It’s really easy to take your local tailor for granted if you’ve never experienced the outright bliss of trying on a perfectly-fitted suit. If all you know is off-the-rack bargain buys or the occasional trip to the Men’s Warehouse every time another buddy gets married, you almost certainly won’t understand the bond between a man and his tailor.
But times are changing. The world is “on” 24/7, and you can view it from the comfort of your phone any time, any place. You can even buy a new car without leaving your apartment.
So why can’t you get yourself the perfect tailored suit online, too? How difficult could the process possibly be?
That’s the mindset at Grey Custom Clothiers, a Manhattan-based custom tailor shop taking a unique and highly modern approach to the way men dress their best.
During the pandemic, the team at Grey knew they’d have to get creative if they wanted to weather the storm. So it took its very traditionally intimate and in-person business online and created the Grey Membership. The interesting membership model works like a very fancy Costco, where members pay the fee and then get access to steeply discounted, high-quality, hand-tailored goods at a discounted rate.
According to Murray, a suit you’d typically spend $2,500 on at a traditional tailor can be had by Grey Membership members for as little as $500 to $600, give or take.
I caught up with the team at Grey Custom Clothiers to learn more.
Cool Material: What do you think the biggest difference between in-person tailoring and new-age remote tailoring is?
David Murray: Generally speaking, we view ourselves as more on the traditional side. Yet, once we have a tight measurement and easement profile for a client, they can order new garments from us as easily as sending a text message. Once we know someone’s preferences, a 15 minute zoom call could be all it takes to design an entire wedding tuxedo. A vast majority of our clients prefer the traditional, hands-on approach. That’s why a lot of guys come to us, because we don’t push digital measurement apps and home measurement kits like most others do. So the advantage of remote tailoring is the convenience for the client. The disadvantage is that it takes longer to perfect the client’s pattern. Also, for someone who is remote and wants some alterations performed, they will have to use a recommended tailor near them. But in NYC, we have our own master tailor who supports all our clients with alterations. From a business model perspective, you can’t deny that Zoom and remote-clients are a smidge more profitable. However, the fact that we have a real physical store in Manhattan has increased our business enough to more than justify the rent.
How does Grey Clothiers function with a wide customer base?
We have around 550-600 members at present. This number of clients is managed by one full-time master clothier, but he’s almost maxed out by now. As we continue to add clients, we’ll bring on an additional clothier and expand our footprint. We aren’t in a huge rush to grow, so we’re just taking it one client referral at a time for now. Many of our members only order once per year or two. Others order every couple of months. The average across the membership base is such that this number of clients is manageable for one employee.
How do you guys manage to keep up with the relationship you have with your customers, and do you think it’s possible to create the same kind of experience between in-person and online?
We are very close to our clients, personally, and generally have open lines of communication about family, work, life events, and more. While we have one person who sees clients in person, we have two other people who communicate with clients every day via text and email. We’ve found that we’re able to maintain a tight bond with the clients who are interested in that. Many don’t have as much time or interest in building a relationship beyond the garments, and that’s fine too. One note: We will, and we have, fired clients on more than one occasion. Our policy is that we’re here to be a partner to you. And if we find that your attitude or behavior toward us is unfair and overly off-putting, we will terminate our working relationship. I highlight this just to explain how we view our business–a private membership of clients that we know and love.
How did the COVID-19 influence Grey’s decision to take things online? Was it a move you guys had mulled over in the past, or was it a move made strictly out of necessity?
Strictly out of necessity, but at the same time it was an exciting new opportunity. We conducted business solely by Zoom for well over a year. Then we began hosting single-day pop-ups every month or two, which were wildly popular. And finally were able to open a new showroom in July of 2022. We learned a lot working on Zoom, and it built a can-do and must-survive attitude across our team. From a margin standpoint, the COVID / Zoom days were the most profitable we’ll ever have. Overall volume was low, but we were paying no rent, no insurance, next to no overhead, etc. $15 bucks a month for Zoom was about all it took to service a couple of hundred clients who still wanted clothing beyond their jeans and sweats.
Can you explain how the membership pricing model works? Do men get unlimited access to whatever they want, or are there limits?
The membership provides a few different offerings and advantages.
One, it builds a long-term relationship with the client. This is our primary goal. Two, it provides us with a predictable enough profit margin, that we can in turn provide a discounted retail price to our clients (ala Costco). Our garments aren’t cheap by any means, but as a member, you can get a $2,500 suit from us for more like $500-$600. We also host private member events roughly monthly. These always feature some entertainment, like an expert-led whiskey tasting or something unique to see and do. And yes, as a member, you can order as much as you want from us, and have unlimited access to our team.
How big is the Grey Clothier team?
We are essentially a team of four. David is our master clothier. Jerome is our master tailor. Sonny is our general manager, and Win is our operations manager. We have an overseas tailoring shop that provides the bulk of our garments, and we also alter and tailor garments here in NYC locally.
How does Grey work to ensure that every man who buys a suit feels that it’s made just for them?
Fit rules all else. A well-fitting suit made from cheap materials still looks better than an ill-fitting Loro Piana. (Note, we do not make any cheap or low quality garments, just an example.) We begin our process with building a measurement profile. We use many more measurements than competitors. We also measure posture. We then guide clients through a try-on process to uncover their preferences and easements. From here, we assemble the final pattern for our first garment. Once received, we analyze the fit of that garment closely, and determine what alterations we need to make. The alterations are adjusted in the pattern, and from there we can deliver an amazing fit every time. And if there’s ever anything off, we fix it with our tailor Jerome.
If you could give one piece of advice to anyone who wants the best possible experience from a Grey Clothier appointment, what would it be?
Have fun with this. It’s a unique and interesting process. Enjoy the ride. There are a huge number of steps that go into every garment but we try to make that as easy as possible. Also, don’t be afraid to speak up! If you think that purple paisley looks interesting, just say so. It will help us generate other ideas for you to consider. Finally, you may not want to go TOO crazy on your first go around with custom clothing. Some folks, this author included, are so enamored with all the cool things you can do, that you end up over-doing it. But our clothier is a true expert at guiding someone to the outcome that they most desire.
Being able to order a custom-tailored suit online offers some pretty obvious and large advantages to men who have a hard time finding the time to get to their local tailor, but are there any people you think Grey just isn’t a good fit for?
Grey isn’t always the best-fit for one-time customers. Like a wedding party of 10 groomsmen for example. We are happy to accommodate that group, but because our model is a membership, it may make less sense for folks who just need one basic wedding tux, one time. Also, Grey may not be the right match for folks who are looking for older, more classic, less contemporary fits and styles. We can make most anything, but our specialities are a bit more contemporary and modern.
When you think of your ideal customer, what does he look like?
Professional, confident, moving up in the world, friendly and helpful to work with. Eager to feel comfortable and confident in his own “skin” i.e. clothing.
Grey does more than just suits. What else do you offer, and when/why did you decide to branch out from strictly suits?
Our best selling products are suits, sport coats, tuxedos, shirts, overcoats, pants, chinos, raincoats, vests, and jeans. Over time, we’ve rolled out more casual garments. We make custom cashmere sweaters now, for example. We branched out into jeans simply because our clients wanted custom jeans. We like to follow their lead. It also took an incredibly long time to become great at making suits. So once that competence was built up, and the tailoring team, it becomes easier to add on top of that.