Sunday, April 13, 2008

Greening the apparel industry

One of the fun spaces in which Moniker can innovate apparel is in environmental impact.  We've made a great start by making the decision upfront to use only 100% natural fibers in our garments.  Merino wool, cashmere, silk, linen, cotton -- not only are they beautiful to touch and wear, but far more sustainable than petroleum-based polyesters or acrylics.  

The next step is to find (or develop) luxury-grade fabrics that employ more sustainable dyeing technologies.  We're starting up conversations with a few of our fabric suppliers to identify options that we can introduce into our fabric library on a trial basis.  As a side note, it's depressing to discover how little the major apparel brands have done to advance the development of more eco-friendly fabrics.  (The problem, I suspect, is that more and more major clothing brands have become mere 'labels':  they contract manufacturing out to third-party workshops, and they don't pay too much attention to 'how' the product gets made (workplace standards aside -- now that the Nike's of the world have been stung for ignoring that aspect, everybody pays attention to it).  But so long as a product meets the label's demands for quality and cost, environmental factors can be ignored.  

A further step will be to start calculating the total environmental cost of fulfilling each order, including not just materials but also transportation, and make that information available to our customers so that they can bring it into their purchase decision-making.  

I'd like to bring these innovations into Moniker by the end of the year.  I think it's do-able.  

Now if we can just get our governments to put a price on carbon...

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Fifth Element: Passion

A few days ago I was pitching Moniker to a business case competition panel and I recounted this story…

"I’ve heard start-ups need four key elements to be successful.

One, a great team. No question, I think Moniker has the best team. From Ivy League scholars to award-winning professionals, the four of us are the best at what we do.

Two, a great idea. We think we’ve got a great idea in open-source luxury and a great partner in Trinity Apparel to make our idea become a reality.

Three, cash. We’ve all been serious savers throughout our working lives and have been able to self-fund to this point, making cash an non-issue to date.

Four, luck. I believe luck is in the eye of the beholder. One person will fall down the stairs, break their leg and lament over their bad luck. Another person will fall down the stairs, break their leg and feel lucky they didn’t break their neck.

So yes, I think we're lucky and have all the key elements in place to be successful."

In reality, I think there’s a missing element from this story, a fifth element.

Passion.

Before I “officially” became an entrepreneur I remember chatting to a young couple, Dan and Garnet, who started up a Web-based focus group business. They were telling me about their business and how they got started at their kitchen table with one computer.

The hours Dan and Garnet put in at their “day jobs” to keep their household running meant they had to spend evenings and weekends at their kitchen table working on their business.

At the time I thought they were crazy. When did they have fun? Weren’t they drained from a day of work already? To put in another eight hours of work before starting the insanity all over again was inconceivable to me.

And yet Dan and Garnet did not look burnt out at all. In fact, they were energetic and glowing with pride talking about their business, which was just beginning to take flight.

I now know I was looking into the faces of people with a true passion. And this story has now become my reality.

I work a day job to help keep the household running, and when I arrive home I start my second day of work. Weekends are not spent going to movies, Sunday afternoons are not spent on coffee dates with friends.

Nope, I’m at my kitchen table with my computer working on Moniker.

To prove the point, here I am, at 11 pm on a Saturday night. My husband is out with friends and I’m at home working.

Everyone thought I was crazy to turn down a fun night out on the town.

That’s exactly what I used to think...until I found my passion.


NB: Dan and Garnet's hard work and dedication did pay off. It's been eight years since that fateful conversation and Dan and Garnet now run a wildly successful business called iTracks.

I know they have office space now, but I'll bet they can still be found at their kitchen table most nights, working.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Big Picture: a day with Al Gore

Al Gore is in town this weekend.  He's training 200 new members of his Climate Project -- I'm lucky to be one of them.  

Tonight he gave his now-famous slide-show presentation; tomorrow he'll be leading a full-day workshop to walk us through the logic and structure of the slides, the narrative he's trying to convey to his audiences, and some helpful tips that he's accumulated over his many, many public appearances.

No, there's not an obvious link between climate change and luxury apparel.  But that doesn't mean I shouldn't get involved.  

The environment is the context for everything we do, work and play.  It's not a 'cause' or an 'issue' that I can choose to get involved in, or choose to opt out of.  

What troubles me most about the climate crisis is that all the tools we, as a human race, have for evaluating risk tells us that we need to take action -- serious action, urgently.  

How did a naked ape, totally unimpressive with regards to speed, strength, or senses, manage to conquer a planet inhabited by elephants, tigers and wolves?   Our brain.  That's it.  That's our one advantage.  Because of our brain, we have an idea of 'the future'.  The 'future' doesn't exist.  It's just an idea -- a complex idea, but one we humans can grasp and work with -- the ability to expect stuff to happen on the evidence of past experience. 

Our brain, and the tools we've built with it (like science and technology), tells us there's a 90% probability that we're causing the earth to warm, and warm quickly.  This is bad for a lot of reasons.  For example, if sea level rises 5 metres (which will happen if Greenland or West Antarctica melt entirely away, as they're trending to do), then 450 million people who live on the world's coasts will have to move.  (Can you imagine the strain that's going to put on our politics?  The conflict that mass-displacement will create...scary stuff.)  

Now, for 150 000 years, our strategy as a species has been to foresee these consequences and adjust our behaviour to prevent them (or at least slow them down so we have time to adapt).

What worries me is that, where climate change is concerned, we seem to have abandoned that strategy.

To bring all this back to Moniker: (1) Al Gore wears a very nice suit.  (2) I've signed up to make a few dozen of Al Gore's presentations to student and community groups over the next year, raising the issue of climate change.  Public speaking is one of my passions -- I honor the opportunity to influence people with my spoken words and ideas.  Maybe that's where my passion for 'professional wear' comes from.  It's when I'm in a suit that I'm doing what I love best.  

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Beyond Giving: an essay and a policy.

“We make money so that we can give it away.”  Ratan Tata, Tata Group.  


That’s my view, too.  


“Doing good” is a big field now.  So big, in fact, that analysts and academics have begun to break it down into sub-categories.  In last month’s issue of Foreign Affairs, Klaus Schwab (chair of the World Economic Forum) lays out four: corporate philanthropy (i.e., writing cheques); corporate social responsibility (taking care of the people affected by your business); corporate social entrepreneurship (making products that save the world - e.g., Muhammad Yunus’ microcredit program); and global corporate citizenship (making long-term investments in social issues like education, health and the environment).  This fourth category is Schwab’s own contribution to the taxonomy, and I think its doom is to be another one of those buzzwords that sounds nice, that everyone agrees with, but which nobody can define.      


Right now, it’s a race to show your caring credentials.  It’s hard to find a start-up that isn’t trumpeting its own efforts to ‘save the world’.


But I’m skeptical.  It feels insincere.  


In Moniker’s own industry of custom apparel, there’s one, Indochino, that tells a good story about going to Shanghai, and finding a community of stay-at-home women tailors, and building them into a production network with improved wages.  But I have to wonder: did the founders go to Shanghai with the intent of improving the lives of stay-at-home seamstresses?  Or did they go to Shanghai with the intent of finding cheap garments they could export back to North America at a profit?  I can’t help but believe the latter.  


If the former, it’s an exceedingly odd humanitarian cause to take up, for two reasons.  First, their quality of life is already excellent vis a vis the developing world generally.  Any Shanghai resident is already enjoying the top 10% of health care, education and infrastructure that China has to offer -- and the top 1% of the developing world as a whole.  More help is always appreciated, of course, but no one with a serious agenda to fight poverty sets up shop in Shanghai.  That’s like taking the stairs instead of an elevator and telling people you’re a mountain climber.  (By the way, anyone who IS serious about it needs to read The End of Poverty, by eminent American economist Jeffrey Sachs.  I had a sit-down with Sachs’ research director, John McArthur, at Columbia University last week.  He’s never been to Shanghai (although he’d love to visit); there’s too much urgent work in Africa.  (Another must-read I just finished is The Bottom Billion, by Paul Collier.)


But back to Shanghai for a moment, if your mission is to advance the lot of self-employed seamstresses in China, then rather than help maintain their self-employed labor condition, one should invest money in skills training for them and help them gain employment in a good garment house that adheres to international labor standards -- where in addition to ongoing skill development, they would enjoy more stable wages, cleaner work environments, improved access to medical care, child care, and education.  (Of course, that would undermine his own business model, which depends on cheaper self-employed labor.)


(Side note: A good example of positive employment in the Chinese garment industry is Peerless Clothing.  Peerless Clothing is the largest suit-maker in North America.  They own the North American licenses for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Chaps (among others):  if you live and North America and own a CK suit, it’s made by Peerless.  It’s not quite Moniker quality, but for ready-made off-the-peg stuff, it’s good.  


I had a sit-down with the North American VP of Peerless Clothing, Eliot Lifson, earlier this week.  I found out that they do 70% of their manufacturing overseas, mainly in China (in a city called Dalian).  It turns out Peerless has some impressive labor policies -- most notably, to hire office staff from the pool of factory floor workers.)


I’ve got a different solution to the challenge of corporate caring:  give away equity to the people who need it more.


My inspiration for this is Ratan Tata, chairman of India’s Tata Group.  Tata is one of India’s biggest and most respected conglomerates.  In addition to automobile and telecom divisions in India, they own some big brands in global markets: Tetley Tea, Jaguar, Land Rover.  


But what’s special about Tata is that it’s 2/3rds owned by a charitable trust.  In other words: when you buy a Jaguar, 2/3rds of the profit goes, ultimately, to charity.


To me this is a new, fifth, category of corporate do-gooding:giving equity.  And I think it’s the ultimate form.  It offers longer-term stability than writing a cheque.  And it offers opportunities beyond cash, such as corporate governance experience.  It also demands the greatest sacrifice on the part of the giver -- and thus, the greatest commitment to the cause.   


I’m going to continue fleshing out this idea in the weeks and months to come, but already a clear intent is forming in my head: to gift a significant equity stake in Moniker (say, half of my personal holding) to a separate charitable trust, administered by a separate board and set up with a mandate to, for example, end extreme poverty in Africa.  


That way, when I buy a Moniker suit, I’ll know half my profit is going to the people who need it most.


If I'm serious about corporate giving, isn't this the logical move?

  


  


     


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Meeting of the Minds



There are two women and two men on the Moniker Executive Team. I am part of the former duo, and so, naturally, I wanted to check out the other half of the female compliment. (That's Victoria on the left, me on the right)

Until last week, I had only met Victoria over the phone and via e-mail, and knew her only by her bio. We are truly a global team, each of us living in a different country: Canada, China, Australia and the United States. We meet weekly as a team on a conference call, and these calls have become the highlight of our lonely work weeks.

But there’s something about meeting in person that can never take the place of technology, no matter how good the connection, picture or e-mail. And so my husband and I booked a working holiday and headed off to Moniker’s head office in Santa Monica to meet Ms Victoria Wu, COO of Moniker.

Victoria’s bio is nothing short of impressive. She has a Bachelor and Master’s of Science degree in Chemistry from top US universities, is a former Miss Asia USA, has worked for one of the top two global consulting companies and has a fabulous personality to boot.

And that’s only the incredibly brief highlight reel.

So I had no idea what to expect when I actually met Victoria in person. Was I dressed OK? We only arrived a few hours before and I didn’t have time to re-style my hair. How would I measure up to a model of beauty without a trip to the salon and a day at the spa? Would I be able to make intelligent conversation? What’s one of those really obscure elements from the Periodic Table so I can show an interest in her discipline?

I was almost dizzy with questions by the time Victoria called to say she was in the lobby of our hotel.

I watched the numbers light up and go out as we descended the eight floors to the lobby. The doors slid open and my eyes squinted from the glare off the polished marble floors so I didn’t see her right away.

Then I heard my name, in that turned up questioning voice I use when I’m not sure if I’ve got the person’s name right.

“Kristin?”

Before I could respond I was surrounded in a hug from this person I had never met, a stranger turned instant friend.

Very few times in my life have I met someone I felt like I’ve known forever. In those experiences, the other person and I immediately start talking as if we’re old friends catching up from years lost and don’t stop until the wee hours of the morning.

I’m happy to report I was lucky to have one of those rare experiences with Victoria.

As the days and weeks turn into months of working with the three other people on this team I have a recurring thought that’s becoming a reality:

Moniker will succeed because of its people.

Thanks Christopher. Thanks Kham. But today I’m most thankful for Victoria, who adds fun and kindness to my life. These experiences are so special because they are gifted to me from an amazing and accomplished person I respect and admire.

And this is only the beginning…

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

From the business plan: Competitors.

Menswear is a mature industry with many business models in play: 

(1) Online importers.  These are simple e-commerce operations that source mass-market quality garments cheaply from one-stop Asia-based manufacturers.  Their founding stories often parrot the open-source luxury concept, but their product likely could never make the shelves of a serious menswear label.  It is priced fairly for the (low) quality offered.

(2) Mass-stige.  These are well-liked mid-market consumer brands that offer a line of professional wear.  The product quality is poor in industry terms, but nonetheless attracts good prices due to overall brand appeal and popular styling.

(3) Traveling Tailors.  These are good-quality tailor shops who claim a value proposition similar to open-source luxury.  There is some legitimate overlap at the lower end of Moniker’s garment quality, however their prices are higher for equivalent construction.  These tailors have failed to establish attractive brands or web experiences and have little reputation for style or design innovation.  

(4) Big Luxury.  These are globally-recognized menswear brands.  The majority of their product is mass-manufactured, ready-to-wear and considered by custom tailors to be only average quality workmanship.  However they maintain strong margins through heavy investments in styling, branding and (especially in Zegna’s case) fabric development.

(5) Honest Luxury.  These brands are well-known but without the star power of Big Luxury.  What they lack in brand appeal they make up for with garment quality, and the final price is in-line with Big Luxury.  Honest Luxury product is usually full-canvas construction or equivalent, often with details worked by hand.   

(6) Bespoke.  At the top of menswear quality is Bespoke, or fully hand-sewn garments.  These are shops owned or trained by legitimate master tailors.  The emphasis is less on product innovation or brand, and more on experiencing exclusivity.  Pricing at the top-end is wide-ranging:  in the case of Brioni, a single suit may range from $3500 to $5000 or higher.  

(7) Open-Source Luxury.  By allowing consumers to bypass traditional retail channels for upper-end menswear, Open-Source Luxury occupies a dominant, best-price position vis à vis Honest Luxury and Bespoke.  Yet Open-Source Luxury product rivals these leaders in quality terms, and could legitimately sit on their shelves.  

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Does 'Moniker' Matter?

I visited the Aspen Institute today and met with a couple of their program officers about leadership development.  The Aspen Institute describes itself as "an international nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering enlightened leadership and open-minded dialogue."  

It is luxury leadership development.  

Mark, who heads up Aspen's Socrates program, pushed me to think about what Moniker is for.  At the end of the day, what good does Moniker offer to the world?  Am I thinking hard enough about that question?  "Servant leadership" is what he called it -- leading change because you want to make things better.  

And I realized we can always be thinking harder.  

For me, Moniker's meaning has always been about an idea that I want to see strengthened in the world.  

'Moniker' - the name you give yourself.  Unfortunately, we live in a world where one's name is never enough.  We meet random people in a bar, and as soon as we say our name, we have to say what we DO, or WHO we know, or HOW MUCH power/money/influence we have...we try, in one way or another, to convince other people that we matter.  

One's name is never enough.  You have to have a title.  President.  Director.  Senator.  Author.  Actor.  Journalist. XXXX Scholar or Fellow.  

A title is power.  A title forces other people to acknowledge, to respect.  And we ourselves take comfort in our titles -- comfort in knowing that we compare well against those who don't have them, or don't have enough.

But it occurs to me: this is an ugly way to look at the world.  What is a title?  It's public recognition of some past accomplishment.  It looks to the past.  It's closed.  It's over.  When I tell you my title, I'm trying to bring recognition of my past victories into the present.  I want you to recognize what I've done.  I want you to recognize my power.

But when I tell you my name, I'm not doing any of that.  My name says nothing about what I've done.  In fact, it was given to me before I did ANYthing -- the day I was born.  My name doesn't speak to my past at all.  

But it does speak to my future.  It speaks to possibility.  What might 'Christopher' do?  What might 'Christopher' create?  What might 'Christopher' discover?  Anything.  It's an open field.  That's the beauty of a person's name: instead of forcing attention to what they've done in the past, it invites attention to who they are, and what they might do.  It's a different way of looking at the world.  It's not about power.  It's about inner strength.

For me, Moniker is about this different perspective.  It's about respecting one another, not for what we've already done, but for who we are and what we might yet do.  

I wrote a memo to my team -- to Victoria and Kam and Kristin, I'm so fortunate to be on this journey with them -- last week, when I said, "Our vision is to make every name a mark of luxury."

To make every name a mark of luxury.  

Your name is on every suit Moniker makes -- and it should be.  Your name should be a mark of pride, of strength, of possibility.  I can tell a lot about a person, just by knowing he's wearing Louis Vuitton.  But your own label?  Your own moniker?  I assume nothing.  All is original future.  Waiting to be discovered.  Waiting to be lived.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Kutarna: never pay retail

As the company Moniker comes to life, I’m starting to live up to my family name. My Moniker.

Of course, the name “Kutarna” was given to me by my parents, it wasn’t a name I gave myself, unlike the meaning of the word “moniker”. Well, that statement was actually only true up until I got married five years ago. Then I had a choice to make.

Do I take my husband’s last name? Do I make up a new name? Do I keep my maiden name?

Staring me in the face was the greatest opportunity to redefine myself. An opportunity to throw off all the nightmares of childhood, the pain of being a teenager, the awkwardness of growing up. The opportunity to start fresh with a new life and a new name. Goodbye Kristin Kutarna, hello Kristin Gates.

Wait…who?

That’s when I knew, the name I was given was now the name I was choosing. I was choosing my moniker, the name I give myself.

And so I chose Kristin Kutarna. I didn’t change a thing. Not legally anyway. Sure, I use the name Kristin Kutarna Gates because I like to have a kinship with my new, extended family and a tie to my husband that is obvious to the world.

But really, my last name will always be Kutarna. And Moniker, the company I am helping to bring to life, is the corporate manifestation of my last name.

See, Kutarna’s love to get together and talk about the deals they’ve come across since last meeting each other. From homes to cars, found items to free pens, Kutarna’s love a deal. In fact, we love deals so much we’ve defined the meaning of our last name to be, “never pay retail”.

My best story was one I told to my cousin about a Fendi scarf I found at a thrift store for $18. She trumped my Fendi with a Burberry Scarf for $6.

Damn! So close.

And that’s why I can’t believe I totally missed the best part of Moniker until today.

Moniker means getting luxury quality but never paying retail.

Kutarna’s unite!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Moniker Family is pleased to announce the birth of their beautiful suit...Prince & Mercer!

I believe everyone has a baby in their lives.

For example, in the past few months two of my friends have had baby girls. Beautiful little girls, Noa and Sophie.

Last year my sister-in-law had a baby boy, Jackson. So cute.

I’ve got another nephew and a niece, Davis and Victoria. They were babies once.

And, of course, everyone wants to know when my husband and I are going to add to the brood. I get asked this question constantly by friends, family, even co-workers as I’ve achieved a “certain age” (read: over 30).

Then there’s those who consider their pets babies of the family.

Others have sacred collectibles considered babies. For others it’s the first run of a collection, signed manuscripts…anything goes where babies are concerned.

For us at Moniker, our baby is Prince and Mercer because it was the first suit we “birthed” into our collection.

Here’s the birth announcement:

The Moniker Family is pleased to announce the birth of their beautiful new baby boy, a suit named Prince and Mercer.

The suit is named Prince and Mercer after an intersection in New York’s historic SoHo district. The cast-iron architecture, seen on nearly 250 structures in SoHo, creates the largest collection of cast-iron architecture in the world. Looking up from the corner of Prince at Mercer will reveal one of these fantastic buildings.

SoHo was originally known as the Cast Iron District and lined with cobblestone streets. Looking down at the corner of Prince and Mercer will reveal an original cobblestone street, one of the very few that remain unpaved in SoHo. The corner of Prince and Mercer is a place to see the young, hip, original, commercial and historic, but above all else, a place to be seen - fashionably.

Prince and Mercer should should be worn by an über cool, young hipster, just like the men seen standing on this NYC corner. But take note hipsters, this suit is not appropriate for the office. For best results, wear a ventless jacket while standing, such as on a windy SoHo street corner with the collar turned up, or circulating at a penthouse cocktail party. European men have been wearing this cut of suit for years.

Our baby, Prince & Mercer, needs a good home.

The Prince & Mercer man is understated smooth with a metropolitan edge. He wears his suit and walks with confidence, even if the streets beneath his feet are uneven cobblestone. The Prince & Mercer man is as much a bad boy as he is a gentleman…a gorgeous and dangerous combination. An institution unto him self, the Prince & Mercer man is a man to be seen – fashionably late, naturally.

Prince & Mercer is ready to come home with you today.

Make Prince & Mercer your baby.

Monday, March 3, 2008

(War Stories) Money isn't everything, but... (November 2006)

No, money isn’t everything. Except when you’re trying to start up a new business.

Unfortunately, my money is in short supply. Most of what I’ve earned, I’ve spent on education. I have a love for learning, and, I must admit, expensive tastes in that regard. I also have no interest in owning “stuff”; a lifestyle of elegant poverty suits me quite happily. 

And then there’s the apartment in New Zealand, an ongoing albatross that hangs around my neck. An unusual investment move on my part. When I moved to New Zealand a few years ago to be closer to my kiwi girlfriend, an apartment seemed like a good investment. I was tired of paying rent into other people’s pocketbooks, and my job inside an international management consultancy was lucrative. It was time to become an investor.

Or so I thought. Actually, it was a terrible time to invest in the New Zealand housing market. The shelf of self-help psychology I consulted in the aftermath of my messy break-up with the kiwi girl helped me to understand that this particular investment was “motivated by own need to be convinced that I really wanted to be here [New Zealand], rather than any appreciation of investment potential.” 

(Oh, the poetry we can compose when we’re heart-broken!)

Rather than despair over my financial woes, I’ve resolved to turn this experience into a positive. (Anthony Robbins would be so proud.) I’m going to learn from this mistake and become much, much more savvy about where I put my money. Yes, sir. 

In search of inspiration, I googled ‘famous bankruptcies’, hoping to find evidence that, in fact, there is hope for me. Sure enough, I quickly stumbled across rentafterbankruptcy.com, an American site devoted to – aha! – chronicling the lives of “Famous People Who Filed Bankruptcy And Became Successful”. (Actually, I suspect it’s a site devoted to selling advertising space for bankruptcy advisors.) Myself, I’m not sure what it means to ‘become successful’ – I suppose it means to accomplish what you set out to do. But on this site, I think it simply means “people who went broke, then made a lot of money.”

Here’s their list:

1. Henry Ford – started two car companies – both went bust – before creating the successful Ford Motor Company. (I wonder what he called his previous two car companies.)

2. Henry Heinz – his condiment company went bust, but then he came up with ketchup. One has to wonder what his failed condiments tasted like. Mmm…fish oil. (Condiment, a funny-sounding word, comes from the Latin condire, which means to pickle.) 

3. Mark Twain – lost all his money investing in an invention called the Paige Compositor (an early typewriter), then made it back on the European lecture circuit. That sounds fun.

4. P.T. Barnum – failed in various ventures until starting up “The Greatest Show On Earth”. So, if all else fails, I can join the circus.

5. Donald Trump – who’s that? 

So, that’s comforting. In the history of American business, 5 people have recovered from bankruptcy to achieve subsequent financial success. And two of them were named Henry. 

Incidentally, no sign of European equivalents. I can only suppose that either (a) EU bankruptcy advisors aren’t as web-savvy as their American counterparts, or (b) there are no European equivalents. And I didn’t bother to survey Japan, since most of their bankruptcies end in ritual suicide. (Sorry, I should retract that last statement. It’s a bit too macabre to be amusing – even if it’s true.) 

But seriously, I’m pretty much starting from zero here, money-wise. That’s going to constrain my start-up options somewhat. I need to find a venture that requires little upfront investment – say, a new airline?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

(War Stories) Undercover with Hong Kong's Tailor King

(February 8, 2007.)

34-C Cameron Rd. G/F. Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon.  www.raja-fashions.com. Tel +852 2366 7624.  Spoke with Andy Zaiq.

1.1  First impressions.  Smaller than I expected.  Given Economist and Guardian advertisements, I expected a large store, almost like a warehouse of bolts of cloth, displays of suits, etc.  But actually no larger than any other Hong Kong tailor shop.  (see photos from my mobile phone).  Typical galley format, 10-15 feet wide and maybe 50-75 feet deep.  Apparently an upstairs workshop. 

1.2  Measurement form.  Has 24 measurements in total, 17 for the jacket + pants, and another 7 for the shirt. 

1.3  Sales staff.  Young man who served me (there were two other older men who basically ignored me) said little of any substance about the quality characteristics of Raja suits, despite my direct prodding.  Mostly relied upon reputation to impress me.  Showed me the ‘wall of fame’ at the back of the shop – something other HK tailors don’t have but arguably reflects more upon Mr Raja’s advertising and PR acumen than upon any special quality of his suits.   

  • E.g., fused vs floating canvas (floating is better).  I asked ‘Do you use floating canvas?’ He said ‘yes’.  Later he said, ‘I’ll give you the finest fused canvas.’ 
  • He completely missed the point, which I made explicitly, that I want to be educated about what goes into a quality suit

1.4  Price-based sales effort.  ‘How much do you want to spend?’ was his first question.  Left me skeptical re: whether I was going to get value-for-money.  I got the impression that he would charge me whatever price he thought I would pay. 

1.5  Style selection.  They use style books from design labels (Armani, Hugo Boss, etc).  Somehow, even though mens’ suits are pretty standard and straight-forward, I felt like I was looking at out-of-date styles.  I mean, how edgy or up-to-the-moment can they be?  I want a photo album of the latest and best suits being worn today…

1.6  Sales job should be about explaining to customers the sophistication of the suit vs others, and vs off-the-peg suits.  I learned next to nothing about what sets Raja’s suits apart. 

1.7  US vs European styling tends to be different.  US tends to a single slit at the back, Europe tends to two (which gives a back ‘flap’ effect).  Europe tends to use more visible stitching, and extra stitching around the edges.  US more invisible. 

1.8 Why are they successful?  (if indeed they are)  This Raja guy who goes around the world is probably a more effective salesperson.  But he’s older, his customers are older.  Is there anyone who can talk to 25-35 year old? 

1.9 Fabric.  Salesperson wasn’t able to explain to me much.  e.g., I know that ‘cashmere’ suits typically are made with fabric that’s under 10% (maybe 3-5%) cashmere…too much cashmere and it wrinkles very easily, doesn’t ‘perform’ as well…He said his cashmere wool was 100% cashmere. 

1.10  Takeaways.

  • I think there’s a big opportunity to sell suits (clothing) differently.  Transparent pricing.  Educating customers on the finer points of a suit so they appreciate quality and can spot the inferiority of competitors’ products.  Somehow offer very current style selection.  Target the young professional demographic. 

1.11 Idea.  Let’s do something disruptive.  Maybe we can turn the power of clothing ‘brands’ against themselves.  Instead of competing on brand, we compete on transparency.  Brand labels like Armani and Hugo Boss will be terrified of transparency, because they’re making a lot of their suits in China too – but look how much you pay for one of their products.  Our question to customers becomes ‘are you getting value-for-money?’  Of the total purchase price, what percent reflects costs that add value for you, and how much reflects costs like branding/advertising/retail chain that don’t make the suit any better at all?  We can benchmark ourselves vs the competition on this metric.  We transparently show our materials cost, labour cost, overhead cost, delivery cost, etc, and invite customers to compare with our branded competitors. 

 

I like this idea.  The hypothesis behind it is that in an era of globalization, where so much textile manufacture is being sent to lower-cost China and India but retail prices are staying the same, customers are increasingly going to feel that they’re being deceived somehow.  More and more skeptical that retail price reflects product value, given that the cost of making the clothing has dropped so much.  We play on that.  We be upfront about where our clothes are made – and we point out that the big brands are making their clothes at the factory next door.  And we be upfront about our cost and pricing structure and contrast it to our estimates of the competition.  We make transparency to our customers the new way of doing business.  We bring our customers inside the operations and enable them to make a radically more informed judgment of value-for-money.  We make it seem that branding is a way to hide from customers the fact that the same product is being made much more cheaply than before.  Brand is the cloud that allows clothing companies to de-link price from cost.  But we understand that our customers deserve to know.  We’re confident that if you look inside our operations, you’ll think our prices are fair.  Can the competition say the same?

 

Or something like that.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Inspiration

Each suit in the Moniker collection has a personality. The suit personalities were designed to help distinguish Moniker suits from others. It’s also a way for our customers to connect with our suits and their design on a more personal level.

For me, as the designer of the words, the personalities were a way for me to connect with my creativity and allow the passion, inspiration and energy to convert into words.

My best writing came when I thought of someone that looked great in a specific type of suit. Then I sat down to write the personality of the suit. Photos of men I saw in magazines, guys at work, gents I met across boardroom tables, everyone was a potential muse for my pen.

Now, I should make it known that I have a gorgeous, loving husband I adore. Of course, I wrote one of the suit personalities based on his fashion preferences.

But much to his chagrin, this was not the case for the other five suits. In fact, every time I wrote a personality and asked him to take a read, he thought I was writing about him.

Well, I’m either a great writer or a fantastic wife. Let’s go with both and call it even.

So, I’ll end the debate here and now, if not for you, then for the sake of my marriage. Each personality was based on my husband, Craig.

And with that statement I should have a lifetime of marital bliss ahead of me.

However, just in case I needed some additional inspiration, these were the potential "other" muses for the six Moniker suit personalities:

Bond & Piccadilly – that’s my guy, Craig. He’s English by heritage and a thoroughbred of the boardroom. Craig’s a true gentleman. Only a few people very close to him get to see his eccentric side, which is the side of him that attracted me to his personality in the first place. Well, that and I thought he was gorgeous at first sight ten years ago across a crowded restaurant.

Shibuya & Hachiko – my younger brother, Christopher. Yup, that’s you ‘bro. A CEO at an early age, proven mental brilliance, people aching to be you, always taking your own path. In the world’s largest crowd, you still stand out just by standing there and being you. I’m so proud.

Sherbrooke & St. Laurent – this is Jeff, the COO that manages me in my corporate day job. There’s a phrase that’s a contrast in theories; the part about managing me, I mean. Try holding me to a corporate dress code. Where’s the section about wearing jeans with dresses? I think Jeff’s a contrast in theories too. Tough, sure, but I knew THAT.

Hollywood & Highland – obviously there’s a famous name that came to mind when I wrote this personality. However, to protect the incredibly unlikely potential of a friendship with this person, I will keep their identity concealed. Here’s a clue...he’s never been to my hometown. Trust me, that hardly narrows the field.

Borovitskiy & Moskova – another famous name, but much older than the Hollywood & Highland guy. This one got Craig’s back up when I told him who holds the title to this personality. Strange it wasn’t the younger guy that brought on feelings of jealousy. There’s something really attractive about the confidence of age, the assured moves of someone who’s been there, done that for real. The cognac and cigar-infused voice, the dark hair, the secret smiles….OK, maybe I’d be a little jealous if I were Craig.

Finally, Spring & Mercer. Actually, Spring & Mercer was the very first suit we designed and I wrote about. It’s the suit we talk about the most because it was our “baby”. The inspiration for Spring & Mercer came from a photo I saw of a handsome young man standing at a corner with his collar turned up against the wind. In that moment Spring & Mercer was born.

The best part is our customers get to choose the personality they associate with most. A gentleman, CEO entrepreneur, corporate COO, show-stopping Hollywood personality, old school charmer or the guy standing at the corner just looking gorgeous.

Which one is my favourite? It doesn’t matter.

I’d rather know which one is you.

Fashion "Street Cred"

A question I often ask as a consumer of clothing is, "Who's designing the fashions I'm buying?"

Well, at the big fashion houses there are big name designers. Celebrities unto themselves, really.

What about the mass-produced clothing stores? When I walk into a department store or a major clothing chain I rarely know who was behind the fashions hanging on the rack, unless a celebrity has done a selection for the chain.

A monologue by Miranda Priestly, a character loosely based on the iconic Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, answers my question perfectly in the movie, The Devil Wears Prada:

"You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean.

You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin.

However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room."


Moniker is not determining next season's styles for the fashion industry. But Moniker does leverage the work done by the influential few. When a Moniker customer buys a Moniker suit, shirt, pair of trousers or sport jacket, they can be assured millions of dollars and countless jobs have indirectly gone into the creation of the clothing.

How can Moniker customers be so sure they're getting the best in design and trends? Put another way, if a Moniker customer asks about our fashion "street cred", what's the answer?

Well, we read tons of magazines each year (September issues tend to be very heavy), keep up with the Fashion Week's each season all over the globe and read other blogs, websites and articles on a daily basis. We take this time to get inside the minds of the influential few.

And if that's not enough, advising Moniker is a true guru of fashion, Mr. Harry Parnass. Read more about Mr. Parnass and his own fashion "street cred" in the Moniker blog entry from February 2008 titled, Harry Parnass - one of our fashion advisors.

So, Moniker's fashion "street cred" comes from the influential few, which includes Mr. Parnass, of course.

At this point I'm not sure what else there is to say except, "Thank you".

To the influential few, thank you.

To everyone who designs, sketches, dreams, sews and brings to life amazing fashions every season, thank you.

To the millions of dollars invested by - and the countless jobs created in - the fashion industry, thank you.

Because without you, there would be no Moniker.

The Myth of Made-in-China (journal excerpt, February 2007)

This is a war about brand.

There’s an advertisement that plays across the CCTV (China Central Television) channels. A well-groomed Chinese celebrity sits in a theatre, speaking to the viewer about the hospitality China will extend to the world during the Olympics – words of etiquette and friendship that accompany moving images of good behaviour: one woman sharing an umbrella with another, caught unprepared in a sudden rainshower; a jogger pausing to pick up a plastic bottle and toss it in the recycle bin; a bus driver stopping to help an elderly man climb aboard. Such an advertisement speaks two messages: (1) This is the China we hope to show the world; (2) We fear the world won’t see this China. 

If we were to do an exercise in free word association of “China” among North American consumers, what words would come to mind? Cheap? Unreliable? Untrustworthy…in short, we’d hear a national brand of inferiority, originating from and reinforced daily in the pages and images of North America’s major news publications. 

To be sure, there is a foundation of truth for the stereotype. I would wager that half the advertisements on TV today in China make false claims about the products they tout. My favourite is the body suit that women can wear underneath their clothes to lose weight through body heat. And it’s not just about products; it’s about people. The recent news coverage of the Chinese drug agency czar who was executed for accepting corporate hand-outs in exchange for drug approvals is evidence, I believe, of endemic corruption throughout the state-controlled sector of the economy. An article in today’s Globe and Mail tells the story of a Chinese national – a wealthy entrepreneur – who faces imprisonment or death at home and is now seeking asylum in Canada. His crime? Fraudulent corporate practices which, according to the story, are so routine in dealings with government that to persecute a man on those grounds is pure hypocrisy. 

There is a pressure to produce. To stake a claim in the present gold-rush of commercial opportunity. To get something – anything – out to market and sell, sell, sell. 

And yet there’s another side to Chinese manufacture. After all, the entire line of Apple’s iPod products – possibly the most successful (profitable) consumer device in history – is made in China. China is the last stop -- the assembly centre -- for globally-integrated supply chains.  Anyone who’s read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel knows that Chinese craft is responsible for some of the most important inventions of the past 2,000 years: paper, the compass, gunpowder. There is deep pride here. Pride in workmanship. A determination to do one’s best, and by one’s labours improve opportunity and welfare.

Made in China. “If you’re going to make a product in China, you’re better off hiding the fact.”  That's what one Jiangsu Province production house that sews bespoke menswear for Davies & Son on London's Savile Row advised. I disagree. One day, we need to move past this impression, and see through. One-and-a-third billion people – one-fifth of humanity – cannot be reduced to a single set of ideas. 

I guess that’s part of why we're here.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Legal lessons: Shareholder Agreements

I had a meeting with a couple of our lawyers yesterday.

Always a bit scary, meeting with the lawyers.  I leave the meeting wondering how many hours I've just been billed. 

We're working with a couple of law firms right now.  Gowlings, headquartered in Ottawa, do our Canadian work, and Orrick out of San Francisco handles our American stuff.  Both excellent firms.  I know some of the Gowlings folks from university days, and Victoria impressed the Orrick judges at San Francisco's HYSTA business plan competition back in December with her winning presentation.  They've been on board ever since.

This time was with the Gowlings people.  We're moved past the basic incorporation stuff and now are talking shareholder agreements, partnership agreements and intellectual property protection.  

Oh -- one thing I've learned about good corporate lawyers: don't delay, get one.  I recommend both the firms that Moniker is working with.     

Shareholders' Agreement.  It's important to get this right, because circumstances change.  Right now, we've got a terrific, smooth-functioning team that runs mostly on common understanding and tacit agreement.  But what if one of us decides to quit?  Or dies?  Or wins the lottery?  A good shareholder agreement imagines the things that can happen, and specifies (in advance) how we'll deal with it if they do, in fact, happen.  It's about setting clear expectations so that we don't get into big fights later about who-said-what and well-I-thought-we-agreed...that sort of thing.  There is a standard template, but a good agreement must be a customized document that every shareholder has thought hard about and deems to be fair and appropriate.

Fairness.  That's a core principle for Moniker.

My executive team and I have been talking around a draft document for a few months now.  It keeps getting post-poned by the urgent to-do's of Moniker's birth, but I know I'll regret it one day if I don't push it through to some final document that we all sign.  The sooner, the better.

I think we're close.  I'm going to send what we've already got to our Gowlings people, let them have a look at it, and talk through any changes they recommend.  Once I've worked those through with my team, we'll get the lawyers to translate it into Greek.

(by which I mean, legalese.)

Now that I've been through the process, I'd say the big three questions that a good agreement needs to tackle are:
  1. How big of a share does each shareholder begin with, and how is that share going to change as the business grows and new money (shareholders) comes in?
  2. What are the rules about buying/selling shares?  If I want to sell some of my shares to a '3rd party', do the other shareholders have the chance to buy them first?  What happens to shares if somebody leaves Moniker or dies?
  3. How do we decide how much shares are worth?  We decided that until we go IPO, we will set a share price at each annual board meeting and that that price will be in effect for the following year.  

If you can work out answers to these three questions that everybody agrees are fair, you've got a solid agreement on which you can build your company.  (I hope.)