Business Inspiration: Selling Direct-to-Consumer Custom Fashion

Bringing customers' fashion designs to life is a key strategy for Legacy Lapels' success.

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When you see one of Ramon Smothers’ custom-made suits, there’s no mistaking it for an off-the-rack design. As the owner of Legacy Lapels, he’s made a business out of making people look good.

Based in Houston, the company lets customers design suits for a fraction of the cost of traditional bespoke tailoring, and the inspiration behind the concept was simple.

“I really love how I feel when I wear suits,” says Smothers. “If I can make people feel how I feel when I put on a suit, I’m content.”

But Legacy Lapels’ audience shifted after just a year in business, and the company found a new market where its lower prices and personalization brought in unexpected customers.

Giving customers a choice

“When I started the brand, I wanted to be unique in the things that are offered,” says Smothers.

Smothers sells the standard options, but he built his business around atypical fabrics with eye-catching hues, including emerald, plum, burgundy, soft yellow and powder blue. Giving customers freedom to design their own styles was something Legacy Lapels aimed to do from its inception, and it’s paying off.

“I’ve noticed that people come to me for that,” says Smothers.

And while Legacy Lapels retains its emphasis on suits, the company has expanded its offerings to include tuxedos, dinner jackets and custom-made shoes.

Ramon Smothers sits on a stool wearing a green pinstriped suit.

Ramon Smothers wears one of his designer suits. (Photo courtesy of Legacy Lapels)

Falling into the wedding market

Smothers initially expected his ideal client to be "fashion forward” and looking for business-focused statement pieces, but he soon recognized that his customers were trending toward engaged couples.

The company’s nontraditional designs have attracted a variety of newlyweds, such as LGBTQ+ individuals searching for fashion that reflects their identity, including suits that are strongly gendered or loosely fitting on the gender spectrum.

“Gender norms have shifted considerably,” Shelley Brown — senior fashion and beauty editor with The Knot Worldwide, a media company that specializes in wedding planning — said by email. “This is often a great option for nonbinary people looking for suiting without traditional masculine or feminine fits.”

Now several years on, Smothers is partnering with wedding planners to reach more couples and regularly updates his Instagram with photos of clients’ nuptial outfits.

Saving customers cash while building relationships

Using a direct-to-consumer business model that cuts out the go-between, Legacy Lapels provides fashion without the traditional markup. Sidestepping a brick-and-mortar storefront, the company avoids passing along overhead costs like storage for premade suits.

Smothers also works closely with vendors to ensure customers get the quality they want. “I work directly with the people who actually tailor and cut and make my suits. And I’m in communication with these people daily for every client,” says Smothers.

He meets with clients in person to understand their ideas, take measurements and discuss fabrics — a tactic that is difficult for many companies to replicate. This investment in bringing customers’ ideas to life has led to strong customer relationships and builds trust, says Smothers.

What other businesses can learn from Legacy Lapels

Be clear about what you’re offering

The key to niche businesses is to fill a need in a marketplace and differentiate yourself from your competition, says Lori Martinek, owner of the marketing and public relations firm ED/c Partners and a mentor with SCORE, a nonprofit offering small-businesses mentorship.

But don’t stop at the obvious. Market how your products make customers feel as well.

“In this case, Ramon is offering choice. He’s offering custom. He’s offering fashion,” says Martinek. “And as he would probably tell you, empowerment.”

Offering variety within a niche can help small businesses compete against big-box stores. Legacy Lapels accomplishes this through a range of color and fabric options, giving customers something that larger competitors can’t offer.

Find the audience that values your product

Smothers advises small businesses to find those who value your product and follow through with persistence. He works to keep his product in front of his target audience on Instagram, to remind them of the value it adds to their lives.

But not everyone will value your product. According to Martinek, if you know your product is very niche, then “you better know how to find that niche customer who wants and is willing to pay for it.”

Word gets around town and can bring in new customers

“A lot of my business comes from word of mouth,” says Smothers. “And that’s priceless.”

Not all of his customers know they’re in the market for a custom suit until they hear about the company from one of his customers.

Martinek says that satisfied and repeat customers are more profitable, and that “often those people will become your best ambassadors and salespeople” to bring in new customers.