Ratio Clothing CEO Eric Powell on Manufacturing in North Carolina and Making Custom Shirting as Easy as Amazon.com

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Ratio tattersall dress shirtSince coming online in 2011, Ratio Clothing’s mission has been simple, says its founder Eric Powell.  It is to make shirts that fit well right off the bat via an online process that is effortless and straightforward. Modern Fellows spoke with Eric about the initial itch to start a business, his rationale for making shirts in North Carolina and why it is important to dress well on-and-off the clock.

To follow is a lightly-edited transcript of a portion of our conversation with Eric, who has a background in computer programming and who left a job at Deloitte to follow his passion. Stay tuned, as Ratio Clothing is coming up for review as part of Modern Fellows’ custom project.

Eric Powell of online custom shirt maker Ratio ClothingWhat was the initial spark for you to start a custom-clothing business, and what did you think you could do differently?

For me when I started Ratio, there were a lot of things that came together. The first was personal need. I’m 6’4” and thin.  I had a hard time finding clothes that fit.  It is really frustrating to walk into a store like a J. Crew, see something you like, try on every size and realize that nothing works. You could go to the tailor, but it’s still never going to fit perfectly. That, for me, was the initial itch.

Second, custom clothing was available long before Ratio was founded, but it has always been exclusive to the realm of dress clothing.  The thing is, I care how the sport shirt that I throw on Saturday afternoon fits just as much as the dress shirt that I wear during the week with a tie.  So nearly half of what we sell is more casual. We just introduced new flannels and our oxfords are consistently best sellers. These are things that people are wearing on the weekend instead of dressing up with shirt and tie.

Also, I watched some other custom clothing websites crop up over the past few years and couldn’t believe how complicated it was for customers. I thought Ratio could simplify it. We make it really easy. It’s not a 12-step wizard that takes 15 minutes or more to put a shirt in your shopping cart and get out the door. Our early goal was to make it as easy to buy a shirt from us as from a mass-market retailer.

One of the things that Ratio emphasizes is fit. How do you get the fit right online?

There’s this misconception that if you take a measurement you’re going to get a perfect fit.  A tailor takes measurements, sure, but that’s actually only a small part of it. A lot of it is about your body type and fit preferences. It’s about customizing clothing for your body and preferences.

One of the challenges that I had was figuring out a way to get the perfect fit in an online setting. There’s certainly a measurement component to it, but there’s other questions we try to answer. We ask about suit jacket size, which gets to the preference that an individual has for how a shirt should fit in the chest. We offer two fit preferences, slim and classic, and explain the differences in construction.

Right now, we have a pretty good record for customers who get that perfect fit about 85-90 percent of the time. We’re looking to improve on that through things like algorithmic sizing. We’re going to take a boatload of data we have and try to use it to improve the customer experience.

A number of recent custom clothing startups have looked into sourcing from the United States, but many chose to go abroad.  Why make your shirts in America?

At the beginning, we looked all over for manufacturing and were not dead set on sourcing from the United States. For me it was more of a practical consideration.  It was a matter of getting the business off the ground while I was still working full time at Deloitte. We work very closely with our manufacturer [in North Carolina], and it is much easier to get people on the phone.  If you need to get to the factory, it’s a $300 flight instead of a $1,200 one.  At the end of the day, I felt like making something in the United States gave us better control over the final product, and an ability to work closer with our factory. If I was sourcing from China or Malaysia I couldn’t get there as easily.

One point I’d make is that there are high quality garments being made everywhere. There is good stuff made in the United States and then there is some total crap, and a lot of the “Made in the USA” is done these days for purely marketing means. There’s a huge range of quality here as there is in other countries.

At the end of the day, we came to the conclusion that Made-in-America works for us and benefits everybody. We get to be close to our manufacturer, support American jobs, and ultimately deliver a quality product.

Where would you like to take the company in the next few years?

We started out with shirts because that was the biggest pain point for me personally before I started Ratio. I see the possibility of reaching beyond that and try to solve the fit problem in other areas like pants. Not just focusing on traditional professional, but providing more casual options too like we do with our shirts.

I also think that, ultimately, it’s important to give the customer a face-to-face or offline experience. That doesn’t necessarily have to take the shape of a traditional retail store, but there are other ways to have a physical presence for customers.

I feel like we have a good sense of design and would like to have that shine through more as we grow and the company becomes much more differentiated than it is now.

For more with Eric, Corey Knight at A&H Magazine has an interesting interview featuring some additional insight into his business philosophy and lessons learned from starting a business.


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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