Behind the Label

Jason Mandler’s story started out like a Hollywood cliché, until it wasn’t.

As a young man from the Midwest, Mandler moved to California to take a job in the mailroom at an elite Hollywood talent agency with hopes of making it big.  But Mandler’s career took a detour. Instead of representing some of Hollywood’s biggest actors, he ended up dressing one of the biggest stars in the world. And he did it all without a formal background in fashion.

On the surface, Jason Mandler’s name may not be familiar but he hopes his clothing line, Jason Scott (Scott is his middle name), will become a staple in men’s closets and dresser drawers. His self-named brand is now sold at Nordstrom, several boutiques, online, and from his store in New York City bearing his name.

While he sells button downs, polos, pants and sweatshirts, his t-shirts are his signature standout. They come in the standard styles and colors: crew neck, henley, blue, black, and white. Some shirts have a blue square instead of a pocket. However, these shirts are far from the 6-pack of Hanes you can buy at Target.

“I wanted that feeling when you put on a nice suit.  You sort of feel successful. You feel confident,” Mandler said.  He believes a T-shirt should conjure that same feeling.

Scott’s shirts are not cheap, ranging in price from $65-$125. The shirts are as soft as a teddy bear yet look like a custom-made garment: trim but not constricting.  

Personal disclosure:  I’ve owned a bunch Jason Scott shirts over the years.  I think of them as a standout option because, in my eyes, the fit makes me look trim.  It’s what prompted my intrigue for this story.

Actor Harrison Ford wore one of Scott’s t-shirts on the cover of GQ.  It was all by chance. A stylist happened to pick up one of the shirts at a store in Santa Monica.

Mandler’s entrance into fashion comes as men’s everyday attire is changing.

Suits are no longer the standard.  In March, mega bank Goldman Sachs no longer required its employees to wear a tie.   Tech companies have long embraced casual clothing as Pew Researchers note a growing millennial workforce.

Mandler is betting his T-shirts that often cost as much as dress shirts have become the new norm.  He is confident it will remain that way, aiming to prove men are willing to pay for quality, comfort, and timeless design.

“Casual wear shouldn’t be just over-sized, sloppy, wear around the house.  You should be able to wear it in your daily life and mix it with your current blazer or your leather jacket, your nicer pieces as well,” Mandler said.

While his business may be fashion, Mandler’s appearance doesn’t scream designer.  He isn’t clad in all black from head to toe. He looks like the kind of guy you’d see at a sports bar. When we met, he had on khaki pants with a charcoal colored t-shirt layered on top of a white t-shirt. A Chicago native, Mandler also wore a Cubs hat.  No fancy shoes, just sneakers. In many ways, he looked like the customer he’s trying to court.

Sitting in his store in Tribeca, which could easily double as a bachelor pad living room, Mandler recounted the roundabout that changed his Hollywood story, that began about six years ago.

When he worked in the mailroom at William Morris in Beverly Hills, he made a point of being well-dressed.  He bought cheap suits from Urban Outfitters, Zara, and H&M. However, he made sure they were well-tailored.  

“At William Morris I was definitely known for being a well-dressed kid,” said Mandler.  “They thought I came from a lot of money, which I don’t, because my suits fit me.”

Mandler’s sartorial trick helped cement his plan for the future.

“I had one lady stop me on the street in Beverly Hills and asked me where my suit … or she asked me if I was wearing a Tom Ford suit, and I appreciated that. I showed her the label. It was actually from H&M. She was dumbfounded. And that’s where the whole thing, I think, kind of started, was just tailor.”

It was that philosophy of fit that helped model his merchandise and led to the creation of his brand.

Mandler didn’t study fashion formally. His foray into fashion was a progression.  

Watching his colleagues in entertainment struggle, Mandler knew the life of a Hollywood agent was not for him. The realization transformed his casual interest in style to an enterprise.   

Mandler’s evolution began in the most perfunctory of ways.

During his lunch breaks and weekends, he spent hours and hours in department stores.  

“It was an accumulative thing,” Mander said.  “I was spending more and more time realizing, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been in Nordstrom for three hours and not buying anything.  I’m just looking at the clothes, and I’m analyzing my friend’s stuff and my stuff.”

His interest morphed into a new vocation.

Mandler quit the agency and got a job at night managing an Asian Fusion restaurant to pay the bills.

He became a student of sorts, self-educating himself during the day in L.A.’s fashion district. He met with knitters, and jobbers (fabric suppliers).  

The Pima Cotton is pre-laundered and preshrunk.  He worked with a factory in Peru to come up with a technique so the fabric he uses remains soft when it is dyed.

While he got advice from the experts, Google and YouTube became his go-to tools.

After two years of self-education, and many long days and nights, Mandler had some samples and lots of drive.  While he was frugal, he didn’t have the money needed to launch his product to the next level.

He didn’t have an investor.

He didn’t have a surplus of his own money.

So, he turned to credit.

“Credit cards were a lifesaver,” Mandler said.  “If credit cards didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have a company.  Just calling them, begging for more time, paying them off over time.”

Mandler’s shirts slowly got some retail placement, giving him exposure and cash flow.

Whatever profits he made, he immediately reinvested in the brand.

By the end of 2016, Mandler started to ramp up production.  It was time to leave his apartment headquarters and set up shop in New York.

Today, he has nine employees.  Some are part-time; some are full-time.

Mandler would not release any details about his revenue, but while drinking a matcha tea drink, he insisted expansion is on the horizon.

Mandler says his endgame is 20 to 25 stores in the United States, then five to ten stores overseas.  He’s looking to open another store in his hometown of Chicago later this year. The plan is to open three or four more stores in 2020.

“I want to grow this brand to something very, very large,” Mandler said.  “Not from money standpoint, but because I have too many friends that work at these big companies that are miserable and I want to create an environment that is fun.”

Mandler’s ambition can’t be questioned.   But the fashion biz is fickle and cut-throat.  

Jason Scott has some company.  Mack Weldon, Tommy John, Rhone, Kit and Ace and Marine Layer are part of a burgeoning sector in men’s fashion.

All of these brands have similar products which double as sporty and slightly formal. It’s a sector of fashion that, for the moment, is dominated by powerhouse Lululemon.  Those who study retail call the style “athleisure.”

I was shocked to discover “athleisure” is now part of Webster’s dictionary.  A noun, athleisure is defined as “casual clothing designed to be worn both for exercising and for general use.”

“The fashion of our culture as a whole has become more casual,” said Dr. Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, an associate professor of history at The New School in New York City.

While men have been trying to push the limits between extremely casual and corporate, Petrzela says this evolution has been developing for the past two decades, especially with the advent of the tech boom in the late 90s/early 2000s.

“I think the trend is especially noticeable among men because men are often associated with business attire, and we are seeing a real casualization of office wear,” Petrzela said. “Since a leisured look is often associated with an idealized lifestyle of a certain kind of affluent woman, seeing these styles on men can be more jarring.”

This transition is far from anecdotal.

Lululemon, the brand leader, reported net revenue of nearly $3.3 billion.  Right now, it has 440 stores around the world, including the United States, China, the United Kingdom, Japan and Korea.  

The company is aggressively trying to win over men and it’s telling its shareholders.

“Our business is growing as more men discover the technical rigor and premium quality of our products, and are attracted by our distinctive brand,” the company noted in its annual report.  In addition, the company signed former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles as a menswear ambassador.

It’s “symbolic of a real shift in how acceptable, and even aspirational, expensive athleisure has become as a look for men who might have shunned it even 5 years ago,” Petrzela said.  “Premium athleisure is predicated on the idea that people value comfort, but aren’t willing to succumb to ratty old sweatpants to get it.”

While Mandler’s ambition may motivate him, can he compete against an empire as established as Lululemon?

“There’s always room for niche players,” said retail analyst Stacey Widlitz, who studies retail from her offices in London and New York.  

Mandler is doing something very important.  He’s not depending solely on an online portal for success.  Unlike many emerging businesses of his generation, he’s combining a digital presence with a storefront.  Although many retailers are giving up stores, in the case of men’s apparel, it’s a bit of a necessity to survive.  Mack Weldon just opened a store at New York’s Hudson Yards.

“You see what you look good in, you understand what looks good on you, what works, and then you replenish online,” Widlitz said.

She doesn’t see the high price tags as a turn-off to male shoppers, noting a “healthy market for something that’s going to last.”

Still, fashion is fickle. The shirts may be solid, but will this trend last?   Will men soon be swapping their t-shirts for suits once again?

“I don’t think that’s a trend that’s changing, it’s even spreading over into the denim world,” said Widlitz, noting a surge in denim fabrics that aren’t so restrictive.

But what if the experts and the analysts are all wrong?   What if bankers start wearing three-piece suits again?

Mandler isn’t worried.  

He feels the quality of his product is so strong, it will allow him to thrive an arena that is getting crowded by the moment.

“I would still think we have a very viable business, because that Wall Street guy that wears a suit and tie every day, he doesn’t wear a suit on the weekends,” Mandler said.

“But he still wants that sort of tailored, dressed-up T-shirt or sweatshirt when he’s traveling or when he’s out with his kid. So that’s where we fall into place.”

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