The Renaissance of Boston Style: A conversation with Sam Shih, Founder and CEO of 9tailors

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Boston’s mean streets are a little more dapper these days thanks to brands like 9tailors.

The Renaissance of Boston Style: A conversation with Sam Shih, Founder and CEO of 9tailors.  

Maybe it’s because 2015 is brand spanking new but the air in Boston feels different.  I see signs of change everywhere.  The male Boston dialogue that I grew up listening to and buying into has been interrupted by things like “slim-fit”, advanced grooming, scarves and even custom tailoring. My friends, I’m telling you there is a movement underway that threatens to shift the very ground underneath our feet or at least the materials and craftsmanship we use to connect with it.  Maybe the Darwinian theory of evolution that predicts that the cream will rise is finally pushing its way into my closet. Wait…is that a light I see at the end of this Wahlberg tunnel of love?  Change is hard in these parts and as much as I love my over sized boxers and baggy jeans, I have to say it’s about damn time. 

Today is January 2nd and it’s cold.  This morning I’m having coffee with Sam Shih to talk about style and to learn more about her men’s custom clothing company, 9tailors, which is now in its sixth year of operation. I am fascinated by anyone who has managed to successfully start and run a business but someone who has done it by pushing the men’s fashion envelope in this town, is at the very top of my list.

Like most successful entrepreneurs her journey was not a straight line. After moving to Boston from Hong Kong at the age of 15 to attend boarding school, she continued her stay through college and eventually fell in love, literally (with her husband) and figuratively with (our fair city.) However, after 3 years in Management Consulting at Deloitte she found herself wanting a career that was more “entrepreneurial and creative.”

Taking a very consultative approach to her next job she discovered the world of fashion. Her early exposure to the culture in Asia, where men’s style is very prominent and custom clothing is the norm, had taught her that there was another way and opened her eyes to what was possible here in Boston and in the US. After all, she was a coxswain on her high school rowing team and “telling guys what to do came quite naturally.”  Enter 9tailors.

We Bostonians have our own style, it’s part old school, part preppy/conservative with a healthy dose of get out of my way. This would seem to pose a challenge for a company like 9tailors, however Sam saw a great opportunity to help one of the greatest cities in the world. “We started the business at the bottom of the economy in 2008 and wanted to make custom tailoring accessible and approachable.” She says. When it comes to clothes and guys, making us feel comfortable is very important and as Sam notes having a women’s perspective is key for 9tailors, “Most guys don’t want to openly admit that they care about how they look but they are more comfortable asking a woman what they think.” Boston guys are probably the extreme of this fact but with her understanding of how we think, it’s easy to see why she’s had so much success here, “I love that we can hand hold our client through the process…we would never allow a customer to leave unless we believed they looked great.”

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At 9tailors, clients are measured head to toe – all part of their personal style consultation.

Custom clothing in Boston is actually not a new thing, in fact it’s very old and it’s even older in Hong Kong where Sam is from, “In Hong Kong, the culture is to pay a little more attention to details and there is a rich tradition of tailoring.” Most people will agree that the current rise of custom clothing is more of a renaissance than an evolution. The placement of quality over quantity in fact is exactly how our grandfathers used to roll. In that spirit, 9tailors will soon be working with skilled tailors in Hong Kong (currently they do cut and sew their garments in Shanghai) which will allow them to further leverage Sam’s local knowledge and help her bring more of that rich tradition to Boston.

Certainly cost is a real obstacle for most guys going for that custom look.   I know quality has its price but I for one, am not ready to start paying $200 for a shirt or $2000 for a suit. Sam admits, “price is a big factor but we try to keep it affordable. You can expect to pay $550-$700 for one of our suits and right now for a limited time we are offering a small selection of shirts for $59. There is a notion that custom is too high brow but I built this company for young professionals. We are not about the buy one get one free concept. You need a few great suits that will last you for the next 5-10 years.” It’s hard to argue with that logic and I know my grandfather would be agree.

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Custom isn’t just for suits. Lots of different styles and fabrics will look better after being made just for you.

What is ironic about custom tailoring, and also quite interesting, is that it’s technology that is actually allowing us to look backwards. As Sam explained to me there was a breakthrough in fabric technology about 15 years ago that now allows stitching to stretch in 4 directions instead of the previous 2. This has gone a long way towards making men feel physically more comfortable in tighter clothing. Also driving change is greater access to information through the internet which is allowing us to learn more in the privacy of our own homes and without the scrutiny of our bros. Peer pressure is real in this town and your computer isn’t about to tell you your pants look too tight. Still Sam knows there is a feeling out process for most guys, “When our clients try on their first suit they notice it’s more snug so it takes awhile…however I see over time that even our client’s preferences change. They want garments that are cut slimmer as they get more comfortable with fashion..”

Other than the opportunity to help guys look good, Sam points out that the real opportunity for her in Boston lays within the amazing entrepreneurial environment that exists and plays a huge role in the success of any forward thinking company, “I have so much respect for the other fashion startups in Boston like Alton Lane, Blank Label and so many more. It’s very collaborative instead of competitive…we know that we are all just trying to help guys dress better.”

On the horizon for 9tailors is a brand new space in the Leather District near South Station which Sam says is a “gift for our customers” and a reward for their support. The new site will have lots of amenities and more space as well as a bar and lounge area. We can’t wait to check it out!

Technology and tradition are two things that make Boston great and so it’s not surprising that they are now combining to move us forward. I got my first custom shirt last month and I have say it fits better than any shirt I’ve ever owned.  Now those are some “good vibrations.”

 

Learn more: 9tailors

 

 

 

Sam Calef

Sam Calef

Sam Calef is Founder and Managing Partner at Well Done Boston. He always has time for interesting people, the whole truth and a trip to the beach.

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