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Black Lapel's mission: Make custom formalwear suitable for the masses

Key Points
  • Founded by Derek Tian and Warren Liao, Black Lapel is a men’s formalwear company that customizes, designs, and delivers custom tailored suits and accessories almost completely online.
  • Customers make an account on Black Lapel’s website, and then with the help of a friend, take 13 measurements around the shoulders, waist, hips, legs, arms and torso. Once all of these measurements are inputted into the user’s account they then customize things like material, color and design that best fit their needs in a suit.
Miguel Pineda | CNBC

When most people think of a custom suit fitting, they imagine quality service coupled with designer expertise in a personalized shopping environment. For many, a custom suit was something only accessible to the very wealthy, or for someone personally connected to a tailor.

Enter Black Lapel. In 2012, the men's retailer moved to capitalize on a soaring menswear market that topped $419 billion worldwide, according to Euromonitor data. It's an increasingly competitive field, with a mushrooming crop of start-ups vying to offer men everything from suits and jeans to shirts and subscription boxes.

Founded by Derek Tian and Warren Liao, Black Lapel designs, and delivers custom-tailored suits and accessories, mostly online — and in the process makes formalattire more accessible and affordable. For both Tian and Liao — neither of whom has a background in men's fashion — creating the perfect suit is both a labor of love, and the challenge of a lifetime.

"We didn’t come from any existing knowledge, but we both wanted something more challenging, so we started exploring around and we met each other," Tian, a former commercial real estate financier, told CNBC.

Men’s formalwear is projected to see breakneck growth in the coming years, with growth in men's designer apparel expected to outpace that of women, according to a recent report by Digiday.

Fashion, of course, is a notoriously fickle industry, and what's perceived as popular during one moment can quickly fade from the limelight. Take the case of Combatant Gentlemen, a competitor to Black Lapel that rose to prominence as a favorite among millennial professionals — only to fall on tough times.

For Black Lapel's founders, “it was challenging because we were creating a brand. A lot of our focus from the get-go was ‘how do you do this the right way,'" Tian asked.

Miguel Pineda | CNBC

A Black Lapel custom suit starts around $500, and reaches $1,300 on the higher side, a price range that's roughly in line with some of its online competition. That said, Black Lapel's prices are lower than more established brands like Brooks Brothers, where a custom suit starts at more than $600.

Here's how it works: Customers create an account on Black Lapel’s website, and then take 13 measurements that include the arms, waist, hips and legs. Once the measurement data are inputted into the user's account, Black Lapel generates a custom profile that gets customized for elements like material, color, and design that best fit the suit. The suit is delivered within a few weeks.

Although Black Lapel has stylists in its lone brick-and-mortar location in New York City, the company derives more than 70 percent of its revenue online, most of that domestic. That said, Tian told CNBC it has shipped to 75 countries in North America, Europe, South America and even Australia.

In its six years, Black Lapel said that less than 10 percent of its web orders have been returned, and 70 percent of its customers come back.

“If you think of what a unique experience it is that you get something that’s made for you and just you. There aren’t many things like that.” said Tian.

“This piece of clothing is uniquely you. It’s a pretty sticky experience once you get people to try it. When they see themselves in the mirror their eyes light up, their shoulders perk up and they stand more confident," he added. "That’s telling us is that what they are doing is infectious, and that they want to get more clothing that makes them look good.”

Miguel Pineda | CNBC

Not only is Black Lapel encouraging men to dress better, it's also making them more fluent in the language of fashion. The company's website features a style journal called "The Compass" to help answer common questions about men’s fashion, and give style advice. There's even a glossary of terms geared to help customers understand what exactly they are purchasing, and help define unfamiliar terms.

Black Lapel is now attempting to streamline its measuring process, which it hopes will make it even easier for consumers to buy its products. It's all part of what Tian thinks will help the company better understand its consumers.

“If we can understand people’s context better then we can make the process easier and better.” Tian added. “We are qualitatively surveying people to see why they are shopping with us, and then quantitatively surveying people to see how we can improve.”

Because much of the change in men's retail has been spurred by the internet, Black Lapel is looking to grow its brand, as well as capitalize on the metamorphosis.

If you look towards the future, consumer trends are really changing. When I was a kid I would go to the mall and you just don’t do that as much anymore.” said Tian, calling online shopping “the tail wind to our brand."

With malls and brick-and-mortar retail being buffeted by the web, Tian said physical stores aren't a big priority for Black Lapel. "I can't really rule it out because those locations can be fairly easy to get profitable, but our main way is business online. I think that’s where we can best use our energy.”