effect of the shift to more casual dress. As executives wear full suits less often, they realize they must focus more on their entire outfit because their coats had hidden a range of problems, from ill-fitting pants to sloppy shirts and scratched belts. Now, professionals spend more to look good from all angles.

Ives, the attorney, started shopping with Brown more than 25 years ago, after his wife commented that clothing bought at stores didn’t fit him well. “I haven’t bought off-the-rack suits since I’ve bought tailored ones,” says Ives. “These suits last forever. And I enjoy the cool detail.”

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