Warren Bennett, co-founder of online bespoke tailor A Suit That Fits, talks about setting up a business in Kathmandu
Buying an olive green suit with flared trousers may not sound like a great fashion decision, but it has turned out to be the best one Warren Bennett ever made. While on a post-university gap year in Nepal, Bennett was working in a school when his colleagues learnt of his love of buying bespoke suits and introduced him to local tailors.
"It was always out of reach for me in the UK," he says. "So on my travels I just loved having things tailored. I loved the process of picking out the cloth and choosing all the styling. They introduced me to the family who tailor all of the school's uniforms and teacher suits, and I chose a brilliant olive green three-piece. I loved the result, it was a fantastic fit."
Inspired by the results, Bennett decided to sell a few suits to friends in Britain. But instead of buying a suit, his school friend David Hathiramani – an IT manager – suggested creating a website that allowed customers to tailor and order a bespoke suit online for an
off-the-peg price. "We created the site over 24 hours and then took a suit to Hampstead market," says Bennett. "We put it on a dummy and sold our first two in 20 minutes."
Convinced they had a bright idea, the pair launched A Suit That Fits in 2006. Since then they have sold 40,000 suits and expect a £5m turnover this year. To get the project off the ground, they first needed to assemble a production unit abroad…
Bennett was convinced that the tailoring should be done in Nepal rather than elsewhere. "We came to realise Nepal has a great heritage of tailoring," he says. "Each of our master cutters has over 30 years' experience, and all of our stitchers more than four years' experience. If you count all that up, in our unit today there's literally thousands of years of tailoring experience. Everybody in Nepal wears tailored garments, it's a way of life. So they bought into the idea of making tailored clothes more accessible in the UK. They got it straight away."
Contacts from Bennett's school helped the pair launch. "Whenever you're thinking of doing business as a foreigner in a developing country, it's always best to develop a trust with someone who can really help you," he says.
"The first thing we had was friendship with the tailors I had met on my gap year. But the real step was meeting a trusted contact of the school, the headmaster's brother. He wasn't in tailoring before, but he's a fantastic guy who understands business. Initially, we set up with four people – one master and three stitchers, and we sold five suits in our first week. He shared our vision to make it into something much larger. We now have 120 people in Nepal, including our admin staff."
Learning the culture
Having a new and expanding Nepalese workforce wasn't without its surprises. "There were huge cultural barriers," admits Bennett. "There are a large number of national holidays in Nepal. One in particular is Dashain, which happens September/October time. When it first came around we didn't understand what it meant for production. It's supposed to be a five-day holiday, but a lot of our tailors come from outside Kathmandu in the mountains. They left a few days early to make the journey to their families and we didn't see them back for two weeks."
Translating company values
"We respect and celebrate all of the holidays," continues Bennett. "But we've changed attitudes to timekeeping. In Nepal, it's acceptable to say 'it's not quite ready today, it'll be ready tomorrow', so it was about education, responsibility and working together as a team. We use Google Apps, free software that allows everyone's email and calendar to be synchronised with the rest of the company. There's an internal chat system so we're all in touch instantly. But there's no substitute for face time – David and I go there twice a year each and other team members and specialists visit too."
The company has nurtured loyalty through working conditions and salaries. "Normally working conditions in Nepal aren't strictly regulated, there isn't that culture of looking after and nurturing your workforce so as a result the workforce of many other Nepalese companies is rather transient," says Bennett. "But we've worked hard on attracting and maintaining the very best tailors. We pay 50 per cent above the national average for tailors and pay bonuses as well. We've also made sure we have good lighting and airy spaces. We have a cleaner who tidies as the tailors cut. And we have a barbecue terrace on the roof – that's something they'd never seen before at work in Nepal."
"There are things you always respect," says Bennett. "You take off your shoes when you enter the building or a room, you bow with your hands together in front of you rather than a handshake and when you're addressing someone – particularly an elder – you add on 'G' to the end of their name for a man and 'Miss' for a woman. It's a deferential sign."
Part of the community
Bennett and Hathiramani have sought to reinvest in the community. "We donate five per cent of stitching costs to the school where it all started," says Bennett. "So far we've equipped a science lab and our current project is a state-of-the-art playground for younger kids. We've also started to build our own apprenticeship scheme in our internal unit, so we're investing in the future of the Nepalese tailoring industry."
Nepal in a nutshell
An estimated 29.3m in 2010.
While 80 per cent of people work in agriculture, the carpet and garment industries now account for 70 per cent of merchandise exports. India makes up 40 per cent of exports.
The Nepalese rupee. "It's pegged to the Indian rupee. So it has a guaranteed exchange rate which is pegged to the dollar," says Bennett.
Nepalese, officially. "Many people speak English," explains Bennett. "But if they don't all of our cutters speak tailoring."
"The temples are amazing," he adds. "Swayambhunath, west of Kathmandu, is an awesome sight. A trek in the mountains is a must."
"Many people are vegetarian. It's a poor country and they don't eat a lot of meat," says Bennett. "But the dishes are extremely healthy."
Where to stay
"I stay at the Ambassador Garden Hotel (aghhotel.com), a good
B&B in the Thamel district," says Bennett. "The best hotel in Kathmandu is Dwarika's (dwarikas.com). It's incredibly elegant and its Krisnarpan restaurant serves amazing food."
Etihad, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Singapore Airlines offer one-stop flights daily from Heathrow.
British Embassy in Kathmandu, 00 977 1 4410583;
Ministry of Tourism, 00 977 1 4232411.