Bespoke-tailoring franchise Suit the City delivers sartorial service at a snip of the price
Carol Rawson first had the idea for Suit the City, the bespoke-tailoring franchise, in the 1980s. After graduating from university, she secured a high-flying job with technology giant Xerox but there was one aspect of the role that she struggled with. “If you are a professional woman, it’s really hard to find appropriate business attire,” Rawson explains. “So I had this brainwave that starting a tailoring business for women would be a really good idea.”
Rawson soon found herself a business partner with whom she registered the company. But when they decided to move abroad, she had to put things on hold until 2007. “I shelved the idea because I was looking for the right person to work with,” says Rawson.
That person turned out to be Sallie Belton, who had previously completed a work placement at Development 1st, the business consultancy that Rawson launched in 1991. “Sallie had ambition, drive and enthusiasm,” says Rawson. “She was the sort of person that could be entrepreneurial. And they are not easy to find, particularly at the age of 21, which Sallie was then.”
With Belton on board, Rawson started hunting for a factory in Europe that could produce Suit the City’s garments. Given that each of its suits is made to measure, this proved to be something of a challenge. “We trialled one factory, which was dreadful, before we found another factory that could deliver to our standards,” says Rawson. “And we have been with them for eight or nine years now.”
The company also struck a partnership with Holland & Sherry, which supplies Saville Row fabrics to Suit the City’s tailors. Yet, while the company’s attire might be designed for well-heeled professionals, it is able to offer it at a more accessible price point. “We don’t have high-street shops that cost a fortune,” says Rawson. “This means we can pay staff properly and produce a suit or jacket in the same fabric that you would pay three times the price for in Saville Row.”
And, by taking care of its employees, Suit the City brings an ethical approach to business that, according to Rawson, much of its competition lacks. “A lot of our competitors will be producing on street corners in Hong Kong or factories in Bangladesh,” she says. “We won’t do that; we won’t exploit people.”
Once the fledgling tailoring firm had its supply chain sorted, it was time to get the word out. “We found customers by networking and doing what we call ‘in-company events’,” says Rawson. “This is where we set up in a company’s boardroom and inviting staff to come in and meet us.”
Before long, customers were flocking in their droves to get themselves suited and booted at Suit the City’s studio in rural Buckinghamshire. Given the demand for the service, Rawson was soon putting her plan to franchise the business into practice. As she explains, the nature of the company made franchising the best bet. “Our service is very personal; we get to know our clients,” says Rawson. “We didn’t want to be managing staff all over the country.”
However, instead of rushing headlong into a recruitment drive, the company brought on two pilot franchisees in 2012 to help fine-tune the model. It proved to be an invaluable experience for Rawson: while one of the pilots failed to get off the ground, the other lacked the ability to sell – an essential trait for most franchisees. Ultimately, it meant the company had to go back to the drawing board. “We completely changed our recruitment profile,” says Rawson. “We needed people who were much more sales-orientated.”
Suit the City’s first franchisee – former Mothercare COO Tony Carr – ticked all the right boxes. “He is very professional, great with customers and a brilliant networker,” says Rawson. But, while Carr was a great fit for Suit the City, the franchise was also a good match for him. “He was looking for something that would fit around his family,” she adds. “Because this is a work-from-home franchise, he is able to go networking in the morning and then pick his kid up from school, which he couldn’t do in a corporate job.”
With franchisees able to run a studio from their own home, customers are afforded a more personal service than they might get from a town-centre tailor. “Most people come to our studios because it’s a very relaxing experience,” says Rawson. “You can park for free, which means you don’t have to slog down the high street and worry about your parking meter being up.” Franchisees will also pay a visit to a customer’s home if they are unable to get to the studio. “We have visited the homes of some very famous elderly people because they’re still going to ceremonies but they would find it hard to go shopping,” she says.
Having first franchised its menswear business – which was launched in 2009 – Suit the City has now made its original womenswear concept available to franchisees. Offering menswear and womenswear as separate franchise opportunities means franchisees have a greater say over the type of business they would like to run. “They can choose which one to start with and then add the other once they are competent,” says Rawson. “It gives them more potential as they grow their businesses.”
Each franchise is also complemented by the Suit the Country range, which caters to those looking for some quality fishing or hunting attire. “It’s all based around the same skill set,” says Rawson. “Measuring somebody for a tweed jacket is no different to measuring somebody for a suit.”
Suit the City will soon have five franchises operating in the UK, with Rawson looking to grow this to a network of 50. And while it can only take on three new recruits per quarter – owing to the amount of training that each franchisee receives at launch – this rate of growth works well for Rawson. “We would rather grow slowly and be prudent,” she says. “We don’t want to fall into the trap of taking on lots of people only for it all to go horribly wrong.”
This hasn’t stopped the company expanding its horizons though: Rawson says she would consider applications from countries within a short flight of Blighty. “It’s as easy to support someone in Brussels as it is somebody in Edinburgh,” she explains.
Suffice to say, applicants from overseas will also need to prove they’re the right fit for Suit the City. With the company’s expert tailors taking care of the finer details, it means a broad set of business skills is more important than any tailoring experience. “I know all franchisors say it’s about ambition, enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit – but it is,” says Rawson. “They have to go out, sell the product, promote their business themselves and be an extrovert.”
Dawson admits that recruitment has been the stiffest challenge for Suit the City thus far. But, with three new franchises all set to go, things are starting to move in the right direction for the company. “We have got a great team of people now,” says Rawson. “We just need more of them.”