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New Life for Choice Threads

Michael Gray, a former president at family business St. John Knits International Inc. in Irvine, has a new venture on his plate: David August Inc.

The Costa Mesa-based luxury brand, founded in 2003, creates custom, hand-tailored clothing for men, including billionaire investor Warren Buffett, actor Clint Eastwood, and former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Gray said it’s also been his go-to clothier for years.

Now a recent fitting with the brand’s lead designer and Chief Executive David Heil has turned into a business deal to “scale” up.

Gray took on the role of chairman in the new partnership after a seven-year hiatus from the business scene.

“I’ve been involved in a couple pretty successful clothing businesses, with St. John for 25 years and on the board (of directors) for Quiksilver for 17 years back in their heyday,” he said.

He also had a successful run with Sweet Life Enterprises Inc. in Santa Ana, selling cookies to Four Seasons, Disneyland Resort and McDonald’s Corp.

“I sold that in 2008 and then just took some time off because I literally worked since I was 12 years old,” he said.

Potential

Gray noticed spools of potential in David August, whose creative head, Heil, was bogged down with day-to-day tasks.

“I came over and saw his operation and thought, ‘This is unbelievable. If I was going to do a company, this is exactly what it would look like,’ ” Gray said. “I talked to David, and I realized that he has an unbelievable breadth in what he’s capable of doing. He just has had really no time devote to it because he’s been busy running his business. The type of clients he has—with the exception of me—are very demanding. I’m hoping, by us doing this together, I’ll be able to take some of the load off him so he can focus on really the design aspect, and then we can create a wonderful brand out of it in conjunction with the high-profile customers he works with.”

Heil, who named his company after his father and grandfather, said his challenge has always been time management, “not being able to do everything that I want to.”

“We have such a great clientele base that we’ve grown over the years and relationships most companies would kill for,” he said. “My hope is that with Mike coming on board, he changes our mentality and brings on an experience level that allows us to take advantage of those relationships in a much greater way.”

Heil is counting on sales volume to at least double with Gray’s leadership. David August doesn’t disclose its revenue, but Heil said that each month the brand sells “at least a couple hundred suits, a couple hundred sport coats, several hundred pairs of pants, several hundred shirts, and that fluctuates up.”

Prices, Fabrics

The starting price for a David August suit is about $3,000, while a dress shirt is about $250. The fabrics are imported from mills in Italy, England, France, Belgium and Spain, and the brand’s 350 tailors manufacture clothing primarily in Italy and Canada.

The company has 30 employees who work at a 7,500-square-foot salon in Costa Mesa. Heil said its competitors include Italian fashion houses, such as Brioni and Kiton.

David August offers “the entire gamut, from super casual to super dressy, and everything in between.”

Michael Strahan, co-host of “Live With Kelly and Michael” and a former New York Giants player, will wear a David August tuxedo for the 87th Academy Awards on Feb. 22.

The company’s expansion plan includes growing the design team—now just Heil—and adding a more affordable line. New products that will allow a wider customer base to “dip their toes” before fully committing to the David August “experience” are also in the works.

“When we say our suits start at $3,000, that will do one or two things. [New clients] will say, ‘OK well, see you later,’ or think, ‘How do I get out of this appointment with like a shirt or something and bow out gracefully?’ ” Heil said.

But dressing well doesn’t have to break the budget if done with care, he said.

Heil said his typical customer usually spends $10,000 on clothing a year. “All together, with shirts, ties, belts, shoes, underwear, T-shirts and jeans, it adds up.”

Using that money on fewer but “good, quality” items makes more sense, he said.

“If you can explain to the client, ‘If I can keep you within your budget for the year, and instead of buying four suits or whatever you buy on a yearly basis … if we can narrow that down and get you one or two great suits and make it look like you have 15 suits by accessorizing properly, would you be open to that?’ And most guys go, ‘Yes, that would be great.’ That suit is going to fit you better, you are going to get more compliments, and it’s going to have a longer shelf life.”

The brand, taking a page from Gray’s resume, ultimately wants to be the “St. John” piece for the male wardrobe.

“At St. John … we were known for, ‘If I’m going to something special, I’m wearing a St. John,’ ” said Gray, whose father, Robert, co-founded the company in 1962 with his wife, Marie. “It’s five seconds in the closet, that’s it. And that’s what we want the male customer to be able to do. If I’m going to do something important, there is only one brand I’m wearing, and it’s David’s. It just makes you feel good and confident when you put it on.”

Inventory Check

Getting that right look and feel takes several steps, Heil said, starting with an inventory of a client’s current wardrobe.

“Most people have a whole closet of nothing to wear. Our job is to go in, get to know the client, get to know what he does for a living, where he travels, does he dress for work, does he wear suits, does he wear sport coats?

“And then get into his closet and help him edit out the things that he doesn’t need any longer, and there is a clear view what he does have that’s pretty good. And as we start adding to fill in the gaps with things that are really nice to replace, they became the go-to outfits in the guy’s closet every single time.”

A wardrobe book is delivered along with the new outfit. It contains every piece of David August clothing, numbered and listed by type, occasion, and coordinating opportunities so the client never has to “wonder what is appropriate, what works together or what an outfit says about” him.

“It’s an art,” Heil said of his business. “It’s not for the faint of heart. You are not selling suits, you’re selling an experience. People you are dealing with have very high expectations, and we are really good at fulfilling them.”

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