Tom Patterson, co-founder of innovative men’s performance basics brand Tommy John, divulges what he’d recommend for new customers, how his team is responding to COVID-19, and why he thinks a good pair of underwear can change your life in this exclusive interview with Modern Fellows.
Photo credit: Featured photo ©Michael Paras Photography, LLC, used with permission of Tommy John.
About Tommy John
Frustrated with the way undershirts fit and felt, Tom Patterson and co-founder Erin Fujimoto diverted from their career paths in medical devices and finance to found Tommy John in 2008.
They started with reinventing undershirts and underwear, designing new performance basics for men made from proprietary technical fabrics. (Back in 2013, Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times called Tommy John’s undershirts “perfect.”)
Today, Tommy John is a great option to find a wide range of performance clothing for men and women. The brand also makes an intriguing alternative to lululemon for activewear and athleisure clothing.
For men, Tommy John’s product line includes undershirts, underwear, long johns, pajamas, over-the-calf socks, tees and polos, pants and shorts, sweaters, sweatshirts and button-downs. Their performance button down, made from technical fabrics, is a phenomenal option for dress shirts for men.
For women, Tommy John offers a variety of bras and bralettes, briefs, boyshorts, pajamas, camisoles, tops, tees, pants, shorts, leggings and more.
Tommy John ships just about everywhere. Right now, North America makes up the lion’s share of its business, though the company is looking to more global expansion in the years to come.
I interviewed Tom to find out what he’d say to a potential customer who’s never tried Tommy John before and to see how his company is adjusting to the new normal in light of COVID-19.
This is the first thing you should buy from Tommy John according to its founder.
When I asked Tom what he would say to someone who has never ordered from Tommy John before, he replied, “What are you waiting for?”
“The biggest barrier for people to upgrade to Tommy John is that they don’t realize a more comfortable option exists,” he said. “It’s just underwear, right? How good could it be?”
“Well, the feedback we get most often when people try Tommy John for the first time is that it’s life changing. It’s the kind of comfort you need to feel to believe,” he added.
You could pause here and think that’s a tad hyperbolic, but as I spend more and more time at home, I’m finding comfort in small, intentional upgrades. I smile every time I slip on my new, amazingly comfortable slim fit jeans from Revtown and fabulously lightweight t-shirts from Pact Apparel. I am incredibly enthusiastic about my $44 outdoor love seat from the Home Depot. I practically rejoice when I grind my favorite Caffe Vita coffee in the morning from Seattle. So let’s not underestimate the power of a good pair of underwear or performance shirt.
Tom observed that, “more than ever, our customers are looking for a little extra comfort right now and our products are the perfect work from home uniform.”
He says that the first item he’d recommend for someone looking to try the brand for the first time is underwear.
“Underwear is the first thing you put on in the morning, and the last thing you take off,” he noted.
For men, he suggests Tommy John’s Second Skin Trunk of Boxer Brief or, in the warmer months, Cool Cotton makes a great alternative.
For women, he said that Tommy John’s Air underwear is a crowd favorite as well as their Second Skin and Cool Cotton bra collection. “All styles and silhouettes are personal preference, but honestly you can’t go wrong with any of them!” he enthused.
Tommy John relies on diversified marketing and distribution strategies to cut through the digital noise.
Tommy John has done a great job building out an omnichannel retail presence that is split between retail stores, wholesale partners, and direct-to-consumer e-commerce. I asked Tom how he and his team cut through the digital noise to break through to potential customers and shape brick-and-mortar retail for the future.
He told me that Tommy John has been sold through the physical retail channels since 2009. They have seen impressive growth with wholesale partners like Nordstrom (one of my favorite menswear retailers) and Dillards over the last several years and started opening their own retail stores in 2017. They expect to have 5 retail stores in operation by the end of 2020.
“We also have a very strong e-commerce business, because we believe we need to be wherever our customers are,” Tom said.
Tom also pointed to the importance of “a diversified marketing strategy comprised of TV, radio, direct mail, social, digital, even out of home marketing at times.” (I love getting snail mail catalogs from innovative brands like Tommy John.)
“For us, the key is to have multiple touch-points to spread awareness and tell our brand story,” he observed. “We’re really proud of our products and our brand tone of voice, so we’re always navigating and iterating different channels to best tell our story in the premium, approachable and humorous way Tommy John is known for.”
E-commerce helped carry Tommy John during COVID-19
Businesses have had to adjust during the COVID-19 pandemic. Founders like Nomad Lane’s Vanessa Jeswani have tweaked their messaging, shoe startup Wolf and Shepherd’s Justin Schneider and blanket and outdoor brand Rumpl CEO Wylie Robinson have joined the Brands for Better movement, and technical fabric clothing Ministry of Supply’s Aman Advani pivoted to produce 3D-printed washable face masks.
I asked Tom about the impact of COVID-19 on his business, and how he is adjusting personally.
He noted that, during the majority of the last few months, their retail and wholesale businesses were completely shut down.
“We are fortunate enough to have a strong e-commerce business to carry us through this challenging time,” he said.
“I’m really proud of the Tommy John team has navigated these unprecedented times. We’ve maximized efficiencies and continued to test, iterate and adapt to a point where I truly believe we will come out stronger on the other side,” he added.
He added that their team is still working remotely for the most part, though some of their stores are slowly reopening in markets where it is safe to do so.
“Truthfully, I’ve been blown away by the team,” Tom told me, noting that the transition has been more seamless than he imagined.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited to for the team to be able to back to the office, so we can be reunited in person,” he said, “but this new normal of remote working has really proven out the strength of our team and culture.
Although it hasn’t been easy balancing working from home, taking care of the kids, home schooling and all that, I feel very fortunate to have had this time at home with my family. It was definitely an adjustment, but a blessing as well.
Engaging in the social justice movement
I also asked Tom about the movement for social justice in the United States and around the world, and how Tommy John is engaging.
He told me that, “it’s very clear that there is a huge problem of systematic racism in our country that needs to be addressed and rectified.”
At Tommy John, we’re listening, learning and better evaluating our internal practices and culture to make sure we’re identifying any racial biases and creating the space and process to overcome it.
This month we donated $10,000 to the NAACP Legal Defense fund and are matching our employees’ personal donations through the month of June.
We believe this isn’t just a moment in time, in history, but a part of a larger movement that we are committed to.
Here are other innovative brands Tommy John’s founder admires.
I asked Tom to name other innovative brands that he looks to.
“Nike and Patagonia are two of the many brands I admire,” he responded. “They are iconic, household brands that people trust and are constantly innovating.”
“That being said,” Tom added, “although there are many brands I admire, I don’t want Tommy John to be the next Nike, or the next Patagonia. I want to us to be the first Tommy John.”
What’s next for Tommy John
Tom noted that Tommy John is preparing to launch some new products for both men and women next month and a ton of new styles launching throughout the balance of the year.
“At Tommy John, we never stop innovating and are exciting to introduce a pipeline of new products in 2020 and beyond,” he concluded.
About JakeJake is passionate about exploring entrepreneurs' global journeys. He founded Modern Fellows in 2012 to get to know the entrepreneurs behind the innovative brands helping men dress sharp in the digital age. Jake has written about entrepreneurship, international business and/or fashion for outlets including Business Week, Forbes, Inc., Details Style Syndicate and Primer Magazine, and has provided analysis on international business for BBC Radio, NBC News, CNN and Time Magazine.
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