In 2009, British business owner Shaz Riley was ahead of the curve when it comes to bespoke suits for gay women.
People always ask me why I founded The Butch Clothing Company. Well it’s very simple: I had always had negative purchasing experiences. It was impossible to purchase a man’s suit in a fit for my body. If I found a jacket that fitted my chest it was too long on the body. If the trousers (pants) fitted on the waist, the leg length was ridiculous and waistcoats (vests) never came close to fitting correctly.
With the best will in the world, department store staff just don’t know how to deal with a butch woman in the men’s department and all the bespoke tailors I met ‘never got it’. By that I mean, butch for me is a lifestyle, a way of life; it’s how I wear my clothes and the style I want. I wanted a male-style suit to fit my body!
I was never going to wear ‘ladies’ tailored clothes and so for years it was an impossible challenge. Feeling second-rate in the workplace or less than perfect at weddings and events was part of my life.
Then in 2009 I decided that after a long career in theatre and live events it was time to change direction. I had really no idea how to use my skill set to forge a new career. But in the back of my mind was the constant thought of ill-fitting suits. I discussed it in detail with my wife. She said to me, “Well, you have always bemoaned the suit situation, why don’t you think about creating a company that makes perfectly fitting bespoke suits for gay women?” And so I did!
The first year was a challenge. I spent it in research and development, talking with film and theatre costume makers, Saville Row bespoke tailors, local alteration tailors, pre-existing suit making company’s — you name it, I tried it. Eventually, I came across a young, trendy team working in the male market and approached them with my ideas and they just got it. They understood the principles of creating patterns and profiles in male tailoring but for a woman’s body.
I never give too much away about how we achieved it and that first year was certainly a challenge to perfect the garments, but we worked hard and we got there in the end. We then had the ability and knowledge to create these garments for my niche target market. The Design and Development manager I worked with back then is still my design director today and he overseas all our tailoring requirements. He is a gay man who always understood my journey. And we knew if it was my journey it would be many other gay women’s journey too.
It was my aim for The Butch Clothing Company to be the leading ‘go to’ brand for gay women not just in the UK but globally.
Instantly the website site went live and we had some very good mainstream media coverage. The concept of the company drew a lot of interest and with that bought a steady client base. The challenge almost immediately was not only perfecting the creation of the garments for each individual client but also reaching all the potential clients overseas. I was getting so many global enquiries I knew I had to find away to be able to offer them the same bespoke service as my UK clients.
Late one evening it dawned on me: there was a relatively new way of communicating via video, it was a free, unlimited service that allowed two way video calling around the world. This service was Skype. I quickly formatted a definitive plan of how a Skype consultation would work and how similar it could be to a face to face consultation. The biggest stumbling block appeared to be the measurement process, how could we create a measurement profile that would equal the profile I would take when seeing clients face to face. The answer was indeed simple — 12 years later: I would write a comprehensive foolproof measurement sheet like I used face to face and have the client’s partner, friend or family member measure them under my watchful eye. It proved extremely successful from the get go.
So that has been our overseas story for the last 12 years. I had considered pop-ups in places like the US and Canada, even Australia where we were proving immensely popular, but for a small niche market business the cost implications were way too high. So we kept to Skype.
Whether Skype or face to face, I always see clients myself and have kept the company niche and personal because all my clients really appreciate that I live their lives and experiences, and they mine. I always say I appreciate that they don’t want to look like me, and I don’t want to look like the next person, and no matter how much we love our Dads none of us want to look like our Dads in a suit, but we all want to look like us at our very best in a perfectly-fitted suit.
Over the years outside investors have offered to transform the company into a major enterprise but the trade-off was always to sacrifice the integrity and purpose of my brand. They always want to lead the company down different paths. So I have always turned away investors. We are small, we are niche, but we have a company to be proud of. We have changed the lives of our clients for the better, whether it be for their most amazing wedding day, their working attire or just their look and longed for style — we have made a positive difference.
THE CHALLENGES AND TRIUMPHS
The last year was challenging for us all, but I was determined The Butch Clothing Company would hang in there. From March to September it was the quietest we had ever seen as the world fought the pandemic. But we remained steadfast and of course we had a wonderful way of continuing to offer consultations to design and purchase our suits — our well established Skype consultations. All of a sudden we could offer these to not only our global market but to the whole of the UK. This was the perfect solution to keep us moving. For us we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel; the innovative Skype consultations we developed all those years ago suddenly became more relevant than ever and saved The BCC for sure.
All our clients love what we do. They delight in the results of their consultations. Over the years our knowledge has grown, our skill set has increased, and our incredible fabric selection from the traditional UK Yorkshire mills has quadrupled in size.
2020 and 2021 have certainly bought challenges for us all but I am pleased to say that innovation and foresight have meant that this micro-niche company has risen to the challenge and is proud to remain part of our community.