Virginia entrepreneurs bring their business home to Richmond.
Peyton Jenkins and Colin Hunter of Alton Lane.
What do a theology major and a business consultant know about tailoring custom-fitted suits? Friends Peyton Jenkins and Colin Hunter, both 32, may not have had a background in fashion or textiles, but they did know that they couldn’t find the suits they wanted: stylish and well-fitted enough to live up to the pressure of recent promotions, yet priced not to break the bank. So when they couldn’t find the perfect suit, the pair made their own.
Today, Alton Lane, the custom suiting company that Jenkins and Hunter founded in 2009, has locations in New York, Washington, D.C., Boston, Dallas and most recently, a new 2,300-square-foot showroom on Libbie Avenue in Richmond.
Jenkins and Hunter met as first year students at the University of Virginia. After graduation, Hunter, a Charlottesville native, worked for five years as a management consultant at Bain & Company, while Jenkins, originally from Richmond, taught history and theology in England and worked in commercial realty in Washington, D.C. To found Alton Lane, the pair abandoned their respective positions and cashed in their savings, then traveled to Thailand for several months to forge production agreements with local factories.
The pair designed their showrooms (open by appointment) to convey the feeling of exclusive men’s clubs. Comprising dark wood floors, leather couches, stocked bars and flat-screen TVs, they also incorporate elements specific to each locale (the Richmond store features a large painted seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia). That aesthetic consistency and a business ethos that emphasizes customer experience have proven a winning combination: In 2014, Alton Lane is on track for year-over-year growth of 80-100 percent.
Peyton: My two grandfathers came from different worlds. One grew up as a farm boy in Emporia, Virginia, and one grew up in Richmond, but they both took the idea of thoughtful self-presentation very seriously. I remember my grandfather in Windsor Farms in Richmond cutting his grass with his tie tucked into his blue oxford shirt. When I got my first suit, it was a very big experience for me.
Peyton: Colin brought the idea and the strategy for the company, but what Colin loathes is the shopping experience. I think we’re good partners because of our skills sets—and this is a phrase I use a lot—they perfectly misalign.
Peyton: I think that Colin’s perfect day is in a room filled with whiteboards being able to plan out the strategy of our company, and for me the perfect day is being on the floor and seeing customers. We understood quickly it was going to be a very natural partnership.
Colin: We had a very close friend from UVA who was from Bangkok and had a lot of contacts. He was able to make a lot of introductions. That was critical. I advise a number of young entrepreneurs and I always tell them [to] figure out who’s in your network. It doesn’t necessarily have to be someone who works in the industry, but it might just be someone who knows someone.
Colin: Originally, you’re starting the company, and you’re thinking, “Here’s how we’re going to approach overseas contracts,” and something culturally that we learned with our early relationships in Thailand is that it’s a culture where contracts are not done, and it was much more based on trust built on relationships. I remember countless nights of playing soccer with people at the factory or the factory owner, and that was the foundation of the relationship—learning to trust one another. It’s not something you would expect to read in a business schoolbook.
Colin: Consistency is such a huge part of customer experience to us. We’ve invested a lot in a 3-D scanner and this incredible digital pattern software that allows our team of expert tailors in the U.S. to design our own pattern.
Peyton: There are certain elements of our business in which the old school approach nearly always will be better. It’s hard for any machine to tell exactly what your fit profile is, or where you like to wear your pants, or how tight you like your collar. But there are elements to technology that can make our customer experience quicker, more efficient, better.
Peyton: I spend so much of my time thinking about experience, down to the smallest detail. One of the things that we think a lot about is how we can use the classic Southern aesthetic in an elevated manner, intermixing technology into it. We love that old world/new world collision, and instead of making it abrasive, we actually want to interweave the two for a seamless experience.
Peyton: With that Southern mindset, it’s about getting in front of as many customers as possible. We love vintage Airstreams—they are about as cool as you can get. We have taken a 31-foot vintage early ’70s Airstream trailer and are in the process of building a showroom inside, and we are going to do East Coast and Southeast tours. Our goal over time is to build a fleet of these. We get requests all the time: “Please come to Philly, to Savannah, to Tulsa, to Austin.” We’re going to do two- to four-week stops in each market.
Colin: Growth is always equal parts challenging and exciting for us. We’re going to be opening a store in Chicago later this spring, and we are currently evaluating spaces for a second location in New York. We’re looking at San Francisco as a market, Houston and even Miami.
Peyton: We want to create an experience that resonates with our customer base as much in New York City as in Richmond as in San Francisco and everywhere in between. In Richmond, we really wanted to show that an area demographically smaller than the rest of our markets could excel. Even in a smaller market, you can still have that unique one-on-one approach. What we’ve seen in Richmond in our first two-and-a-half months—it’s been one of the best starts we’ve had, period, of any showroom. We’ve just been thrilled with the response from the city.