Combatant Gentlemen: Menswear for ‘ballers on a budget’

Source: Combat Gentlemen

What does one call a website that sells shirts, suits, pants — and as of this week, shoes — to an aspirational class of men?

A technology company.

That's the attitude of Irvine, California–based Combatant Gentlemen, an emerging menswear brand that uses algorithms and other data-driven techniques to provide clothes, sartorial guidance and accessories to men — particularly millennials.

The company's curated approach to selling menswear has invited comparisons to Netflix, Amazon and on-demand applications that generate user recommendations based on individual preferences. This week, Combatant began selling footwear priced between $65 and $130, which sold out within hours, to go along with one of its signature items: Italian wool suits that start at only $160.

Combatant Gentlemen is part of a growing club of internet retailers that cater to upwardly mobile men, and includes names like Trunk Club, Bonobos, Fashion Stork and Bombfell (which employs its own technology that recommends clothes based on body shape, height, weight and fashion tastes). As the menswear market gets larger—Euromonitor International estimates men's clothing is worth $400 billion in global sales—how does Combatant Gentlemen expect to distinguish itself from the competition?

In a recent interview, Combatant Gentlemen CEO and founder Vishaal Melwani described the company as focusing on how to offer clothes that are accessible, affordable and higher quality than what can be found on the rack. Melwani uses the phrase "baller on a budget" to describe the type of man that would be interested in buying Combatant's clothing: young, at the cusp of their career, but not having enough money to shop at higher end places.

Those men have an "innate need … to try and make money and still live a 'baller-esque' lifestyle," Melwani told CNBC. Combatant "tries to master fit and understand the guy from a data set," he said. Hence why the company sees itself as "technology first and fashion second," said the 31-year-old University of California, Irvine graduate, the son of tailors who worked for Versace.

In particular, Combatant has a wide following at Goldman Sachs, Melwani told CNBC, which illustrates what the company considers its target demographic. He added that the average shopper visits the site at least five times a year.

Imran Rahman, Combatant's COO, said, "These guys are working regular hours at 9 to 5 jobs and look great in a suit."

For Combatant, "the sweet spot is [a male in his] mid 20s, and it's the working guy who's living in the big city and is broke, has a lot of debt and doesn't have a lot of money to go around but he's got to wear something to work, got to look good and feel good," he said.

Enter the company, with all its algorithms and data to create a look that's both affordable and eye-catching. "What we always say is we're not in the fashion business, we're in the problem-solving business," Rahman added.

Cutting out the middle man

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Combatant is riding a wave of popularity in a retail environment that is otherwise dour for brick-and-mortar entities. Major retailers are retrenching and shuttering stores, but online clothing purchases are soaring. A 2015 report by research firm IBISWorld stated that menswear alone is the fastest growing online retail category, having surged by more than 17 percent in 2010-15. Euromonitor projects that menswear will add $40 billion to global clothing sales by 2019.

"A lot of these things are indicative of what's going on in this space, and it's really the fact that the consumer wants to buy the product from the manufacturer," said Rahman, a 32-year-old University of Southern California alum who met Melwani in college.

"Don't get me wrong, wholesale will still be around, but … specialty and curated boutiques [are] going to have a revival in the next five years, because they are the ones that really understand" what consumers want, he added.

"It's not about mass amounts of merchandise, it's about cutting out the middle-man retailer and saving the cost for the customer," Rahman said.

Mirror mirror on the wall

That puts Combatant Gentlemen in an enviable position for a start-up. The company is profitable after having to raise only one round of funding in 2012 of less than $2 million, Melwani said, and has no immediate plans for more. Last year, the company earned more than $10 million in revenue.

"We don't necessarily believe in the whole 'raise a lot of capital' idea to scale," he said. "We really believe in rapid growth and at the same time disciplined growth."

From left, Scott Raio, Vishaal Melwani and Mohit Melwani of Combat Gentlemen
Source: Combat Gentlemen

Toward that end, Combatant has done pop-up shops with Nordstrom, and intends to open up a brick-and-mortar shop in Los Angeles this month. The store will feature the company's catalog, but with an added twist: A "magic mirror" that gives information like prices, and how to best accessorize an item of clothing.

"It will recognize what you're wearing and will let you know … what people are currently buying with this item, and what matches with it," Melwani added.

At least for now, one physical retail shop is enough for Combatant Gentlemen, which is being careful to pace itself lest it encounter the growth trap that normally befalls other start-ups.

"You see a lot of these great companies raise too much money too quick. Every time you raise money, there's a clock that's sped up on top of your head," Melwani said, which can be too much even for a company that considers itself more technology-centric than retail.

"Great brands take time to build, and what we see from Silicon Valley is that … you may be able to do that with exclusively software companies, but you can't do that with product, and something you're making and iterating and trying to get better at," he added. "There are a lot of people thinking you can."