Jamaican Tailor Featured in the New York Times. 4 Amazing Lessons We Can Learn!

While listening to the Morning Edition of NPR (on Friday September 7, 2012 ) they spoke about a tailor who made bespoke suits. The word stood out. Bespoke! Yes, because I think I saw that word somewhere (and I wasn’t too familiar with it before); but it stood out more because I’m sure I came across some place that made bespoke suits somewhere in Liguanea, Kingston Jamaica.

As I listened further and they interviewed the tailor, once he spoke I immediately recognized his distinctive Jamaican accent. His name was Peter Frew. For those concerned, bespoke seems to be a British word. It relates to clothes, made to individual order; custom-made: e.g. a bespoke jacket.

Bespoke Couture Ltd, Savile Row

Bespoke Suits – Bespoke Couture Ltd, Savile Row


Peter Frew – The Jamaican Tailor in New York

Peter Frew, was a Jamaican in New York who was among probably only a few persons who could construct a true bespoke suit NPR reports. The New York Times writes:

Frew, who apprenticed with a Savile Row tailor, can — all by himself, and almost all by hand — create a pattern, cut fabric and expertly construct a suit that, for about US$4,000, perfectly molds to its owner’s body. In a city filled with very rich people, he quickly had all the orders he could handle.

The New York Times reports that Peter came to New York with that all important skill and now the “33-year-old Jamaican immigrant works out of his ground-floor apartment near Flatbush Avenue, in Brooklyn, and makes around $50,000 a year”.


Bespoke Suits are the Ultimate – Built to Fit

4 Amazing Lessons We Can Learn

Here are the four lessons for us:

1. Mass Production Isn’t Always the Way

When we think about business, we think economies of scale. We think large productions and continuously improving efficiencies to reduce the cost per item as we fight against the competition. But what about making something unique? Something less mass produced. Something that we can sell to less persons at a higher cost.  The solution is not always high volume and low profit, sometimes it can be lower volumes at at a higher cost.

Look at Peter’s case, ‘it takes Frew about 75 hours to make a suit — he averages about two per month — and he has no employees’. However he expertly constructs a suit that, for about US$4,000 (that’s J$356,000 at US$89:J$1 !), perfectly molds to its owner’s body and as a result he has more orders he could handle.

The 2012 Civic Natural Gas rolled off the line on October 11, 2011 for the

2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas Production Line

2. Niche Businesses Present A Unique Selling Opportunity

There are different strategies that a business can use. One is to cater to everyone, and the other is to cater to a niche – a subset of the market. His suits aren’t for everyone, they’re unique and for those who want something different, of a different quality – and can afford it. Peter Frew told the New York Times:

What makes a bespoke suit unique, he said, is that it’s the result of skills that only a trained hand can perform. Modern technology cannot create anything comparable.

Of course, it was noted in the article that in his case, his niche business has certain challenges, but I think with certain modifications, his business could go to the next level.

3. Skills and Training – A Big Differentiating Factor

One of the things that has been mentioned throughout the article, is, because of his skills and years of training, his ability to construct something expertly unique. Two things to note, Peter Frew:

  1. apprenticed with a Savile Row tailor
  2. has skills that only a trained hand can perform (which would have had to come from years of training)

….and because of that, he has ‘an extremely loyal customer base’.

4. Be Careful! Not everyone Will Want Something Custom

The truth is, despite the value and uniqueness of a bespoke suit, they are some who are just not able to wait, or settle for hours of measuring, customization and consultation. If you’re in business don’t feel bad.

Still, I kept thinking that if people spent the time to learn about suits, they’d value Frew’s work so much more. But not everyone is willing to wait. Bespoke suits commonly require three fittings, and that’s after a long consultation. Even the richest customer simply has to wait — sometimes months — before the new suit is finished. No wonder so many pass up a US$4,000 bespoke suit for a ready-to-wear Kiton version at twice the price.

I hope we grasped the lessons in this for us. Peter’s situation isn’t perfect. In fact if you are so inclined you can quickly pick up a number of issues with his business model or strategy. However the lessons for us are clear – focus and development of our skills, and  specialization can provide key advantages in  niche businesses.

Are you in business or thinking to go in business, what lessons can you share are catering to a niche market?

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