Co-Founder of the men’s clothier J. Hilburn, John Hilburn Davis III — he prefers to go by Hil — believes his company is ready to transform the men’s market with its innovative direct sales business model. Named in honor of Davis (though he does say he was originally opposed to the name), the brand currently offers custom shirting at extremely affordable prices. Different, however, from others in the market, such as Hamilton and Alexander West, J. Hilburn utilizes Style Advisers — commissioned employees around the country who set up appointments with prospective customers to measure them and talk over the custom designs, designs which can be chosen from among 250 fabrics. And with such a helpful Style Adviser program and some quality shirts, it’s shocking that they manage to put stuff out at such low prices. The secret is not unlike Tucker Blair and Company of We: skip the middle man, sell direct. Indeed, direct sales is the trick, and for that reason, Davis has faith that the company will have success as it sets to launch lines of sweaters and custom pants and eventually “own everything in a man’s closet.” Davis is a man with a strong Texas accent who has goals for the company that are of Texas proportions. Read on for an informative Q & A that tells you all about the line as well as this ever so intriguing direct sales model. You can set up your order here.
Prepidemic Magazine: How did you get involved in the Fashion Industry?
Hil Davis: Well, I did equity research for about 10 years and covered publically traded restaurants, retailers, and luxury brands companies. I was actually flying to meet a bunch of companies like California Pizza Kitchen, Sketcher, and The Cheesecake factory and I was reading a book by Warren Buffet. He was talking about how one of his top 3 investments of all time was the Pampered Chef, which is a direct sales company. It struck me as odd as he’s been with some pretty amazing companies and I wouldn’t think the Pampered Chef would make his top 3.
PM: We wanted to get into the mission statement behind J. Hilburn. What are you really going for here?
HD: Really, the mission statement is that we want to sell amazing products at an amazing value with amazing costumer service. That’s the short of it. We think we can do it because we’re going to compress the supply chain the way Amazon did to books, or the way Wal-Mart did to the traditional 5 and dime stores. The markups in retail, especially at the luxury level, are amazingly high. They really beat up the customer because they’ve just gotten greedy over the last five or six years. Not only the brands mark up their prices, but when you go and look at Louis Vuitton or Burberry, they’re running 30-35% operating margins for a retailer, which is unheard of. And then a retailer gets a hold of it and they figure they can charge whatever they want because customers have been so name driven that they’ll pay outrageous prices for these brands. So instead of marking it up 2-2.5X, they’re marking the price up 3-6X, whatever they felt the customer would pay. The customer got so enamored with luxury brands, that they didn’t mind getting taken to the woodshed for it. If you look at our fabrics—and we’re launching trousers, sweaters, belts, and some other products—we’re going to the same mills that Brioni, Zegna, and Robert Talbott go to. The difference is, because we come direct to you through an awesome e-commerce site we’re set to launch in October, and through a direct salesperson, we can sell that same product for less money. To give you an idea, when you go and buy a Zegna shirt at Neiman Marcus you’ll pay from about $325-$350. Neiman Marcus bought that shirt for about $90-$100 and it cost Zegna about $25. We can’t sell it for $100 because we have a commission to pay, but we can sell it for $149 and it’s custom and not off- the-rack. Our cost on the same shirt is over 2x what Zegna’s is because of the work it takes to do it custom.
PM: It’s interesting, brands like Company of We and Tucker Blair have hopped on this idea of skipping the middle man and just selling directly to make things cheap. Is this a new business model or is it something that a few of you brainy guys in the business thought of on your own?
HD: It’s a good question. I think it’s a combination. The benefit you have in the men’s market over the women’s market is that men don’t like to shop. So you’re not trying to change consumer behavior. The issue is how do you handle returns? We have a 100% return policy. The other thing is when it’s 100% e-commerce and it’s custom, how does a guy get measured? That’s why we went with the direct sales model. We’re developing our site so that, have you ever built a car online? We’re doing that with our stuff so that you can change fabrics, cuffs, collars, or monograms. It will change right in front you and it will show what the best trousers or shoes are to go with that piece, so it helps you build an outfit for you. Because if you like this then you could very well like this or that.
PM: Could you take us through the fitting process as it seems very important to J. Hilburn?
HD: So what will happen is that you’ll set up a style advisor. They will call you and set up a time that’s convenient to you. They’ll come meet you at that time. We have over 250 fabrics and you can go through those at 3 different price points which are $79, $99, and $149—driven by fabric quality. Then you pick the fabric you want and get measured. We do 12 measurements, the neck, chest, waist, hips or sweep, both arms, both wrists, shoulders, and shirt length. Then you can decide what type of fit you want. It sounds like a lot, but if you know what you like it will only really take about 15 minutes. It’s really driven by the customer because the fitting is only about 3 minutes. You decide the collars and cuffs—you style the shirt the way you want. You can pick the fit, if you want a European Fit which is tighter and more fashion forward, if you want a Normal fit, which is close to Brooks Brothers but a little more fitted, or a comfort fit which is very similar to something like Tommy Bahama.
PM: After I select my shirt and go through the measurements, what’s the process there?
HD: About 85 to 90 percent of our shirts come in within 3 weeks. We tell the partner to tell you 4 to 6 weeks but we’ve worked hard to get it down to 3 weeks and our goal is to get it down less than that, but about 85 to 90 percent land at your door in 3 weeks.
PM: The style adviser seems like a key piece of this. Obviously you can’t have a style adviser in every nook and cranny of the country. How are you guys working to get everyone within range? How does this whole style adviser work?
HD: Actually, we do think we can have a style adviser in every nook and cranny. We use a direct sales model like a Mary Kay or an Avon and so they’re incentivized based on a direct commission for what they sell, plus bonuses for selling so much, and once we have your measurements, you can go online and buy whatever you want. So you can go through your style adviser or you can go online. Either way the style adviser gets paid a full commission for that transaction. So they’re going to be incentivized to give you great customer service. So when you order our trousers which are going to be custom – you get to pick your waist size in one inch increments, your front, your fit which will determine the rise and the leg hole, the fabric, everything else, it’s really a personalized trouser. But say you get a color and don’t like it, you call your style adviser and say, “Hey I’m not crazy about the khakis.” It’s like “No problem. Take it back. I can come by and pick them up, or send you a FedEx label, what’s easiest for you.” So you always have recourse back to the process.
PM: This whole bespoke custom shirting market is another trend we’re seeing with you, Hamilton, and Alexander West. Why is this such a big thing right now?
HD: I think it’s probably a big thing now because you think about women’s brands. You walk into a women’s department store and women’s is 10X 20X men’s. Women’s has more sophisticated brands out there. They build for women’s shape. Women tend to buy the brand that fits them, not the brand that they necessarily would like, and blue jeans are the perfect example of that. Men’s has never been really that sophisticated. You go into a Nordstrom, you pick up 16 ½ 35 sized shirt off the rack. You take every single brand in that store and the profile of that shirt is going to be the same. But they never really address the fact that, hey, guys actually do have different shapes. You can have a 16 ½ 35 guy who actually is 6’1” whose arms are a lot longer and super skinny but has a 16 ½” neck and that whole shirt is based off that neck size. And then you have a guy who’s 5’7” who has a thick neck and thick chest but the shirt looks like a tent on him, especially the length of it. But the reason is, guys have been lazy. Guys now have kind of stepped up. It kind of all started with that metrosexual. There was a great article I think in BusinessWeek almost two or three years ago that talked about how it’s not metrosexual in football guys, it’s actually like those are your two extremes. And there’s the lowest and all these grades in between. I think guys have just become more comfortable. Especially once you drop below 40, 35, and then 30 and saying “You know what. I actually want to take better care of my body. I want to look better. But because of that I want something that fits me.” And shirts more than trousers I think are a really easy way to define that. So I think that’s what’s probably driven it form a macro level.
PM: You said you have 250 fabrics. How do you go about selecting them?
HD: We continue to have kind of an everyday selecting with your whites, your blues, and your solid checks that you wear any day any time. And we’re also going to much more seasonal types of fabric. Right now we buy all our fabrics from Tessitura Monti. But we’re also going to buy from Albini and Thomas Mason going forward. And we just buy a lot of great seasonal stuff they have. So right now we’re selling fabrics that we’ve bought from Monti and we’re selling them today and, elsewhere, you won’t see these fabrics until spring of next year because those guys’ supply chain process is so long. We go and look at Monti’s fall collection, and we go ahead and ship it, and have them in 6 to 8 weeks. Everyone else makes a million meters, ships it to the factory, the factory makes it, and they sell it in the spring, but we’re selling it now.
PM: What are the plans for the future for you guys?
HD: We want to own everything in a man’s closet. It’s a bold statement, but what Amazon did to bookstores we want to do to Nordstrom and Neimans.