Looking good is part and parcel of UAE life for many of the almost 10 million people living here, increasingly so for men with a keen eye for sharp suits and designer shirts.
But if you thought suits were just about fabric and buttons, think again.
“We’re in the business of creating pride,” says Tarig El Sheikh, co-founder of bespoke tailoring company Knot Standard.
“We monetise that by giving people access to great fitting, custom-made suits just for them. And we compress the value chain to allow sustainable pricing, so anybody can afford a quality suit.”
Knot Standard, launched by a trio of partners in 2010, aims to change perceptions of what a suit is for the modern man.
Based on the notion that quality, custom-made clothing should be – and can be – available to everybody, the company combines the personlised tailoring experience of old Dubai with luxurious tendencies of new Dubai.
“We’re revolutionising and bringing into the 21st century one of the last things to bring into the 21st century – men’s tailoring,” continues El Sheikh.
“Entrepreneurs are always looking to improve something, and that’s what we’re doing with Knot Standard. There are big improvements to make and we’re the people who are taking the lead in doing that.”
According to El Sheikh the business came into being through “serendipitous events” which led him away from the business of finance that he had known for many years, and into completely new territory.
“I used to be an evil investment banker at evil Lehman Brothers,” he explains. “When Lehman Brothers collapsed, I went down with the ship, and I thought to myself ‘I’ve had enough of this’. I wanted to do something different – something more.
“I grew up here in Dubai and would get tailored suits made for me. They were cheap but I really looked the part. People thought I was being paid too much because they thought I was wearing expensive suits, when I wasn’t at all.
“After the collapse of Lehman Brothers I met two American guys who had gone through similar experiences – Matt Mueller and John Ballay. Without wanting to sound too rude, they were your typical ‘fresh off the boat’ Americans, wearing big, baggy suits.
“No, not suits – more like pyjamas.
“We made fun of them a bit and then took them to Bur Dubai for their first real suit experience, and they went crazy for it. It was an ‘a-ha’ moment for them – that you can wear a custom made suit and the price isn’t a burden.
“That got us thinking about whether we could use technology to bridge the gap between east and west. We decided we could, and the rest – they say – is history.”
The trio stepped out into the world of entrepreneurship and began the process of raising capital for their new business.
El Sheikh admits that “some people thought we were crazy,” and that “others said nobody would buy a suit online,” but their perseverance paid off, and through their own savings as well as the support of others who they had worked with in the past, the company launched to almost immediate success.
“In the past eight months alone we’ve had a clip rate of 30 percent month on month,” El Sheikh continues.
“In March alone we had six-digit sales. People are becoming more aware of the benefits of what we do, and how we can provide them with something special.
“They will come first time, see all of the options online, and maybe be a bit overwhelmed as it can be very new for a lot of people. But we take them through an education process straight away.
“The first time, a customer will get on average two customisations. They will come back six months later because they love the fit and want to replace everything else in their wardrobe. They will get five customisations, pushing the envelope a bit more. The third time, a few months later, they will get nine.
“So things are continually on the up.”
Success, however, brings with it other problems.
Scaling, hiring, and logistics all need to be improved as business grows. “It’s like trying to change the parts of a car as it moves,” says El Sheikh. “It’s a lot of fun, but it’s really hard work.”
One of the changes Knot Standard has recently made to enhance the business is the addition of charismatic tailor Richard Benettello, who arrived in Dubai earlier this year.
A native of Milan, his impressive CV includes menswear tailoring manager and made to measure manager at Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, tailoring manager at Burberry in London, made to measure manager at Giorgio Armani also in London, and tailoring and sales specialist at Dolce & Gabbana in his home city.
“Milan is a small town – either you play football or you work in fashion,” he says.
“I’m good at football, but it’s not a long-term career for me.
“I started working on the shop floor, and during my lunch breaks people were telling me I should be out chasing girls, or something like that, but I spent my time in the tailoring workshop, learning the art.
“Every day I would try to understand more about tailoring. It’s a complex art, but I have great passion for it.”
Benettello provides customers with the ultimate off-line Knot Standard experience, welcoming them to the company’s Downtown Dubai showroom where he gives them the full made-to-measure experience.
“In this job you have to be a people person,” he continues. “You’re working one-on-one with people and finding out about them a lot of the time – what they want, their style, and lots of things.
“The role of a tailor is sort of like a priest who people can trust and can talk to. They can trust us to be honest with them, especially with sizes. If they’ve gained an extra kilo you can’t lie about it!
“So you have to be a fashion priest – people confine in you and you try to fix things for them.”
Highlighting a hurdle of bespoke tailoring in Dubai, Benettello explains that the region’s established style is less suit-orientated than other parts of the world.
“In Hong Kong you have people of all ages and businesses wearing suits every day. It’s part of the culture there. Dubai is very different, which makes it more challenging here.
“The number of people wearing suits here is limited and the culture for tailoring isn’t massive. But it’s definitely growing and developing.
“Made to measure and bespoke is all about service and detail. Knot Standard is now the New Standard. We believe that and we are changing things in Dubai.”
According to El Sheikh another challenge for Knot Standard to overcome has been education.
He explains that throughout the history of tailoring in Dubai, as well as other parts of the world, there has never been transparency, leading to customers spending extra money unnecessarily.
“The guys in Bur Dubai are artists. It’s hard work, it’s difficult work, and its expensive work. But it’s also not opaque. People get taken advantage of with fabric, with time, and things like that.
“There’s no education process for customers, and that’s something else we’re trying to change.”
One of the things that sets Knot Standard apart from the crowd is its use of technology to get the perfect fit for its customers.
Its Fit Tech software allows users anywhere in the world to pose in front of a webcam while holding a CD (for size reference), providing them with a 3D modeling of the body, and the exact measurements of the suit.
“It’s no longer art, but science,” says El Sheikh.
“It cuts out the middle man and opens up a totally new market.
“It’s so much easier for people to use a webcam than to go to Bur Dubai to get measured, and it’s a lot more fun. Not to mention the technology does a better job getting the right fit.
“People then say ‘what’s the point of a tailor?’ In truth, you’re paying for that experience of going back two or three times to get the right fit, and that’s the educational battle we’re facing – explaining to customers that we can do it right first time, and you don’t have to pay for multiple visits.
“People are really turning to it. We’re getting 50 percent more people doing it each month, which is great.”
With so many customers turning to Knot Standard, talk turns towards competition.
Not just competition from the traditional tailors in Dubai, and not just competition from other tailoring hubs around the world such as Hong Kong and Malaysia, but also competition from businesses which have launched on the back of Knot Standard’s success.
In response to concerns, El Sheikh is steadfast.
“People always ask who competition is, and this is what I tell them: Nobody,” he says.
“These people and businesses, they are all my friends. We’re not in competition. What we are all doing is drawing people away from the 95 percent of people who buy suits from shops. Only five percent buy custom-made.
“We are collectively changing those percentages and educating people on what a good suit is.
“In 20 years from now we might all be fighting one another, but right now we’re all in it together, stopping people from committing the mistake of buying a badly-made, ill-fitting suit.”
Having studied in biochemistry and working as a banker before repositioning himself in the fashion and tailoring world, El Sheikh claims he’s not enough of an expert to hand out advice.
“People wonder how I ended up here,” he admits.
However, his claims to be poorly equipped regarding words of wisdom quickly come apart at the seams.
“I would say that anybody who wants to pursue a dream needs to be incredibly passionate about it, otherwise it’s not worth it,” he says. “It can be a very lonely job, even when you’re surrounded by people.
“Having passion will allow you to work 16 hour days and not pack it in when times get hard.
“Whatever you do, it should be something that occurs when you are in flow. Look back at when you were a child, when you lost track of time doing something. That’s what you love – that’s when you’re in flow.
“It’s not always about making money, it’s about having that compulsion to build a business that you believe in. And when you’ve started on that journey, surround yourself with people who are smart and bring skill sets that you don’t have. No person on the planet knows everything, so these people will give you information and advice that you need at critical times. They will help you grow.
“Most of all, you must be ready for a lot of hard work. I love getting up and going to work, and I love being around the people I work with.”
Hard work is certainly something the Knot Standard team is preparing itself for, with long-term ambitions to launch a women’s brand, as well as luxury items.
Before that, however, there are several milestones to reach.
“One short-term aim is technology,” says El Sheikh. “We want to go above and beyond the webcam. Technology moves so quickly, and we always want to improve on that front. The mix of offline and online is something we do very well, but we want to expand on that.
“In the medium-term we want to expand geographically. We’re in New York, Washington DC, Dallas, L.A. and soon New Zealand. We’d like to go into London, Sydney, and other markets.
“It’s something we’re aiming for and we’re really excited about. We want to create pride everywhere, and we believe we can do it.”
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