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Fan Bi, Blank Label Founder, Talks Showrooms and Spring Trends

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In Behind the Brand we uncover the stories behind New England's brightest emerging brands and look ahead to what their future holds.

Blank Label suiting is available at its showrooms

With the advent of "me-commerce," high tech fabrics, and fit-oriented start-ups, men's fashion has entered a stage where bespoke no longer implies inaccessibility. At the forefront of that movement is Boston-bred Blank Label, having built a model of both online and offline retail since its 2010 inception, capable of competing with larger, likeminded brands including Bonobos and Indochino. The company's roots go beyond its Back Bay showroom to the classrooms of Babson College, a notorious incubator for entrepreneurship, where founder and Sydney, Australia native Fan Bi spent a year studying abroad. Falling under the spell of Boston's start-up scene, Bi jumped on the opportunity to execute his idea for custom, fit-conscious apparel.

Since then, Blank Label has expanded from shirts to a full line of suiting and chinos, opened Boston and Chicago showrooms, and perfected its value proposition of the "anti-brand"—allowing customers to take the reigns in designing their wardrobes. Pricing is competitive, as are turnaround times, with shirts taking just two to three weeks to arrive. Bi elaborates on why the brand launched with shirts, how its offline presence bolsters its online operations, and which neutral might dominate in menswear this spring.

What is the Blank Label value proposition? Customization?
The trend we're piggybacking on even more is menswear. For us customization actually isn't the driving value proposition, as with many other me-commerce brands. It's more a proposition of designing something yourself. For the last ten years, brands small and large have communicated that the defining characteristic in menswear is fit. Custom is a good solution for that.

Why did you start with shirts?
It was the entry point to the wardrobe, something that men wear every day and something we thought we could get right on the supply side from the start.

Showrooms are a growing trend for e-commerce companies. What was the catalyst for yours and how does the experience differ from or complement that of online?
We got invited to do a couple trunk shows very serendipitously, and we thought it was a good sales opportunity. We didn't even have any racks or inventory to prep for it. But once we did, guys really understood the value proposition right away. They totally got it. "My shirts never fit. I have to run right now, but where's your store?" We said no store yet, you can buy online. Their expression changed from excitement to confusion.

We realized our customers buying online were very early adopters, willing to buy a brand they never tried. The bigger opportunity is still a hybrid of online and offline. Offline helps us overcome that first barrier. We nail that guy's sizes down. He can then order online rather than come back into the showroom. Our biggest area of investment for the business is our retail model.

Have there been any trends you've discovered in the Boston showroom?
We get a wide spectrum of guys from late twenties to early fifties. Guys in their twenties and thirties want something very slim and hugging, whereas the guy in his forties and fifties will frankly call it "the Europe look." It's interesting that there are different appreciations of fit. We really do get the gamut; that's a part of the appeal. We don't impose that this is our look and if you don't like it, too bad. We try to understand our clients' needs over thirty to sixty minutes: who they are, their wardrobe needs, what their workplace is like. We start with basics and expand from there, making sure we integrate a foundational wardrobe before introducing sporting shirts or jackets.

Do you personally have any background in the apparel business or tailoring? What made custom clothing speak to you?
I do not come from an apparel, fashion, or product design background at all. In hindsight I wish that I did. I was in London six or seven years ago working one summer and was taken by my boss to get a couple bespoke shirts as a bonus. I thought it was an amazing experience. This is how to live if you can afford it. Of course I couldn't after my boss got them for me. Then I was in Shanghai a couple years after and a friend took me to a tailor there. It reminded me of the experience without the opulence and excess. I got a great custom wardrobe and at accessible price point. I thought maybe custom could be more accessible, and being inspired by the start-up ecosystem in Boston, I just went for it.

All your apparel is guaranteed, and Blank Label donates unused shirts, correct?
We donate to Dress for Success. Inevitably, even though we do take all your measurements, because it is custom we have high expectations for ourselves. Naturally on the first try it doesn't always work out to exact expectations. If so, we will remake a new one to optimize and improve fit and we donate the return. We've worked with Dress for Success for a little while now, doing clothes drives and reaching out to customers.

What's the biggest strength of the Boston start-up community?
From my perspective, the value I get out of the eco-system is the concentration of start-ups, regardless of particular field. It's helpful to have a diverse community. It's so supportive, so open, and especially for someone doing it for the first time. I've been able to get a lot of mentorship and coaching.

Have there been any challenges to running Blank Label from Boston? Some companies relocate for retail industry resources elsewhere.
Boston, even America, is a place where if you want it badly enough you can get it. I've been incredibly happy in Boston. We recently did a small round of financing and most of our investors are in Boston. We've been able to hire fantastic, qualified individuals and grow our team. Even having the heritage and the history of the Back Bay where our showroom is has helped to continue building our brand. No complaints.

Finally, any spring fabric trends that you think will be really big?
I'll be interested to see how long chambray runs. It's really gone across all four seasons. Another trend that we'll probably start seeing more in menswear is dark-on-dark—different tones of gray, say a light heather under a charcoal blazer or over dark charcoal jeans.

Shop shirts online ($80-$125 or three for $250) or take advantage of the 36 Gloucester Street showroom, where suiting (from $575) and chinos ($95) are available to order.
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· Blank Label [Official Site]