Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 11:30:42 AM CST

Top Stories

Jessica DuBois-Maahs/MEDILL

Custom suit prices at Balani start at $795 and can run as much as $5,000.

Son modernizes Chicago haberdashery

by Jessica DuBois-Maahs
Feb 12, 2013


Courtesy of Sonny Balani

The small business is run by two generations of Balani men.

Jessica DuBois-Maahs/MEDILL

A Balani sales associate shares the weirdest custom suit order he's received.

Related Links

Balani's website
Balani Custom Clothiers is not your grandfather's tailor. There is no old man writing down measurements by hand or relying on memory to recall a favorite fabric or pattern. There is no smoke-filled dark corner where people look on as someone measures a pant seam.

At Balani, well-dressed young men or the occasional young woman use computer directories to find a customer's exact fit and tailoring history. Although patrons can still opt for an old-school brandy while trying on clothes, the bars in this luxury custom-suit store are generally stocked with fabric swatches and look books.

Owner Sonny Balani expanded his family's privately owned business to a second store on South LaSalle Street in the heart of Chicago's financial district just before the 2007 recession. The flow of customers slowed to a trickle and Balani knew he had to find a way to lower his prices so more people could afford his wares.

The solution: He started measuring his clients in Chicago but sending the fabrics to Hong Kong to be assembled. About six weeks after the initial consultation, a customer’s suit is ready. The lower labor price in Asia allows Balani to sell a custom suit for as little as $795, not that much higher than some large menswear chains such as Jos. A. Banks. (Some Balani suits cost as much as $5,000.)

Outsourcing assembly is just one way Balani is trying to strip the old-school craft of tailoring of its stale connotation. He noticed that many high-end suit retailers began using cheaper, plain fabrics during the recession, so Balani decided to target customers who wanted their custom shirts in bold patterns.

The decision has paid off. Store sales doubled in last three years and Balani now has five employees total for his two locations. He plans to hire more staff members and perhaps open a third location, which would be equipped with its renowned not-so-wet bar.

But he still wants customers to feel pampered, relaxed and at home. Most appointments last more than an hour, providing a laid-back atmosphere for customers.

“Prior to when we opened, the industry was a lot more stuffy and stodgy,” said Balani. “It was more of a chore to get your clothing rather than a fun, inviting experience where you're just hanging out and having a good time.”

So far his strategy appears to be paying off. Balani projects sales of more than $1 million annually for each of his two locations. That is well above the average annual sales-per-square-foot estimates of similar clothiers at $600,000 per store, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Not all high-end menswear retailers have fared as well.

Just last year, the high-end custom clothier Mark Shale closed its three Chicago locations after 83 years in business. A Paul Stuart men's clothing store also moved its Michigan Avenue location to a smaller store on Oak Street. Bigsby & Kruthers, one of Chicago's oldest and most-known haberdashers, went out of business in 2000.

“If you look around, men's clothing stores are going out of business,” according to David Kirshner, chairman of the Service Corps of Retired Executives in Chicago, a resource of the U.S. Small Business Administration. “The custom suit market is shrinking, so a business needs a competitive advantage.”

Finding the perfect fit

Sales consultant Cordt Withum spins a small booklet of fabric fragments around his finger as he places it in front of a customer. It's obvious he's done this before.

For the handful of clients that come to Balani today, Withum's head-to-toe custom ensemble is a model to shoot for. Withum's shoes are without blemish and his tightly knotted tie complements his coiffed hair.

“My biggest reward is when someone comes in that hasn't done custom and they've been wearing something that's been ill-fitting their entire life,” Withum said.

“I had one guy that went in for a job interview and he called me a week later and he's like 'Hey, I just wanted to let you know I got the job because of you,'” Withum said. “I'm like no, you got the job because of you. All I did was give you some armor.”

John Damas can relate.

He's been a customer for more than 10 years, and he can remember the father-son duo laying out fabrics on a kitchen table at his home before the original store opened on West Monroe Street. Standing at 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighing 200 pounds, Damas said he has struggled to find suits that fit him.

“Department stores didn't have much of a selection. It was always the same three colors: navy charcoal and blue. But I needed more than three suits,” said Damas, a restaurant manager. “Balani is about the same price as going to a major retailer—but it's 10 times better because it's custom.”

Although Damas would never have guessed it, Balani initially resisted adopting the family trade. His father, Peter Balani, learned and perfected his trade in Hong Kong and Milan before opening a small by appointment-only shop on Monroe Street in the 1960s. When Sonny was 16, he told his father he had no interest in becoming his apprentice. It wasn't until he was 26 and working in personal finance that he saw business potential for his father's small, in-home operation. It was then that he began shadowing his father for two years.

“It takes a lifetime,” said Vicki Vasilopoulos, director of the documentary “Men of the Cloth,” which details the lives of Italian master tailors. “They put in incalculable effort, and they are constantly learning.”

But training to be a master tailor is becoming increasingly difficult. There are fewer master tailors around to shadow and laws prohibit children under 18 from working as apprentices for free. Vasilopoulos said young people continue to express interest in learning the craft, but unless they are born into the trade like Sonny, they are simply out of luck.

Apprenticeships define the tailoring trade, and Sonny Balani wants to change that. His sales associates study detailed training manuals on how to take suit measurements—something a tailoring apprentice would study and perfect over his or her lifetime. The manual features special details noted by Peter such as a grip guard on pants to prevent a dress shirt from untucking.

Now with his own 2-year-old son Jai, Sonny Balani is surrounded by his tailoring craft—both in his past and future. Speaking about his 75-year-old father, Sonny concedes, “He's old school. He wanted to see his legacy and his business survive, and I think he very excited to see the entity it has become.”