I’m a Custom Clothier and We’re Having a Record Year for Business
- Zach Uttich is a custom clothier and the owner of BLVDier, which he runs with his wife in Chicago.
- A pandemic shutdown, shipping delays, and a rise in supply costs posed challenges for the business.
- But expanding options into Zoom attire and womenswear has them on track for a record-breaking 2022.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Zach Uttich, a clothier, about his business BLVDier in Chicago, Illinois. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
I’m a custom clothier and run a small business serving a diverse clientele of fashion-conscious men and women in Chicago and around the world. Before starting my own business, I worked for a company called Suitsupply.
The pandemic has been rough for my business, but my wife, who runs the business with me, and I emerged stronger and more successful than ever, surpassing pre-pandemic revenues. The early 2020 fires in Australia killed tens of thousands of sheep and began a slow, small rise in the cost of wool for fabrics. But overall shipping has been the thing that’s gone up the most for us.
We ship fabric from the mill to our makers in various places like China, Italy, England, Toronto, North Carolina, Istanbul, and Japan, then ship the finished garment from our maker to us. Then, if necessary, we ship the garment to the client if they don’t live in Chicago. We make and source things from basically all over the world, and it’s gotten a little bit more expensive in every area.
My wife Kirsten and I opened the doors to our first storefront on January 9, 2015
That original space was a 750-square-foot lease in the heart of Chicago’s West Loop, which was already a booming neighborhood. We made 620 total garments in our first year in business and that included shirts, pants, sport coats, and tuxedos. In our second year we made 1,005 garments, and in our third year we made 1,336. In our fourth year, Kirsten quit her job running operations for an early childhood development program and came on full-time, and in 2019, we made more than 1,950 garments and gross revenues went into the seven digits.
We realized that the 750-square-foot space was simply not going to work anymore. It was like a restaurant with one dining table, and the dining table was full all the time. We needed a second fitting room, more storage, and a more comfortable sitting area for our clients. We bought a commercial space four blocks north of our old store and moved into that space nine days before quarantine started. We saw our first client Friday, March 13, 2020.
Our sales numbers for 2020 ended up being just half of 2019
We didn’t have any employees, so we didn’t need to lay anyone off, but we had to start getting creative with our business. We launched a drawstring pant, dubbed our “work from home pant,” in April 2020. And people still needed shirts for
meetings. We added custom sweaters, shoes, and chinos and a t-shirt line.
Our custom sneaker program is very much in its infancy. However, in a very saturated industry people crave uniqueness — our program gives them just that. We make custom Italian sneakers for less than $400 with an almost infinite amount of combinations of leather, silhouette, and sole. It was a no-brainer to offer it.
We built up this following, and once we’ve fit a client, people could purchase clothes remotely. We would prefer to fit everybody in person the first time to be able to look at their body. Purely providing measurements doesn’t give us the intuitive information that we need to give you a perfectly customized garment. But, like most clothiers, we got pretty good at doing this from afar over Zoom over the last few years. Seeing pictures of somebody, gathering intel about what sizes they currently wear, if they play any sports or have any injuries — all that information helps us build an ideal garment for them on the backend.
Once people in Chicago got vaccinated, our clients felt comfortable coming into our shop again. We proceeded to make more than 2,000 custom garments in 2021, and that exceeded pre-pandemic 2019 revenues.
The men’s tailoring world is infiltrating women’s fashion right now
Double-breasted jackets and more boyfriend-cut pieces are aplenty on ready-to-wear racks. Women are seeing that and really like the idea of having a staple fall jacket that they can have in their closet for years.
In late 2019, we launched a women’s line that we then relaunched in 2021, and we’ve seen quite a bit of growth with that in the last year. For women, buying a jacket and pants off the rack and having it tailored can cost roughly the same as just getting a custom garment. We’ve seen some of our current clients’ partners coming in. We’re also seeing word spread through the corporate world, with women in law and finance coming in to get navy blue or gray suits. We’ve even made wide-legged white pants for a bride to wear at her rehearsal dinner and then on a boat in Ibiza.
This year, we’re on track to exceed our record 2021 and quintuple business from our first year
Right now we’re 127% ahead of last year. I still see new clients for first and second fittings and Kirsten will go over new fabrics and designs with existing clients and help with consultations for grooms, along with organizing pick-ups and shipping completed garments. She’s splitting her time between operations and client-facing work.
Being a Midwestern business, it pains us to raise prices, but how do you keep the level of quality while not sacrificing your margins, revenues, or the client experience? We’re about to do it, but that decision is mostly motivated by demand and less because of inflation. Having just moved into a bigger space two years ago, and wanting to stay a small business within the confines of those walls, stepping up our price point makes sense. Demand is at a high with over seven years of built-up clients and people wanting to shop at more intimate spaces like ours. We’ve fit roughly 4,000 people since inception.
We always want a two-piece suit available for under $1,000
Our suits range from $950 to $1,850. We added fabric options, so if somebody wants to level up on a fabric that would cost multiple thousands of dollars elsewhere, but here it’s 20-30% less, and we’re happy to do it, like superfine wool, a cashmere and silk blend, or a 100% silk or cashmere jacket. Our fabric partners have a plethora of options and since our business has increased, so have more requests for specific fabrics. We have jackets for womenswear that are made from the same boucle fabric that Chanel uses for their jackets. They’re $4,800 at Chanel and Dior, and here they’re around $1,600.
We’re quickly outgrowing our new space already, but for now each month we have a roughly 50/50 mix of repeat and new clients. We really like that blend. We can’t ever guarantee that somebody is going to come back, so having the door open for a new client to come in is important.
Are you a small business owner who wants to share your story? Email Lauryn Haas at [email protected].