Profile: Shirts that Fit
Shawn Liu ’07 got the idea for creating a custom tailoring business while on a series of trips to China. Each year, Zhiwu Chen, professor of finance, takes a group of SOM students to China to meet with business leaders and learn about the nation’s markets and culture. Liu was chosen by Chen to be a student leader for the group. In their free time, students went to the many tailors around the cities they visited to get measured for custom shirts and suits. The great allure was the price. With shirts starting at $5, something exclusive had become affordable. Liu said watching the excitement of the students made something click for him.
“People were walking out with two sets of suits and four or five dress shirts,” he said. “The turnaround was as short as two days. We realized there was potential in this. When we got back we started doing research. There’s a trend in the U.S. towards customization — look at the variety of Frappuccinos at Starbucks or the concept of the Dell computer — but people still go to Brooks Brothers and department stores and they buy stuff off the shelf, no matter the fit. We saw a great opportunity.”
Liu launched Hillhouse Tailors (named for the historic street that runs through the middle of the SOM campus) this spring, with fellow SOM students as his first customers. The concept of the company is to produce customized shirts starting at $65, the price of a good shirt in a department or chain store and about half of other custom shirts. The company currently exists as a website, where customers can choose from a host of fabrics, collars, cuffs, fronts, and pockets. Liu said he is working on expanding his presence into bricks and mortar by forming partnerships with tailors and men’s stores, who would provide customer services and act as sales staff. To get a shirt now, the customer may either provide their own measurements or send a shirt in to the company to serve as a template for a new shirt. Hillhouse Tailors also travels directly to corporations to provide complimentary tailoring sessions and display their product line.
Hillhouse Tailors received an unexpected boost in October when BusinessWeek named Liu one of 25 finalists in a contest to identify American’s best young entrepreneurs. The honor resulted from a call by the magazine during the summer for readers to nominate people 25 years old and under whose businesses “show potential for growth and establish the talent of the savvy young people behind them.” Getting the nod from the magazine has been a major boon for business.
“It’s been unbelievable,” said Liu. “We’ve been getting calls about our business almost non-stop, and not just about our company, but business in general. A lot of young entrepreneurs contact me for pointers on how to get started. I talk to them about their business ideas, and my experiences that I’ve had up to this point. It hasn’t been easy. It seems like there’s a lot of fires to be put out on any given day. So it kind of takes away my weekends. It kind of takes away my nights. But I knew this going in. I’ve seen my father do it since I was young.”
In 1993, Liu’s father sat him down and told him he was quitting his job at BIC to start an ink laboratory in the garage. “He told me there was going to be a lot of changes in our lives,” Liu said. He watched his father struggle to build a business, working long hours, working weekends, making non-stop phone calls. “The accounting was done at the kitchen table,” he said. “Watching him has taught me what to expect as an entrepreneur. What he did took a lot of courage — he wasn’t a young man when he started out. I feel I’m ready now to tackle the challenges that come my way.”
The challenges are many. All shirts are made in China, meaning that not only has Liu had to travel there to find a suitable factory, he’s had to hire someone over there to monitor quality control. Even with the attention from the BusinessWeek article, Hillhouse Tailors still has to work to get noticed in a competitive men’s clothing industry. The goal is for revenue to reach $1.2 million in three years. Liu hopes to be more than a niche company. He strives to reach a mass market.
“A big challenge is how to become scalable,” he said.
So far, Liu has one major backer. The wife of Yale SOM professor Zhiwu Chen has taken an equity stake in the company. Professor Chen cited two reasons for choosing to invest in Liu. “First, Shawn is an extremely competent operations manager with exceptional attention to details,” he said, mentioning Liu’s role as a TA for the China trip. “Through that experience, I was convinced that he is someone worth investing in and with.” Chen also ordered a number of clothing items on the trip and saw a great opportunity for an entrepreneur.
“The custom-clothing out-sourcing model is now economically feasible. So, the time is ready for middle-class Americans to get better fitted custom-made shirts and suits again. I am confident in Shawn's ability and he will succeed.”
There are no tags on Hillhouse shirts, just an embroidered crane, an avian answer to Lacoste’s alligator and Ralph Lauren’s polo horse. Liu said one can learn about Hillhouse Tailors from its icon. “The crane is known to be wise and also a little bit mysterious,” he said. “That kind of fits in with the branding we’re trying to establish. And we did it all by ourselves. It came with the bootstrapping in any start-up. We got on our own software, and did the design on our own. And we’re happy with it. People like it.”