CEO of Bonobos: how he changed the way men shop for pants

  • Apr. 17, 2017 12:30 a.m.

NEW YORK — Andy Dunn didn’t start out with an interest in fashion. But he ended up co-founding an online menswear company called that targets customers like him: male shoppers who want a wardrobe of nice-fitting clothes but need help.

The company called Bonobos started out in 2007 with a line of men’s pants — a curved waist band with a flattering fit. They were different from what was out there and were designed by his good friend and now business partner Brian Spaly. Bonobos now has expanded into an array of other products including shirts, ties, belts and jackets. It’s also opening showrooms called Guideshops, where customers try on the clothes with the help of stylists. But there’s no inventory so customers order online at the store and have their clothes delivered to their homes or office a few days later. It now operates more than 30 stores scattered around key cities like Chicago, New York and Atlanta. It plans a total of 100 by 2020.

However, when Dunn thought of the idea of selling clothes online ten years ago as a Stanford business school graduate, it was seen as crazy. Who would buy clothes online? But Dunn, with Spaly, whom he met at Stanford, pushed hard, selling pants from cars and going door-to-door. And now, analysts view Bonobos and other similar clothing startups as collective threats to traditional mall-based clothing chains, which have been closing locations as they adjust to shoppers’ shift online.

During an interview with The Associated Press, Dunn spoke about the first moment when he fell in love with a pair of pants designed by Spaly and what’s he learned. Below are the highlights of the interview, edited for length and clarity.

Q: You weren’t interested in fashion growing up.

A: I’m kind of the least likely person that you could imagine to be a CEO of a fashion company, and yet at the same time I think it’s almost perfect, because Bonobos is really built to make it easier for guys to get great clothes, and so, in a way I feel like it’s that bad hair commercial. Not only am I the founder, but I’m also a customer. We built the brand not only for guys who have great fashion sense, but for guys who need a little bit of help. Everything from our customer service ninjas to our Guideshops is built around the idea that it’s not always easy for men to buy clothes.

Q: What opportunity did you see in the direct to consumer men’s fashion industry that no one else seemed to see?

A: Well, the reality is, it was a hard thing to see. It was 2007. A lot of people were saying that most folks wouldn’t be buying clothes online. We still were in an era where it was assumed that Amazon would never sell clothes, so the idea not only that you could sell clothes online, but you could actually build a better brand from the ground up starting with the internet, was kind of a crazy idea.

Lo and behold, five years later not only do we have that experience on the internet, but we’ve invented a store model with our Guideshops.

Q: What was your aha moment?

A: It actually came on a driveway in Atherton, California. We were playing games in the driveway, which is a typical graduate school behaviour, having fun, and my co-founder had these amazing turquoise pants that he brought out. I put them on for the first time and I just remember this sense of joy. It was just fun and I had never really thought of wearing pants as fun. It was always something that I did because you’re not allowed to walk outside without pants, but all of a sudden pants were fun.

Q: Can you set the scene around the time you launched?

A: It was so exciting what was happening in Silicon Valley at that time. Facebook was coming off the ground and Twitter had just been launched. I really wanted to build something on the internet and here’s this guy, my good friend, who’s made a better-fitting men’s pant. The curved waistband, the right fit in the rise, the right fit through the thigh, really confidence inspiring fit, and I thought, ‘Wait a second, maybe this physical product is actually the internet company that I’ve been looking for.’ Maybe by taking this great product and selling it online we can deliver better service, more fit, more size and get out to a much wider group of people than the traditional way retail brands are built. Make it almost instantly available to the whole country.

So here we were running around school having guys try on pants. Guys are like dropping their pants behind parked cars and trees, giving us checks and cash to buy the product. At some point we woke up and we had tens of thousands of dollars from selling pants and that’s when you can kind of humbly say to yourself, ‘Maybe we’re on to something.’

Q: How do you decide what products to take on next?

A: We actually got it wrong at first, which is equally helpful in life to getting it right, because you learn acutely and quickly through pain. It tells you what to avoid. What we did was we went from pants into swimsuits. We told ourselves that our joie de vivre in the print energy of the brand was the thing, because we had these really cool prints that we did in the pocket liners. And part of us believed that the design ethos was the most important thing. Our swimsuits bombed. It’s not that we didn’t sell any, but we just sold very few.

In fact, for half a decade we had a cave called the swim cave in our offices where we kept the excess inventory of the swimsuits because we didn’t have the courage to liquidate it. So we learned that actually design matters, but the design is most important when it runs through a great fit to begin with.

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