Around the corner from the White House, VM Clothier’s headquarters offers an approachable environment to begin or continue an adventure in custom tailoring. Modern Fellows sat down with founder Vishal Mirpuri for a conversation that touched upon the evolution of custom tailoring, growing a business organically, and shattering the stereotype of DC style.
We’ll have more on VM Clothiers, which is on deck for a review as part of Modern Fellows’ Custom Project. For now, below is a lightly-edited transcript of our conversation with Vishal, along with a peek inside his Washington shop.
What led you to start a custom clothing business?
I came at it through my family and built my own brand from there. When I first graduated college I was buying clothes off the rack. I have extended family in the [custom tailoring] business, who have their own separate line, so it didn’t really make sense to do that. Initially, I learned more about my family’s business, and then looked into doing something on my own. In 2007, I decided to give it a shot. I started the business part time, and then went full time last year.
How has VM Clothiers’ business developed over the past 5 years?
Business development has been a little bit different for me. A lot of businesses start up and go into it full force. You have someone who quits their job and works the business full time. That’s a different experience and transition into the business, where you need immediate results, than I had. I had the luxury of working already and of starting VM Clothiers on my off hours and on weekends. That gave me the opportunity to let the business grow organically versus having to bring in clients in that first month. Starting slowly helped me get to a point where I was comfortable then taking the business full time. Overall, the reception has been good.
Can you observe any trends in DC style through your customers?
Business has been growing constantly year over year. Part of that is that you’re starting from zero so you have to grow, but another part of it is that DC has transitioned over the past couple of years. There is definitely a lot of focus right now on menswear. People are a little bit more concerned about how they dress over here. There are a number of similar businesses coming into the area and folks who have shops in other parts of the country are opening stores here. The landscape is changing, and the stereotype of DC is changing as well. So I think it’s good. We’re at a point that if we put out a good product here, you start getting referrals and new business.
How has the custom tailoring business developed in recent years?
Fifteen or twenty years ago, you only had the traveling tailors coming out of Asia, and their target was the 40-plus year old professional gentleman – doctors, lawyers, executives. My brother-in-law’s company is on the traveling circuit. They have a very big company, based in Hong Kong, that goes to the United States and Canada. There was this artificial barrier where people thought custom was prohibitively expensive. It wasn’t really, but there was this perception.
Even a decade ago, most young professionals weren’t as focused on what they were wearing. Back when I graduated from college, my friends and I were buying our shirts from Macy’s or Express. I had friends going to [now defunct discount menswear store] K&G. Nobody paid attention. You didn’t want to spend a crazy amount because you’re not making that much, but another part is that you really weren’t focused on fit.
Now I’m getting guys who are coming out of college or who are still in school and they’re choosing to go the custom route. That tells me that people are starting to focus more on how they dress and how they look. Younger guys care about the end product, not just filling up their wardrobe because they have to.
And with the internet, more information is out there. People are learning that custom shirts don’t have to be 300 bucks a pop. You also have a lot more companies based in the United States, some with brick-and-mortar locations. This new breed of custom tailor has put a different spin on a traditional business. People are realizing that it’s not really that big of a difference between going to Brooks Brothers and getting something custom-made. In fact, depending on where you shop, you might even save money.
How would you describe the clothes VM Clothiers offers?
When I started the business, my goal was to make custom affordable, not to target the C-suite folks. I wanted my friends and colleagues to be able to buy their clothing from me. Initially, we worked with a lot of Super 120’s and 130’s fabrics. But as the business and our clients evolved, we developed strong relationships with fabric mills and suppliers and now carry a wide range of fabrics. Our wools range from Super 100’s to Super 180’s and include all of the premium mills such as Scabal, Holland & Sherry, Dormeuil, and Zegna. Our suits are full bespoke – hand-cut and hand-sewn, and include a floating canvas, surgeon cuffs, and pick stitching. We have over 2,000 shirt fabrics, consisting primarily of 2-ply cottons in the 100-160 thread count range. We are at a point now where we can serve the needs of pretty much anyone.
Below: A look inside VM Clothiers; photos taken with permission