Fokke de Jong is founder and CEO of SuitSupply, a luxury men’s fashion retailer that tailors “not your father’s” suits, in his words. Growth has been especially rapid in the past five years. The Dutch company’s model is to tailor suits in a wide range of colors and styles, ranging from the traditional to the loudly flamboyant. Glossy, occasionally provocative branding asks men to think about suits as something that expresses youth and individuality. A cult following in Amsterdam and London has grown to include cities across Europe, the US, and elsewhere. Mr de Jong talked to FUSE at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Marrakech, Morocco.
“For the past ten years the internet has definitely helped create a certain type of ‘global consumer’.”
FUSE: Tell us about how SuitSupply got started.
FDJ: I started the business pretty much from the trunk of my car in 2000. I started it with 5000 euros in savings.
FUSE: How long did it take to expand beyond the Netherlands?
FDJ: I’m from Amsterdam originally. We branched out from Amsterdam to the rest of Holland. Perhaps we spent a little too much time there. Then we expanded globally. We entered the US in 2011 and then went to Asia. Now we are in all the major markets except Australia.
FUSE: Can you describe a moment where you knew SuitSupply would go big?
FDJ: When you start a business you always think it will go big, otherwise you would stop. This business had to work in the first two months, because I only had a little more money to keep it going. And it did. We had turnover and profit from the beginning. That is not to say it has always been smooth sailing from the beginning.
FUSE: So SuitSupply is 14 years old. It’s now in Europe, North Africa, Asia, Africa. What do you think has helped it grow so fast in recent years?
FDJ: We kept our focus. Our focus is on tailoring and making beautiful products. It also helped that we were distributing our products in the same way across all the countries we entered. The marketing is the same everywhere. Sometimes we tweak it a little bit for local tastes. But it’s essentially the same. For the past ten years the internet has definitely helped create a certain kind of ‘global consumer.
FUSE: So the Japanese consumer wants to wear the same kind of suit as the consumer in Holland?
FDJ: Yes. Partly it is about people travelling more and reading the same blogs, the same fashion magazines and so on. A cool guy in Japan is maybe a little different from a cool guy in New York, but they have a very consistent outlook.
FUSE: So are men’s tastes equalizing?
FDJ: Within a certain group, yes.
FUSE: But aren’t tastes quite individual to the man – or woman? Are they really going for the same thing?
FDJ: We’re not saying that we’re selling uniforms. There’s a variety of styles. But the mentality of the brand attracts a certain type of person who lives everywhere, and those people are more alike than they are different.
FUSE: SuitSupply is known for its provocative advertising campaigns.
FDJ: That helps, of course. We’re selling fashion. Sometimes selling fashion has to do with not taking yourself too seriously. So we play around with it. The advertising campaigns are beautiful. Sometimes they have sex in them. It helps to differentiate us. We’re bringing energy to this old world of tailoring. It’s a bit more fashionable. It’s not your dad’s suit.
FUSE: So what is SuitSupply selling other than fashion? What deeper thing do you think your customers are getting when they buy your suits?
FDJ: We’re selling a sort of independence. There are lots of people who have to wear suits, who have to work and function within the system but don’t want to surrender to the system completely. We give them a clean way to do so.
FUSE: In terms of production of suits and retailing of the suits, what are you doing that’s notably different than other men’s suit makers?
FDJ: We’re the first ones to do luxury men’s products in a vertical way. This kind of higher-quality suit was typically sold by independent retailers or department stores. By the time the customer got the end-product, there were three or four layers in between. We took the Zara model of vertical integration to the higher end of the market. Also we have a very different approach to where we put our stores. We have a ‘destination location’ strategy that works on a speakeasy model. Speakeasies are not completely secret, but you have to know where they are. SuitSupply shops are pretty much like that. They’re not about being somewhere where everyone is walking. They don’t have a big shop window on the street. We spend a lot of time on service and want people to care enough about us to come find us. When you take that kind of approach you’re suddenly able to find all these incredible, interesting spaces: lofts in Soho, villas with gardens in Johannesburg.
FUSE: What role does Suitsupply.com have in letting men discover the brand?
FDJ: This is essential. Lots of people want to shop at their home. Men certainly do. Have you ever been to a shopping center and seen 80 per cent of guys walking around browsing the stores with strollers? No. Guys tend to shop in a different way. They go somewhere very specifically for something, and before they go there they look at it on the internet. So online is central to driving traffic to the stores. It’s a business model in its own right.
FUSE: So what is the breakdown of walk-ins versus people who find your shops through online browsing?
FDJ: Walk-ins are virtually zero. In some cases it’s impossible. That villa in Johannesburg I mentioned: you have to find it. There’s no reason for anyone to walk past it. It’s safe to say that at least 90 per cent of customers go out and find the store themselves.
FUSE: So is SuitSupply a digital brand?
FDJ: You could say that, but I don’t like the word digital. We’re a referral brand. Whether you hear about it from your friends, or hear about it from a guy sitting next to you at a café who says where he got his suit, or hear about it online – it’s all referral. But online certainly helps that referral process a lot.
FUSE: Innovation is the theme of this conference. What does it mean for SuitSupply?
FDJ: It means technology. We employ about 100 programmers. We need technology to make the customer experience more seamless. We’re launching a new app so that when you go into our store, your offline and online store are the same. We have all these digitals gadgets to help you decide your size. You want to be able to return any item with one click. You want to be able to run into the store and have the guy say, “Okay you were looking online yesterday on these items – here they are.”
FUSE: We’re hearing a lot about entrepreneurship and how to be a successful entrepreneur. Do you think these matters can be taught?
FDJ: Entrepreneurship is not something that you learn. It’s something you do. So people often ask, “What is being an entrepreneur?” You ask around and you hear that it’s about writing a business plan, devising a great strategy, managing people. Then you ask the same people, ‘What did you do this weekend?’ They say they went skiing or they hung out with their friends. But for some reason they see these things as having completely different energies. There’s a way to be an entrepreneur, and a way you live your life. But it’s the same. It’s about doing stuff. Look at the word ‘venture’. It’s means doing. It’s about taking something from A to B.