Blank Label Turns to Kickstarter to Add Custom Women's Shirts to Its Catalog

By Nathaniel Mott , written on June 7, 2012

From The News Desk

Founder and "Chief Shirt" Fan Bi started Blank Label in 2009 after noticing that off-the-rack shirts didn't fit properly and that custom shirts were too expensive for the average person. Now that the men’s shirts division of Blank Label has reached 20,000 customers, the company is ready to replicate its success in the women’s clothing market.

Will it succeed? The company is hoping Kickstarter will answer that question. At the time of writing, Blank Label's Kickstarter project for its custom line of women's shirts has raised just shy of $9,000 from 60 backers; many have chosen to pledge over $172, with 2 backers pledging $715 each.

Between indie art projects or high profile hardware gambits like the Pebble smart watch, Kickstarter has been one of the biggest stories of the year, making the previously unfundable fundable. Misfit ideas have found life on the platform, receiving funding from, and selling directly to, the masses. The question now is whether or not the Kickstarter model can scale to accommodate an existing business. More to the point, should individuals bootstrap a successful company's new endeavor?

It's understandable for the company to want some audience assurance. Shifting focus from men – a customer base that is known to appreciate custom shirts – to women is a challenge, no doubt. While it’s been made clear that issues with size and fit are worth solving by the growing number of companies built around solving that very issue, such as Indochino and J. Hillburn, the women’s segment of that market remains unproven.

Tara Vaziri, the head of the women's department at Blank Label, explains the need for custom-fitting women's shirts succinctly: "One mile is always one mile," she says, "but a size 2 isn't always a size 2." Different size specifications across retailers have made what was meant to be a standardized form of measurement practically meaningless.

Vaziri’s complaint about the irregularity of size schematics across the clothing industry gets to the heart of what Blank Label offers, a more personalized clothing solution. Many settle for an off-the-rack shirt because it costs less, but there's a reason businessmen and lawyers spring for insanely expensive, handmade suits: They fit better and therefore look better. Blank Label wants to take the luxury of custom clothing and make it affordable to everyone, from secretaries to tech bloggers and beyond.

A notable contender in the custom clothing market is True&Co, a company that helps women find and purchase bras that fit them better than items available off the rack. PandoDaily interviewed True&Co CEO and co-founder Michelle Lam at D10, and Lam discussed the importance of size schematics in the disruption of the clothing industry.

True&Co has raised $2 million in seed funding from First Round Capital and a number of other investors, lending some credibility to the custom-fitting women’s clothing market. That $2 million marks the difference between True&Co’s launch and the potential launch of Blank Label’s Women’s Division.

What happens if the project doesn't take off? Does Blank Label scrap its plans? That's a decidedly un-Steve Jobs approach of letting customers tell you what they want instead of giving them something amazing they didn't know they wanted.

I asked Bi and Vaziri what happens to the project if it fails to raise enough on Kickstarter. There was a long pause and then Bi said, "We're only a few days into our Kickstarter, so we're still confident that we can get there. I don't think we've planned for the worst-case scenario yet."

That seems ill-advised for an already established company. Whether it’s through the hours spent working on the project itself or scrambling in the background to prepare the business for a new division, money is being spent on this endeavor. Relying on an unproven platform -- for this type of project -- without some form of backup plan has the same effect on the company’s ledgers as burning the bills outright: A whole lot of red.

The market for custom clothing is there, but it’s currently dominated by men across the board. Blank Label’s challenge will be to prove that women will be attracted to this market as strongly as men have while using a platform that has until now remained untested by established companies. The company is essentially trying to change the engine – or at least add a wing – to an airplane that’s already in flight. The least it should do is have the good sense to bring a parachute.