“We’ve made some nightmare decisions on collections over the years, and we’ll probably make more,” says Fokke de Jong, as he recalls the occasion he ordered 20,000 of what he terms “the wrong jacket”.
Almost none sold and the cost had to be written off. “But that’s how business works; you can wait and wait until you’ve done 100 per cent of your homework and you’ll still face the unexpected,” he says. “Still, if you never make a move, you always stay a virgin.”
That’s not a reflection, by the way, of one of his early revenue-raising escapades, as an affable doorman at one of Amsterdam’s notorious red light establishments, of which he says, simply, “My girlfriend’s parents didn’t really approve.”
Fortunately, de Jong’s work now is considerably more respectable. He is the founder and managing director of Suit Supply, a Dutch suit company on the international expansion path with a business model that is overturning the conventional wisdom of the tailoring sector.
In many ways, Suit Supply has been a left-field enterprise from the outset. The Dutch, after all, are not known for their fashion sense. “It’s true that the Dutch are awful dressers,” de Jong admits. “But then, that only made it easier to stand out.
“We were able to practise on a market that wasn’t high-brow about fashion. And it was at the height of the move into dress down and a terrible time to launch a suit business.
“I thought I’d only be doing it for a year, but I’m making money and the idea that suits are dying out is a question I’ve been asking myself for seven years now. I’m sure there will always be demand for a formal menswear. There will always be the urge for people to have some kind of conformist dress.”
De Jong wandered into this line of work after dabbling in enterprises. By the time he started at law school, he had developed a knack for buying and selling - everything from pinball machines to jeans, with a couple of helicopters along the way.
He had once been celebrated for being the first teenager in Holland to own a mobile phone, back when they were bricks costing megabucks. Unsurprisingly, he did not complete his studies.
“It all seemed very academic to me,” he says. “You didn’t really do anything. They only teach you what you can be examined on, and the really relevant stuff in life can’t be examined.”
Nor did he fare well as an employee. He lasted a week in his first job as a management trainee with Proctor & Gamble, though his early experiences did give him a good business idea and through his law school he launched and ran a sales business in graduation gowns, something he never got to wear himself.
Spotting that the tailoring business was riddled with agency middle men, he struck a long-term deal with a manufacturer to supply suits direct to his first store. But crucially, not just any suits. By cutting out distribution inefficiencies, he found he could buy craftsmanship, and Suit Supply suits are in the tradition of tailoring - hand-pressed and finished, stitched rather than fused, with traditional interlinings.
High-volume production allows them to retail from just £200 upwards and still be profitable. While de Jong pays a higher cost price for his suits than some better-known brands, he is able to keep retail prices in check by controlling the supply chain. He has also found the benefit of dividing specialist labour, and today his suits are made in Tunisia and pressed and finished in Italy.
The business is also focused, so Suit Supply only sells suits plus the occasional shirt and tie. At 33, he is still young and, he concedes, “a bit cocky”, and the image he has cultivated for the brand is edgy and arty, the promo material decorated with naked ladies.
“You certainly won’t see pictures of a man leaning against a BMW with a champagne glass in hand,” he says. “It’s amazing that the cliched idea of success is still used in the tailoring world. Our image is a little bit provocative, which it needs to be to claim space in the fashion market. But it also reflects the company culture - we have fun doing what we do.”
De Jong launched with £4,000 of saved capital and Suit Supply is now turning over E40 million with 30 per cent year on year growth. It now has more than 20 stores across Europe and de Jong is fielding many offers for his business.
“I think good fashion companies are a balance between the left and right sides of the brain. You start doing it well and you get hooked.”
The result is a fresh, edgy brand image and a product that focuses attention where other affordable brands cut corners: on quality and service. Certainly, in de Jong’s eyes, and contrary to the fashion industry norm, it is not designers that are king, but salespeople. He is not a fan of hierarchy.
“One of my biggest early mistakes was to assume that it was necessary to build an organisation for the business to work,” he says. “But all that does is create unnecessary layers. You then spend all your time managing them, and they distance people from the company’s goals.
“I was also very impressed by CVs and hired the wrong people. Résumés are dangerous weapons. To me what counts now is a lack of experience, and an eagerness to find out.”
That may seem a risky philosophy in today’s business climate, but Suit Supply seems to have prospered by making what de Jong concedes are often instinctive rather than considered, strategic moves.
Stores were opened in Vilnius and Riga, for instance, just because of a chance encounter with the right retail partners, and a store was opened in London because the right retail space became available just off the tailoring Mecca that is Savile Row, basking in some reflected glory perhaps, but equally thumbing its nose at the suit’s grand pioneers.
Yet this is precisely what gives the company an edge in an otherwise conservative world. While others contemplate whether moving from a two-button to a one-button single-breasted suit is a radical departure, de Jong is convinced his progressive company will have close on 500 Suit Supply stores across Europe within a decade, and he is ready to raise his game accordingly.
“We know we have to gear up for international expansion. We’ve had very sophisticated collections for the Dutch market, but they wouldn’t stand out in Milan - they’re just not sophisticated enough yet. But they will be, we’re improving them all the time,” he says. “Besides, even in Milan they would stand out price-wise, so either way I think we would still win.”