Proper Cloth started small. Incubated in New York’s Dogpatch Labs, Proper Cloth set out with a modest mission: to get guys to wear better-fitting dress shirts. Its founder, Seph Skerritt, wanted to keep things simple at first: just shirts, nothing else. Online, direct-to-consumer. Even its early online features–a simple survey designed to nudge men towards stylishness–telegraphed low expectations, if not for the brand than for some of its customers.
But four years later, Proper Cloth is finding that a lean online retailer can benefit from the playbook of big fashion brands. On Friday, for New York Fashion Week, Proper Cloth even put on a fashion show–the first in the brand’s history. “Pulling off a runway show is not something an online brand would ever consider,” says Skerritt. “It’s not in their models at all. It’s not low-cost, it’s not low-overhead, and there’s more production involved.”
And yet Skerritt–whose brand was chosen along with two other emerging men’s fashion brands for a show cosponsored by Esquire–chose to do it. Indeed, it was the latest in a series of movies Skerritt made that have nudged his brand towards some of the practices of the very fashion incumbents he sought to disrupt.
Take, for instance, Proper Cloth’s showroom in New York. Just relocated to 450 Broadway, the showroom was perhaps Proper Cloth’s first step into the world of traditional retailing. Now New York-based men (or folks passing through) who were intrigued by Proper Cloth’s model for custom-fitted shirts online could at least kick off the process in person, scheduling fittings or dropping in.
When it comes to the online/offline conundrum in retailing, “People kind of want a bit of both,” Skerritt has concluded (as have some notable others). People want to be able to come into the showroom and feel the swatches of fabric. People want to have a trained professional break out the tape measure and really nail that size. At the same time, though, people want a tech-based infrastructure to save all the information on that size, so the process only has to be done once. People want to be able to browse freely online, once they’ve gone in to take their measurements and learn the difference between denim and chambray.
It’s one reason why New York now represents almost 20% of Proper Cloth’s market, the brand’s fastest-growing customer base, says Skerritt.
Another step the brand took recently towards a kind of fully fledged maturity: the introduction of other menswear items–exactly contrary to Skerritt’s original plan to focus exclusively on shirts. Over the past year, Proper Cloth began selling ties, launching with four styles, then reaching nearly 20 (for $100 apiece). This summer, the brand launched its first linen-silk blended jackets (for $650). And for the Esquire show, Proper Cloth worked with Italian clothiers to produce suits (running $750, about what you’d pay for Indochino).
Like Warby Parker and other brands whose DNA seemed initially written in HTML, but which have increasingly found their way into IRL, Proper Cloth is learning that sometimes in order to stand a chance at “disrupting” the big players, you have to play just like them.
“In order to get recognition in the fashion press, and the sort of customers that follow that, we’re turning to old-fashioned ways, essentially,” says Skerritt. It might just be another way of saying that Proper Cloth has grown up. “We want to develop into more than just a shirt maker,” says Skerritt. “We want to be a menswear brand.”