Cancer patient has business dream tailor-made

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 April, 2006, 12:00am

Illness compelled Christian Capurso into a career and locale shift that has proved lucrative and therapeutic

Christian Capurso was 27 in 2003 when doctors diagnosed him with a type of cancer called non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. This meant enduring a painful barrage of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Until then, he had no specific career goals, doing various marketing jobs in Japan and Europe. But his illness changed all that. 'It accelerated and made it easier for me to follow my dreams and aspirations, because you get a whole different perspective on life after that kind of experience,' he says.

Fashion and fabrics were always in his blood, inherited from his Italian grandmother Maria Capurso, who took her dress designing business to Australia when the family emigrated in the 1950s. 'My passion for fashion came from her.'

Having always dreamt of somehow carrying on her tailoring legacy, the choice now seemed obvious. 'The cancer experience and other opportunities combined to make me do it,' he says.

With friends in the fashion industry here, Hong Kong seemed a good place to start. So, once back to a good level of health after his treatment in 2004, he arrived, anxious to get stuck in.

Initially, he got involved in corsetry, a new departure. Then, one night, an idea grew from a conversation with expatriates about how much they appreciated their proximity to Hong Kong tailors.

Mr Capurso and a friend, Ben Freischmidt, spotted the opportunity for an internet service offering custom-made shirts, with measurements and personal profiles stored online. Mr Freischmidt, who had a financial background, sourced the US$200,000 of start-up investment.

Their different backgrounds and views somehow complemented each other. They brainstormed the concept and branding, picking a name,, that was easily recognisable and could be positioned at the medium to premium end of the market.

They were anxious not to pitch themselves too high or too low, while ensuring the customer had a good experience.

'There were too many stories of people saying 'I paid $400 for this shirt and it fell apart after two washes.' So we thought in terms of giving people not just the product, where we set high standards, but also a technology platform that gave speedy delivery and allowed us to keep our promises,' says Mr Capurso, chief executive of Tailored Shirts. The internet seemed the ideal vehicle. Without the need for physical retail space, a web-based business kept costs down.

Knowing the importance of quality materials, Mr Capurso insisted on only the best Italian fabric from a reputable supplier, with the same standards applied to manufacturing, shipping and logistics.

'This was vital because people can see our shirts on the internet, but can't feel or touch them, so we needed to give them confidence in our ability to produce excellent clothes,' he explained.

Quality control is key and for this reason manufacturing is deliberately kept in Hong Kong. 'We haven't fallen into the norm of going into southern China just because it's cheap,' he says.

Another part of the strategy was not to focus on the lowest costs, but to establish strategic and business alliances that guaranteed delivery on their promises.

'So, by getting a quality fabric supplier, a workroom and a really good logistics partner, we can meet both customers' expectations and our own benchmarks.'

System controls must be applied right through the process, Mr Capurso stresses. Fabric switching proved an initial problem, so it is now ordered directly from the raw material supplier and personally monitored and kept in the Lyndhurst Terrace, Central, offices.

The bulk of customers come from Britain, Australia and the United States and start by creating an account and keying in their measurements. A catalogue, fabric samples, and free measuring tape are sent out to each new sign-up, male or female.

Once the fabric is chosen, cuff type, pocket, fit and monograms, if desired, are picked, then payment is made by credit card. Each order is sent to the workroom and the shirts are then returned to Mr Capurso and his staff of three for a full quality check on every garment before folding, packaging and door-to-door shipping within six to seven days of ordering.

'The average is 6.8 days, with a guarantee of 10 days,' he says, adding that he had not expected it to be so efficient. 'But we were meticulous when it came to planning and building operations systems.'

In less than a year, sales volume is in hundreds of pieces per month, with an average of 10 new accounts per day. The good news is that, though first-time buyers only order one or two shirts, repeat orders usually follow quickly.

A typical shirt costs just over $700 including postage. 'If that seems steep, once people receive their shirt, they see the quality of the fabric and finish and realise they are getting quite good value for money. I think we are very competitive considering our internet competitors,' Mr Capurso says.

Online competition is hotting up, but the aim of is to become the leader in custom-made shirts.

More than US$150,000 of the start-up capital was spent buying up every domain name related to the shirt business, creating a barrier to entry for rivals. 'It's all geared to creating a situation where we could protect ourselves by doing a blanket buy-up of names.'

A further US$50,000 was spent on inventory. In terms of marketing, not a cent has gone to search-engine positioning. 'We wonder how people find us, but they do.'

Now, the challenge is to stay ahead while coming up with new custom-made ideas and keeping focused on growing the business while seeing where clients lead them.

But the best news for Mr Capurso is that he's just emerged from his latest check-ups with a clean bill of health. 'So that's two and a bit years into remission. And my grandmother is taking a huge interest in the business and is very excited. It's all good news for me.'