Alton Lane’s Hunter: Men’s Apparel Tailor-Made for Innovation

Barney Beal, Former Content Director

August 22, 2016

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a regular series profiling NetSuite customers who are changing their markets through innovation. For more interviews in the series, visit the Profiles in Innovation(opens in new tab) landing page.

Alton Lane is not your traditional made-to-measure apparel shop. Sure, it offers tailored clothing for men, but for best results it uses high-end technology, such as a 3D scanners to digitally capture the customer’s measurements. The information can be accessed from any company branch or if online shopping. Alton Lane doesn’t just sell suits, it provides an experience: the customers can enjoy a drink and catch a game while visiting.

“I think being nimble is critical to be a disruptor. I liken it to ships. We want to be a fast sailboat, but we want to be a sailboat that can turn on a dime. The behemoths in our industry are like massive cruise ships. There’s so much bureaucracy, there’s so much tradition, and fear of thinking outside the box and scraping a hundred years of history.” Colin Hunter
Cofounder and CEO of Alton Lane

As a cofounder of Alton Lane, Colin Hunter believes disruption needs a purpose and any new technology or product must be developed with the customer in mind. For Hunter, the ability to adapt quickly and stay nimble is key to succeed in today’s market.

How is Alton Lane innovating in its industry?

The core of disruption is rethinking an industry from every angle. Because we’re trying to be disruptors in the industry, and we’re trying to disrupt the industry, we have to start by looking at the industry from every angle. Disruption has to happen for a purpose. It’s pointless if disruption is done for its own sake. We wanted to disrupt on our customers’ behalf. We started with, what does the customer actually care about the most? I could disrupt the suiting market by making a suit with no sleeves, and it’s not going to be all that popular. No one would want it.

It started off with really understanding, what does the customer want? I think it was a value equation, it was fit and product, and then it was experience. On the value side, we had to look at every angle of the supply chain to figure out, how do we make this more efficient to have a sustainable business that still offers a product at 40-60 percent less than what competitors are offering. On the product side, it was, how do we think about what do customers really want? How do we get a really great fit? How do we bring an element of design and allow customers to be the designer and offer all the elements of traditional bespoke clothing, again, at that value price point? Then, on experience, it’s how do you have an experience that is actually enjoyable when the status quo has been a terrible shopping experience? Rethinking what actually makes it fun. What makes it personal? What makes it enjoyable?

Starting there is really where we have approached it, and we depend on technology to be able to do that in a lot of these different areas.

Everything stems from the intent of our disruption and who we’re disrupting for, and then we adapt our business model. We adapt our technology and product based on that.

What kind of characteristics a company needs to be disruptive?

I think being nimble is critical to be a disruptor. I liken it to ships. We want to be a fast sailboat, but we want to be a sailboat that can turn on a dime. The behemoths in our industry are like massive cruise ships. There’s so much bureaucracy, there’s so much tradition, and fear of thinking outside the box and scraping a hundred years of history. Some of these companies are doing something one way when the customer they’re serving today is an entirely different generation twice removed from who they were serving a hundred years ago.

You have to stay nimble, and I think you have to stay hungry and innovative.

We often hire more people who don’t have a fashion background than who do, and we do it intentionally. We certainly have key fashion players that understand the industry and fabric and production, but I want people to approach this challenge from every angle, and so I’ll hire people with multiple different backgrounds so that we can have that really creative approach. I guess it comes down to being nimble and being able to adapt. Then being hungry for innovation as part of your culture.

I think it definitely helps us attract key members as we grow, but I think it also helps us serve our customers better because at the end of the day, this, to me, was the biggest problem in the fashion industry. It was as if known had ever stopped to actually ask a man, “What do you care about?” Otherwise, why would eight out of ten men say shopping is so miserable? For us, it is if we can get people to work for us, to think like customers, and to not carry the baggage of the, quote unquote, “industry experience,” we can actually bring new ideas to the table and say, “Okay, you know what? This would be awesome if we did this.” “Okay, let’s consider it, and then now let’s roll it out.”

Do you customize showrooms based upon the location?

Definitely, in a few ways. One, we want all of our showrooms to feel authentically local.

We design local elements into the space in and of itself. We work with local partners so that we feel very much part of the community there. We hire locally.

From a design aesthetic and an HR perspective, there’s a local feel to each of our stores. We want to feel like a global company of boutiques as opposed to the Starbucks in every city that is extremely predictable. In Boston, we’ve got some awesome old Red Sox jerseys that were donated to us. We’ve got Sam Adams on tap up there and pieces of furniture we picked up on the vineyard. There are cool elements we bring locally, but it’s also understanding the needs of the consumer as to how we merchandise the showroom. In DC, for example, it’s a fairly conservative town being such a political center. We’re going to highlight a lot of greys and blues, the traditional options that maybe the core customer might need in that city, whereas Dallas is so hot in the summer that we need to show deconstructed jackets on half line blazers. Blazers tend to be bigger in Dallas with bigger patterns and brighter colors, so we’re always thinking about who the customer is.

We spend a lot of time talking to customers and friends in these cities as we’re launching to get a sense of, “Okay, what do you wear to work?” There are definitely guys that wear suits in San Francisco, but there are also guys that do business casual. Maybe it’s jeans, a dress shirt, and a blazer. Being able to understand who the customer is and then merchandise the showroom and then the experience and then the fabrics we’re showing based around that, I think, ultimately creates a much better feel for that customer. It makes them feel more comfortable.

Tell us about a bold moment for your business.

Sometimes I feel like you make that decision every day when you wake up. I think there are numerous points in time. There are certain decisions that I would make now that at the time seemed like such big decisions, like when we signed our first lease. We started off, and our office was in my apartment in New York. Then, you’re like, “Okay, we need office space. We’re growing. We need a showroom.” All of a sudden, you’re personally guaranteeing a space, and you’re now personally on the line for a five-year lease at $10,000 a month. It’s a pretty big realization that this is real. Now, we sign a lease and don’t have remotely that same sense of fear (we’ll be signing five leases next year!) The first time you do anything, I think it carries that weight with it. I definitely think there was another moment was really when we opened our third showroom.

I liken doing a startup to having a family and having kids. With one showroom, we were like, “Okay, we can do this.” It was still crazy, but we were making it work. Then, we started to expand, and we opened up a second showroom.

My business partner spent a lot of time down there. It was like man-on-man coverage. Then, you start to open a third showroom, and you’re like, “Okay, this is big. We need to be able to trust and hire well and equip our team and trust that they can do this stuff.” I can’t be in seven cities at once, so the more important that trust is. Then, a third example is any time you make investment decisions particularly around technology. We invested in a new website. We needed a website infrastructure that could support a $100 million business. That’s a big investment that we wouldn’t have made if our goal was just to have seven to ten stores. In order to grow to the size that we want to grow to, we need to invest in the proper systems and the proper technology to enable us to do that. These are moments that are continually reinforcing what you’ve believed from day one. Any time you make big decisions that are saying, “Okay, we’re making this decision because we want to have forty to fifty stores in the next five, six years. We want to be able to do these things,” I think it’s critical.

Who do you admire for their disruptive capabilities?

I admire so many people and often for different reasons. On a personal level, I very much respect my father. He’s an academic and an entrepreneur within that world. He’s a writer and travels around speaking, but is just one of the hardest working people I know and has taught me a lot about discipline and sacrifice as a leader and what it means to lead in those ways. As an entrepreneur, Richard Branson is inspirational to me in his creativity and never giving up, even with his massive company, at certain points being three days away from having to fold everything in when Virgin America wasn’t working and then pivoting left and right, but being uncompromising when it comes to disruption and experience and not accepting the status quo. Those are two, but I’m constantly surrounded by people who do things far better than I do and are sources of inspiration for me.

If Alton Lane were a cocktail or drink, what kind would it be?

That’s a great question. I would say that we would be a rye old-fashioned. The reason for that is I think one of the things that makes Alton Lane great is the combination of the old school meets the new world. It is the history of the fabric and bespoke clothing, the private appointment and the romance of custom clothing meets modern technology, rethinking, experience, hyper-personalization, using data to drive expansion and efficiency in the supply chain. I guess it’s the classic old-fashioned, but that has really seen a resurgence in modern in the past few years, post-Mad Men, and especially a version with rye.

What’s next for Alton Lane?

We are focused on growth primarily in three areas. One is geographic growth. We’re continuing to expand our showrooms across the country and then ultimately across the world. Bringing our experience, technology, value and fit to customers everywhere in the US is a key for us. Second is channel growth. It’s continuing to invest in web and mobile, so ordering from your phone is easy. We’re rolling out a really cool concierge program. That’ll be an invite only channel for top customers with some really cool partnerships. We’re working on potential private helicopter partnerships, where we come to customers, bring them different places, have a new level of benefits for our top customers. Lastly, product growth in denim, cashmere sweaters and outerwear. We just rolled out a great new collection of ties. We’re continuing to meet the needs of our customers, where they are.

We continue to push forward. The thing about innovation is that I need to stay nimble every month, every quarter, every year.

We want to constantly be innovating, constantly be inspiring customers, delivering confidence, and challenging the status quo of how we deliver this hyper-personalized, product to the customer in a way that is scalable and can grow and challenge other people in the industry. I think that’s the beauty of competition in a capitalist society. For us to challenge the status quo means it’s ultimately better for the consumer. It means it’ll challenge the game of all of our competitors. I also see things that competitors are doing that it makes me stop and say, “We need to rethink this.”

What’s the future of fashion going to look like?

We are absolutely in a trend where it’s not just hyper-personalization, but a greater demand for transparency. I think luxury is changing. There’s a lot of pressure being put on big luxury houses that might want to have a 10x markup on the cost of their product, where people can now come in and say, “You know what? We’re going to actually challenge that. We’re going to source the exact same fabric. We’re going to produce our product at the same factories where you’re producing, and we’re just going to sell it in a different way to a consumer that’s cheaper.” Turnaround times for custom orders will shorten such that, all of a sudden, now you’re waiting only a few weeks. Your decision is, “Do I get this shirt from company today, or do I wait two weeks and get it exactly the way I want it even if it’s the exact same fabric?” As we see more and more technology, there’s just greater visibility into what a competitor is selling. Where does that fabric come from versus what Alton Lane is selling? Where is this made? You’re already seeing companies like Everlane showing pictures of their factories. I think ultimately where the industry is going is just greater personalization for the customer and then greater transparency within the industry.

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