Entrepreneurs

Ledbury CEO: Workshops, not factories, are US manufacturing's future

When pundits speak of bringing back manufacturing jobs to the U.S., many people think of big factories with bustling assembly lines, but that might not be the right image to conjure up.

Luxury men's retailer Ledbury's business model, which targets small U.S. workshops to make high-quality goods, may be a more accurate image, the company's founders said.

"Companies will bifurcate their product lines," Ledbury CEO Paul Trible told CNBC. "Uniform-volume product will be made abroad, and highly personal, customizable goods will be created domestically. Our customers can choose from a ready-to-wear shirt made in Turkey, a made-to-measure shirt made in Poland or a truly bespoke shirt made in Virginia."

Ledbury co-founder and CEO Paul Trible
Photo: Ledbury
Ledbury co-founder and CEO Paul Trible

Trible founded the luxury menswear company with Paul Watson, who serves as its chief operating officer, in 2008 after they graduated from Oxford University's business school. In the wake of the financial crisis, their career plans took a turn toward entrepreneurship.

Trible said he always had a passion for shirts, suits and tailoring, and the two friends took an apprenticeship with a luxury shirtmaker on London's famed Jermyn Street to learn the business.

Since they launched Ledbury's e-commerce operation in Richmond, Virginia, in 2009, the company has experienced what Trible calls "exponential growth" over the past seven years.

"We saw e-commerce as a potentially disruptive channel for menswear apparel based on its accessibility and how it catered perfectly to men's shopping habits," Trible said. "Lucky, the gamble paid off."

Ledbury expects to sell more than 100,000 shirts this year, and it will have three brick-and-mortar stores in Richmond and Washington, D.C., by the fall of this year. The company's products, which they have expanded to a full menswear collection, are also carried by more than 100 specialty stores nationwide.

The retailer recently invested in its own U.S-based production facility, acquiring Richmond-based Creery Custom Shirt Makers. Creery's workshop is the second-oldest continuously running shirt factory in the U.S. Its 100-year history includes a client list that touts Presidents Harry S. Truman and George H. W. Bush, as well as movie stars such as Daniel Radcliffe.

Trible said its own U.S. facility better enables the company to "test new designs, patterns, fits and collars that are making their way back into our ready-to-wear collection," ultimately making them better shirtmakers.

A customer is measured for a bespoke pattern at The Ledbury Workshop in Richmond, VA.
Photo: Adam Ewing | Ledbury
A customer is measured for a bespoke pattern at The Ledbury Workshop in Richmond, VA.

"What I loved most about it was that it was a true bespoke process. Each customer that walked in the door had a pattern that was made especially for them," Trible said. "Literally, they could work side-by-side with the master patternmaker to craft their perfect shirt. It is shirtmaking in its highest form."

While the majority of Ledbury shirts will still be manufactured in factories in Poland and Turkey, the company has moved the production of its bespoke line, which is its "most detailed, customizable and, consequently, most expensive" product offering to the new Ledbury Workshop in Richmond.

The difference is reflected in the products' pricing. Ledbury's ready-to-wear shirts cost from $125 to $225, while the made-to-measure shirts are priced from $185 to $400.

Sewing custom Ledbury label
Photo: Kate Magee | Ledbury
Sewing custom Ledbury label

The Ledbury CEO said he expects that today's consumers, particularly in the luxury sector, want their products and services to be tailor-made. Customer demand will lead to an American manufacturing renaissance. "The high-volume, mass-market manufacturing of the mid-20th century that we have lost will be replaced by small scale, highly customizable, luxury-focused workshops," Trible said.

"The nature of these products and the fact that they are produced domestically will make them expensive," he continued. "We are not going to be able to compete on price with other countries, but we can compete on craft. American-made will become a luxury brand."

And that's why expectations of manufacturing jobs returning to the U.S. need to be adjusted, according to Trible.

"The majority of Americans have grown too accustomed to low prices made possible by a foreign labor force," Trible said. "Most of them are not willing to pay $200 for an American-made dress shirt or $1,500 for an American-made smartphone."