Men's suits with an aggro attitudeJanuary 30, 2013: 8:59 AM ET
Vishaal and Mohit Melwani's clothing line has attracted supporters including top executives at Zappos and the North Face.
By Kurt Wagner, reporter
FORTUNE -- Cousins Vishaal and Mohit Melwani want to sell you a suit. Born out of the recession, the duo's new clothing company—Combatant Gentlemen—targets young, brash businessmen who are nonetheless short on disposable income. An ideal combatant gentleman is one that "likes to party, thinks he's hot stuff, but still has a cubicle," says Vishaal, the CEO. The Combat Gent line offers everything from shirts to pants and ties. No single item cost more than $40. This week, the company unveiled its first line of suits with prices starting at $160.
With only three employees and no investors to date, the Los Angeles-based company's early success has been noteworthy if somewhat unlikely. The Combat Gent website has gotten nearly 14,000 users per month and processes some 90 orders per day. Since its founding last May, the company has seen a 25% growth in sales each month, topping $100,000 in sales for the first time in December. Totals were even higher in January, says Vishaal.
The Melwani cousins have found some avid supporters. Combat Gent was one of six companies selected for the Fashion Technology Accelerator program, a mentor program that boasts advisors like Kenneth "Hap" Klopp, founder of North Face, Joan Barnes, founder of Gymboree, and Will Young, the director of Zappos Labs at Zappos (AMZN). The program's General Partner and angel investor Enrico Beltramini said that Combat Gent was the accelerator's number one choice out of more than 200 applicants, in part because the founding team fits the very same mold they've established for their target customers.
The idea for the company started when Vishaal, 28, and Mohit, 26, witnessed their friends struggle to finance a professional wardrobe following college. Their interest in fashion dates further back. As children, the Melwani boys worked in Versace boutiques their parents ran in both LA and Las Vegas. At one point the family owned 13 boutiques on the West Coast. The boys grew up sewing clothes and analyzing fabric patterns with their dads—not throwing the ball around, says Vishaal.
Their retail background has paid off in getting Combat Gent off the ground. Vishaal designs all of the clothes, making samples in-house to curb costs. (Inspiration comes from Ari Gold, the neurotic, yet well dressed Hollywood agent from HBO's Entourage.) For now, the company is sticking to clothes that can be worn year-round to avoid seasonal overstock or sales slumps. As children, the boys traveled with their fathers to visit manufacturers across Europe and Asia. Those relationships have been maintained, and connections with Chinese manufacturers have meant cheaper production costs and less waste. "Both of us are kind of reliving our dads' footsteps in certain ways," says Mohit.
Of course, breaking into the men's clothing industry won't be easy. Competitors—JoS. A Bank, H&M, and Men's Warehouse to name a few—have already captured significant business from men in Combat Gent's target age group. Men's Warehouse alone reported sales of $2.4 billion in 2011. But Vishaal believes that Combat Gent can find a place for itself by providing lower cost clothes than high-end boutiques without the stigma some shoppers associate with low-end discount stores. Combat Gent is taking an e-commerce only approach. Online apparel and accessory sales totaled $40.9 billion in 2012, according to eMarketer. A small moment of affirmation came last fall when a Goldman Sachs employee passed around the Combat Gent site in an email chain. By the end of the day, the site had received more than 70 new orders tied to the investment bank, says Vishaal.
Do the Melwani cousins consider themselves "bros?" Mohit, a USC grad, was flattered with the label; Vishaal not so much. "[Vishaal] is a 70-year-old man stuck in a young man's body," jokes Mohit. Both cousins stay current on customers' favorite styles by frequenting bars and clubs where they hope their clothing line will one day become a staple. (Vishaal doesn't drink, but Mohit "makes up for that," says the CEO.) While making the company's pitch for the retail accelerator program in San Francisco, Vishaal, a Lakers fan, began by bashing the Golden State Warriors from nearby Oakland.
The founders' free-spirited lifestyle helps them connect with customers, they say. But it doesn't mean they aren't dedicated to getting Combat Gent in front of serious investors. The founding team is pitching venture capitalists in hopes of accumulating a Series A funding round, and Vishaal and Mohit meet with advisors from the accelerator program two to three times per week. "We want to kick ass and take the world by storm," says Vishaal.