Alum’s Hot Menswear Brand Takes Custom Tailoring to the 21st Century
It was 2008 and Matthew Mueller, TJ ’97, was working in the healthcare business in Dubai when he noticed that he and the other American expats didn’t look as sharp as their British acquaintances. His wife also noticed, bought him a gift certificate for a custom suit, and soon he couldn’t bring himself to wear off-the-rack. Before long, he had started a small side business with a friend, John Ballay, making custom suits for their American friends and family back home. The pair used Dubai-based tailors whose skills had been handed down through generations. “We had to learn what techniques led to exceptional quality, what material was fake (or even stolen), and how to scale,” Mueller explained.
After the team ran a Groupon deal for New York orders that brought in over $50,000 in three days, they realized that they would never reach their potential by relying on traditional tailoring methods alone. “Creating suits in sizes (or even made-to-measure, which is just a paint-by-numbers suit) was out of the question, since our name was Knot Standard,” Mueller said. “In short, there was no way to scale without pulling our hair out.”
They quit their day jobs and focused on solving the knotty issue of how best to scale a business based on custom craftsmanship. Suddenly, Mueller realized what the fledgling start-up needed: a serious dose of technology and a tech whiz to make it happen. Having worked with him on and off since their TJ days, Mueller reached out to his TJ ’97 classmate and friend Adam Namejko, who he believed could revolutionize the company’s methods and help bring the ancient craft of custom tailoring to a scale it had never seen before.
After partnering on various entrepreneurial projects while at TJ (see Flashback, below), Namejko and Mueller had worked together on a digital publishing software start-up that they successfully exited in 2004. As a result of connections made through their publishing clients, Mueller, a 2001 graduate of UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce, had landed a job as an IT expert for Harvard’s Dubai-based hospital and medical school, which led to a management position at a successful healthcare consulting start-up. Namejko, a UVA grad then working as a healthcare IT consultant, was brought in by Mueller to help the Dubai start-up launch advanced analytics and custom hospital billing applications for some of the largest health systems and governments in the Middle East.
“I remember the idea of how to digitally create a custom suit striking me while I was at a club on Saturday night on the Palm [a collection of reclaimed islands with hotels and night-life] in Dubai,” Mueller recalled. “The ensuing call out-of-the-blue to Adam – at midnight Dubai time, 4pm in Washington, DC – took almost two hours. By the end of it, a new idea was born, and shortly after I quit my day job in healthcare IT. My co-founder and I raised a friends and family round of $600,000, brought on Adam, and by October of 2012, we had launched a fully automated system.”
What sets Knot Standard apart is its unique blend of old-world craftsmanship and the latest technology. Their technology translates a customer’s measurements – taken at home, by a tailor, or at one of the company’s seven US showrooms – into a digital 3D model, which is then checked against data from 100,000 previous garments, using proprietary algorithms. Laser cutters accurately cut whatever top-of-the-line fabric the customer has selected. “We have successfully created a hyper-intelligent robotic ‘tailor’ that creates digital patterns from thousands of data points – body shape, posture, personal preference, purchase history, and even what others around that same city are currently wearing. Each garment is cut digitally to make sure there are no mistakes and so that you can always order from us knowing that your garment will fit perfectly,” Mueller said.
Experienced tailors then stitch together the fabric to create a custom garment just as their predecessors have done for centuries. Each garment is tagged with RFID (radio-frequency identification) to guide it through the production process, “but since every fabric has a different weight, pattern, or flexibility (we use over 7,000 fabrics, ranging from $25 to $500 a meter),” Mueller explained, “we won’t be handing that part of the process over to a robot anytime soon!”
The company has pioneered a number of advances in measuring, including some of the earliest 3D scanning and an app that will measure a client as the iPhone moves around them. When a customer enters one of the state-of-the-art Knot Standard showrooms (the company now has showrooms in seven US cities, including Washington, DC), the company’s stylists gather preferences, influences, history, and personality while taking measurements, inputting all the data into an iPhone or iPad. The company has now launched a virtual reality experience in select showrooms that lets a client interact with his custom suit or shirt in true-to-life 3D before ordering (photos at right).
“Years later, after hundreds of thousands of garments and tens of millions of dollars in development, we have built the best custom garment production system in history,” Mueller continued. “We have a 3 percent return rate, and the overwhelming majority of customers come back for a major wardrobe overhaul within a year of their first Knot Standard experience.” As the fastest-growing menswear brand in the country, with a 3-year growth rate of 2,849 percent, according to Inc. Magazine’s 2015 rankings, the company has clearly met a need. Now TJ alums – and other successful men in tech, not to mention finance, law, and any profession where it helps to look one’s best – can dress for success by taking advantage of the company’s unique blend of old and new.
Flashback: TJ ‘97
“It was challenging to find the one person in a class of 397 people who was as crazy as I was, but eventually I found Adam. Our first project together was a Valentine’s Day dating app (via email), which we ran in our junior year. We surveyed the entire class, and matched up people with their Top 10 most likely dates. To say that we HEAVILY edited the system’s results to rig the dates is an understatement.
“Our senior year, we were both in the CAD lab [now Engineering Design], where we developed an idea for a unique senior tech project. Since the yearbooks always had to go to the printer too early to accommodate much spring content, and since ’96/’97 was the first advent of ubiquitous web browsers and digital video, I put together TJ’s first CD Yearbook (and to my knowledge, the first in the country). We sold the yearbooks for $19.97 apiece, and used the proceeds to buy the CAD Lab a new scanner, CD printing equipment, and workstations. I’m proud to say that we were able to donate the remaining profit. Of course, if anyone from ’97 is curious to see a CD, we do still have extras!
“After that project, the class voted me ‘Most Likely to Become a Millionaire.’ That was a formative experience – once I had a taste of creating an idea, launching it and successfully selling it, I was completely hooked.
“If there is one thing that I’ve learned from working on so many interesting projects around the world, it is that culture is everything. It was the culture at TJ that made all of this possible and fostered all of our abilities. The teachers were incredible, from my 9th-grade PoET instructor (who let us blow up LEDs with overcharged capacitors) to the head of the CAD lab (who let me create the first for-profit tech project in TJ history), and the incredible counselors (like Mrs. Lunter, who started it all by dropping me into a CS class far too early). Without these people setting the standard of thought of TJ, nothing would be possible. The new building, tjSTAR, and the unbelievable alumni network are all the effects we see of that culture and make me proud to be a part of this amazing school.”