Black Lapel Founder Warren Liao on risk-taking, leaving Wall Street, and the future of profesional menswear

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Modern Fellows spoke with Warren Liao, one of the founders of online custom tailoring destination Black Lapel, who recently returned from a business trip to Asia.  Below is a lightly-edited transcript of our conversation, in which Warren discusses how Black Lapel began, his inspiration for starting a business, and what the future holds for his company and menswear more generally.

Was there a specific moment where you knew you wanted to start-up a company like Black Lapel?

There wasn’t an ah-ha moment for me. It was more of a calculated process. I was an investment banker when I graduated from college. I was doing that for two plus years in 2008. I was working a lot of hours and getting a good experience, but it was a rough time. I always wanted to do something on my own, and was looking for opportunities to do something that I was passionate about where there was a market opportunity.

For me, I could never find clothing that fitted me the way I liked. I have an athletic build and could never find anything off the rack that fit me the way that I wanted. At the time, there weren’t any good options that fulfilled three criteria – fit, accessibility and quality. No one company fulfilled all three things. This was back in 2008 and 2009. It’s crazy how fast men’s clothing and blogging has taken off since then. There were very few companies out there doing this. I started getting together with my business partner to think about how we could make this work.

Can you describe the start-up phase?

One of our co-founders wanted to live and work out in China. When he first went out there, [our goal was to] find local tailors who were producing high-quality clothing and find a way to distribute it over here. He [reported back] that Shanghai is a city where tailoring is steeped in tradition. There is a huge range of quality that comes out of China, but we can get really good quality.

Our first manufacturer was a small local tailor. The conditions were not good. Without a doubt, we weren’t going to work with that establishment. Then we tried moving our work to a bigger establishment that could handle the production, but they could not get the quality consistently right. You have to be consistent if you’re selling clothing online.

We finally found a third manufacturer over the course of another year. We are paying a higher price for the clothing that is being made now, but we’re ok with that. We’re more concerned about producing a product that is in line with the quality brand we are trying to build. From there, we can figure out ways to become more profitable.

What was the most important thing you had to get right coming out of that phase?

From the beginning, and what we stand by now, is that we are making suits that are designer brand quality at half-to-a-third of the price. Our fabrics are just as good as anyone’s – say a Brooks Brothers 1818. It’s the same quality of fabric, and our construction is a standard half-canvas suit. These are things we are never going to sacrifice on.

We’re fighting an uphill battle. People aren’t used to buying clothing online. We are making things in China, where people still have this perception that there is no quality that comes out of [there.]

It was extremely important right off the bat to be able to say that we could stand behind our products from day one – to say our quality is superb and we are making it at a price that is accessible to most guys.

Who inspired you to take risks?

My biggest inspiration is my dad. He grew up in a very poor, small village in Malaysia. He had to work very hard to get a good education – he is a dentist – and eventually take a risk to come over here and open up his own practice. You may not call a dentist or a doctor an entrepreneur, but they have to start their own business and go through a similar sort of risk-taking. He’s worked extremely hard to provide for our family.

At the end of the day, I didn’t want to be comfortable doing something that was easy just so I could make a nice salary, which is what investment banking was. I wanted to challenge and push myself to create something that has a lot of significance or make an impact on people. People may not talk about custom clothing in that way, but I think it can. That’s why I started to plan everything out [to start the business].

What’s next for Black Lapel?

When we started off, we had limited capital. We wanted to start with things that we could sell year-round until we got to the point where we could diversify our product line in terms of weight and pattern of the suits. We’re starting to move in that direction. We are going to be releasing a number of new shirt and suit fabrics in the coming months.

We have some accessories now, but we are going to focus more on finding and developing more unique accessories and designs. Outerwear is another thing we are working on. Eventually we would like to get into other accessories like leather goods, belts and bags that complement a man’s wardrobe. Women’s clothing is something that we are looking at further down the road.

Where is the professional menswear industry as a whole going?

I think a lot of the industry is moving to a point where retail and online are coming together. In the past, it’s been silo-ed. There is now omni-channel retail out there, which is cool. Eventually we hope to have a physical presence. Right now we can take measurements in our New York office, which we like to do, but for us it’s also about continuing to push the online channel, because there is huge potential there. There isn’t much to lose from buying online. And we haven’t really had any issues with customers so far. It’s very exciting, and it’s all going upwards.

Photo: Black Lapel Founders Warren Liao and Derek Tian, courtesy of Black Lapel

About Jake

Jake is an expert on men’s style and fashion based in Washington, DC. He founded Modern Fellows in 2012 to get to know the entrepreneurs and innovative clothing and lifestyle brands helping men dress sharp in the digital age. He has published hundreds of articles on style and apparel, and regularly interviews small business CEOs and startup founders about industry trends. Jake has written about entrepreneurship, international business and fashion for outlets including Business Week, Forbes, Inc., Details Style Syndicate and Primer Magazine.

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