Game Changers: Vishaal Melwani, Co-Founder and CEO, Combatant Gentlemen
Shortly after graduating college, entrepreneur Vishaal Melwani experienced a pivotal moment in his career: he walked into a Men’s Wearhouse in New York City.
“As soon as I walked in, I felt like the 1990’s had slapped in me in the face,” recalls Melwani. “The style and cuts were all very stodgy and old school, and I didn’t see anything that would appeal to a style-conscious, 20-something guy. That’s when I realized that there’s a huge hole in the market for well-tailored and affordable professional clothing geared toward the millennial male.”
Shortly after his eye-opening experience, Melwani and his cousin, Mo, founded apparel company Combatant Gentlemen. The Irvine, Calif.-based company was created to give men a relatively inexpensive option to an ill-fitting tux rental. Combatant Gentlemen’s slogan is to “dress smarter,” and the retailer boasts that it offers a quality suit at the affordable starting price of $160.00. The company hopes to corner the market by selling something simple at an aggressive price point.
Combatant Gentlemen is able to price its suits so competitively because it’s taken complete control over the supply chain, significantly reducing its production costs in the process. The retailer sources wool from its own sheep farm in Italy and cotton from its own cotton fields in India.
Entrepreneur at Heart
Melwani has always been an entrepreneur. Even in high school he worked as a D.J. from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. and then went to school. And while his ambitious and driven personality would have likely made him successful in any career, as a third-generation tailor it seemed Melwani was destined to be in the apparel industry.
“Combatant Gentlemen is the culmination of years of work I’ve done in the garment industry, starting with my apprenticeship at my parents’ Gianni Versace boutiques and leading up to my stints as vice president of exports for a top Japanese denim mill and as founder of a trading firm — Melwanis MFG — that handled sourcing and supply chain for a lot of well-known apparel brands,” Melwani says. “These experiences provided me with a glimpse of the inner workings of manufacturing that helped me identify opportunities for streamlining and increased efficiency, which is how we came upon our ‘sheep to closet’ vertically integrated model.”
Melwani’s experience as a tailor in his family’s shops has given him a unique perspective both as a businessman and creative director. As a businessman, he learned the value of running a business by the numbers; as creative director, he gained an appreciation for the work and craftsmanship that goes into each product.
Social Ties That Bind
Since 2012, Melwani has used social media to grow Combatant Gentlemen, generating a close-knit fan base in the process. For example, a “selfie” campaign helped drive consumer engagement and sales for the apparel retailer.
“Word-of-mouth has always been a huge revenue driver for us,” notes Melwani. “Guys tend to rely on other guys’ opinions when it comes to making important purchase decisions. We also believed that our customers would identify more with pictures of average Joes wearing our clothes as opposed to a typical glossy fashion photo shoot. We decided to combine these insights and offer all of our customers an incentive to share their outfit with their friends. Any customer who takes a selfie in our clothing and posts it on Instagram gets a free tie. This simple campaign helped create a viral loop that lead to explosive growth in our first year of business.”
Post selfie campaign, Combatant Gentlemen has been able to rely on word-of-mouth to help create brand awareness. In addition, Melwani is a strong believer in using content marketing to help build customer relationships with the brand.
“Our content marketing serves several purposes — it answers common customer questions, it establishes our credibility as experts in men’s style, and it helps us craft a holistic Combatant Gentlemen lifestyle around our products and brand,” Melwani says.
Omnichannel in the Future
With its revenue growing consistently year-over-year — from $673,000 in 2012 to $4.4 million in 2013 to $10.1 million last year — Combatant Gentlemen is focusing on scaling its business for future growth. In May, the once online-only brand opened its first brick-and-mortar location at its headquarters. In addition, Combatant Gentlemen is expanding its product mix to include men’s accessories and a wedding suite, where grooms and their groomsmen can affordably avoid the process of renting a tuxedo.
But how has the young business grown so quickly? By being very picky. Melwani believes hiring is the most important element when launching a business. He’s looking for job candidates to have tenacity and the ability to learn and adapt quickly.
“Hiring helps shape the culture and values that will serve as the foundation for all of our future growth,” says Melwani. “So needless to say, we take it very seriously and hire very, very carefully. Sometimes we’ll review 500-plus resumes for a single position, even for nonexecutive roles. We look for people who feel equally comfortable with creative and analytical tasks, people with fantastic communication skills — we expect all of our employees to serve as ambassadors for the brand on a moment’s notice — and people who aren’t weighed down by preconceived notions of how a fashion brand should operate.”
When asked to give advice to others about launching a startup business, Melwani had one word: passion.
“Do what you know best,” he says. “Any business will involve lots of learning as you go, but you might as well pick a market where you already have some experience and a strong knowledge base. I can’t tell you how many fashion and e-commerce brands fail because they’re launched by business school students with next to zero familiarity with the industry they’re trying to enter. Don’t let that happen to you.”
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