Corporate workwear is hard to get right. James Wakefield, starting his first job, struggled to avoid looking like his entry-level contemporaries in ill-fitting, poorly constructed suits. When a colleague strolled into the office looking as dapper as Don Draper, Wakefield had a brainwave.
This co-worker had had his suit made in Asia for a couple of hundred dollars. "He hadn't had to compromise on fit or style or price - anything," says Wakefield." And I thought, 'Why not get that without having to go overseas?"'
With the help of long-time friend Robin McGowan, Wakefield, now 25, set up an online tailoring business. The site - institchu.com - allows suits to be custom-designed and made to measure. You'll need 12 measurements - including shoulder, back length and "half bottom" - or you can select a standard sizing. Style, fabric and detailing are then chosen from a menu. The suits are made at a Shanghai factory and delivered within three weeks.
"Most men find suit shopping frustrating and time-consuming," says Wakefield. "This allows them to get great quality suits at a fraction of the price."
Two-and-a-half years later, the Sydney-based business is taking 200 orders a month - enough to enable Wakefield, an investment banker, and McGowan, a marketer, to give up their day jobs.
"It's been a long process and all-consuming from the minute I wake up. But we saw the opportunity and wanted to get in before anyone else," says Wakefield. "Competition's popping up all over the world, but it is a niche market; there's still not great awareness. [Our customers are] younger corporate males, aged 21 to 45, who are not afraid to use the internet."
But traditional gentlemen's outfitters say any reservations about buying a suit from an online business might be justified. Most people would struggle to take their own measurements, says Rick Miolo, owner of Melbourne's V and J Menswear. "Getting a good fit, especially when it comes to suiting online, sometimes takes several attempts," he says.
"If you're a bodybuilder, are your biceps big, or your glutes if you're a soccer player? There's no room for error."
John Poulakis, owner of menswear store Harrolds, recalls a classic episode of TV comedy MASH, set in Korea, in which a character had a suit made.
"He said, this is really cheap and this is really good, but the pinstripes, instead of going vertical, they went horizontal," Poulakis says. "Every time I think of cheap Hong Kong tailors, I think of that."
Miolo says being able to see and feel the fabric is an important part of buying a suit. "Price often reflects quality and durability of the garment," he says.
Nonetheless, Miolo says his shop will be joining the online world within the next six months.