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Business Casual Doesn’t Work for Many Professionals

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – I’ve been measured for a suit several times in my life in a variety of stores, but never was I told that I have a sloping shoulder. It’s one of the first things John Lisko pointed out when I visited his store in the Commerce Building downtown.

After he carefully measured me, he explained why an off-the-rack suit isn’t likely to fit as well as I would like.

“It might bite you under here,” he said as he pointed to the spot on my upper torso. “And you might get a little break under there. It’s not going to lay real clean on your shoulder blades.”

This is one of 45 measurements that Lisko makes when he fits new customers for a custom suit at Tom James Co. in Youngstown. For 22 years, he’s worked for the company headquartered in Franklin, Tenn., that has 100 stores throughout the world.

Tom James, founded in 1966 by Spencer Hays, “essentially invented the business of selling expensive suits to men in their offices or homes,” according to Forbes magazine.

Hays started the company after noticing that salesmen in department stores never remembered his name or the suits he’d purchased. He envisioned a more personal experience for those looking for the finest menswear.

Today, at least a dozen companies operate under the Tom James umbrella, including Tom James retail, which sells suits made in the company’s factories. “From sheep to suit” is a company slogan that reflects its vertical integration.

From roughly the 1920s to the late 1960s, the suit was the costume de rigueur for a large number of men, at work and in the social world. The “casual revolution,” as menswear writer G. Bruce Boyer calls it, eroded the centrality of the suit and dressing professionally in American life, but didn’t topple it completely. Along with mass-produced suits, a market for men’s fine custom clothing remains.

“Clothing is still somewhat the unspoken language of status,” Lisko says. He deals with a variety of businessmen who share a common trait: “They know the power of clothing.”

While Lisko keeps a store on the first floor of the Commerce Building for fittings by appointment, he often travels to his customers’ offices or homes. For busy professionals, it’s a basic part of the service, he says.

“A lot of men don’t have the time or desire to shop,” Lisko explains.

Other customers come to him because they’re extremely tall, thin or overweight. “We cut the pattern. So it’s no longer an issue,” Lisko says.

Scott Schulick, vice president/investments at Stifel Financial Corp, began patronizing Tom James in the 1990s upon entering the businesses world. Several of his colleagues had bought suits from Lisko. Schulick first came to him for custom dress shirts.

“Once I had a made-to-measure shirt, it just fit so much better,” Schulick says, “and it was that much more comfortable to wear because I wear a dress shirt every day. From the dress shirts, I got into the suits.”

When Lisko meets with a customer, the consultation and measurement usually takes an hour to 90 minutes. Lisko inquires about clothing he has in his closet and how he assesses his wardrobe.

Part of the interview explores the work a customer does and with whom he interacts during a workday.

“A very expensive suit is a fine fabric and may not serve them if they’re in and out of their car or up and down from the desk all day long,” Lisko explains. “So, they might need a fabric that’s more durable.”

Frequent travelers could benefit from a higher-grade fabric that resists wrinkling. “We find out what your needs are and guide you,” he says.

A lack of options isn’t a problem at Tom James. The customer can customize everything from the lining of a suit coat to the hip pockets in a pair of trousers. And Lisko has hundreds of suit and shirt fabrics to choose from.

“He makes it pretty easy to look good,” says Richard Mills, president of Ohio One Corp.

“Once he gets your measurements, you can stop by his store or he’ll come to the office with his book of fabrics. It’s that simple.”

A full custom suit starts at $699, but prices can go up into the thousands of dollars. Fabric and make of the suit govern the price, Lisko says. He compares Tom James’ lines to the cars that Mercedes-Benz manufacturers. Each offers a different level of luxury, he observes.

“The top end of my line is Oxxford clothing,” he says, “which is entirely a bespoke, handmade garment. A machine does not touch it. Those start at $4,999.”

Tom James acquired Oxxford Clothes in 1994. Oxxford is one of the last American firms to produce in the tradition of Savile Row in London.

One thousand hand stitches alone go into the padding of a lapel of the typical Oxxford suit, according to a company-produced video.

The Ventura line is the next level down in price. Roughly 80% of the line is made by hand and 20% by machine. Its Executive Collection, starting at $1,200, is the “workhorse” line, Lisko says. The Corporate Image line is the entry-level suit.

David Hillman, a senior partner with Franchising Unlimited LLC, has spent thousands of dollars at Tom James over the years. Before meeting Lisko, he bought his suits off the rack and then took them to a tailor.

“I’m not the kind of guy to walk in and get a 44 regular and it fits,” Hillman says. “So, there was a lot of work that had to be done.” And as time went by, Hillman found it harder to find a suitable tailor in the area.

Now he has Tom James make his trousers, suits, sport coats and dress shirts, he says.

Tom James offers custom sport shirts, polo shirts and even sweaters.

With the rise of business causal, more businessmen are dressing down while aiming to appear professional, but it hasn’t significantly affected Lisko’s business, he says.

“Sport coats are trending very heavily now because of the business-casual type look,” Lisko says. “The no-tie look is very, very popular.” However, many of his customers still want several go-to suits for when they travel or when they’re trying to close a big deal.

The matter of fit can carry over into casual clothes as well, prompting some of Lisko’s customers to seek custom-made polo shirts and other apparel for weekend wear.

“A lot of my clients are athletic,” Lisko says. “So, when they get the neck to fit the rest of shirt, it looks like they’re wearing a parachute. Custom is the perfect venue for them.”

Private and public schools have engaged Lisko to speak to interns and graduating students about to enter the professional world. He’s spoken about the importance of dressing well to honors students at Youngstown State University and exiting interns at St. Elizabeth Hospital getting ready for their first job interviews.

“I get guys right out of college who need their first interview suit and become clients for life,” Lisko says.

After four decades in the business, he’s begun to serve the grandchildren of long-established customers. “Most of my business comes from referrals,” he says. “I have one family where I’ve sold to four generations.”

Pictured: John Lisko sells personally fitted suits through the Tom James Co.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.