By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent
When Ge Wang quit his job as an attorney, it was to become something of a traveling salesman.
But instead of going door to door to convince people to buy his wares, Wang travels to clients he has established — including some high-profile professional athletes — with the expressed intent of selling his goods to eager customers.
Wang is the founder of ESQ Clothing, a bespoke suit shop in Chicago, which has sold hundreds of custom suits to customers including former Chicago Bears star Matt Forte and Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly.
The custom clothing business is a far cry from Wang’s initial career path — he worked for his father’s small law firm, Wang Leonard & Condon, before starting the transition into his clothing business in 2012. He sold his first suit in August 2013.
The difference between ESQ Clothing and the competition lies in meticulous attention to detail, says Wang, who travels the world to find a wide variety of fine fabrics for the suits. Off-the-rack suits start at $800 while his suits start at $2,000 and can reach a bit south of $20,000.
This detail can be seen in everything from the cut of a suit based on the customer’s posture to the comfort of Wang’s brick-and-mortar space at 555 W. Jackson Blvd., where a customer can relax at a pool table or use a PlayStation without worrying about being harassed.
“The thing I really despised as a consumer is walking into a store and getting hounded nonstop,” he said. “That’s not what we’re about. No gimmicks … we’re just here to create a better product.”
Wang spoke with Chicago Lawyer about his business as he drove from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh on a work assignment.
Chicago Lawyer: When did you know you wanted to be a lawyer?
Wang: Probably ever since I was a kid. My dad is a lawyer, so I grew up around it, but it was probably because of my younger sister. I was a kid who always listened to my parents and she always argued with them, so in my head, I thought maybe I should try that too. I got into this argumentative phase, where I analyzed the other sides of everything.
CL: How did ESQ Clothing start?
Wang: I had to wear a suit every day as a lawyer, and I always cared about how I dressed, going back to summer internships in college. I could never find the right fit for myself buying (off-the-rack) designer brands, and I wondered why I didn’t look like the guys in the fashion magazines. When American guys work out, we lift; European guys run, so a lot of those suits fit us a bit differently and are not cut for us. I had lots of stuff made for me that I liked, so I figured with my background and connections, I could get a few suits made for myself and my friends, if nothing else.
CL: Were you scared to leave the family business?
Wang: It definitely wasn’t an overnight thing in which I dropped law and did this full time; it was a slow transition. I realized I couldn’t do both at 50 percent each, and I knew if I really wanted to take this to the next level, I had to focus on it 100 percent. There was definitely a lot of risk involved, but the nice thing about having a law degree is I never had to think about having a Plan B because I knew I would always have some insurance.
CL: How did your family feel about the transition?
Wang: A little mixed. I know my dad wasn’t completely thrilled because my entire life he’d been telling me that I’d help him with his practice one day. But my dad owns and runs his own firm and my mom is an entrepreneur (in the auto parts business). So, coming from that, I had a lot of support. They both understand what it’s like and they’ve both been helpful along the way.
CL: What is your general customer demographic?
Wang: The athletes get us the most exposure, but we’re here to dress normal guys — lawyers, bankers and guys who need to wear suits on a regular basis. We do a lot for weddings. I was in Philly yesterday [fitting] an entire marketing firm.
CL: How do you manage your competition?
Wang: We’ve grown quite a bit. When I started, we were similar to other custom suit shops in Chicago in that we did made-to-measure clothing, which essentially is starting off with a 42 jacket, add or subtract and boom — there’s your custom suit. Everything gets cut from the same template. This is what about 95 percent of suit shops do. Is it a big upgrade from an off-the-rack suit? Yes. Was I happy with it? No.
You see these so-called custom suits start at $900, and people ask why we start at $2,000. I tell them it’s because guys who get those made-to-measure suits all come out of the store looking the same, so people are seeking us out because they are thinking it’s got to be so much more than just this.
In terms of quality, I’m trying to make a better product every day, so I have an exclusive team of tailors that cut everything from scratch so the suit is made just for you. I travel the world trying to find the best fabrics; right now we’re at about 42,000 different fabrics.
I will hold my stuff up against any retailer in Chicago and elsewhere. Ralph Lauren Purple Label to Brioni to Tom Ford, we are 10 times nicer than what they bring to the table.
CL: Why do you personally travel so much?
Wang: I built a lot of relationships when I started this, so most guys want to see me. Right now, guys in the NFL are gearing up for the season, so lots of them are calling me out to pick out stuff for the upcoming season. I have clients in pretty much every locker room [in the NFL]; in the past month, I’ve probably been in 13 cities.
CL: Do you utilize your law degree with ESQ Clothing?
Wang: The greatest thing about law school is it teaches you how to talk to people. I had no sales experience coming out of college or for my first job. I think I learned it all in law school. Those skills are invaluable, but there’s also stuff like simple contract agreements that I draft myself. I can look over those myself, and that definitely helps.
CL: What do you see for the future of ESQ Clothing?
Wang: I already have an established clientele base, so what we’re trying to do is get other sales representatives to build their own clientele base using ESQ as a platform. We’re training them for measurement techniques and to have a good eye. We never have to worry about sacrificing quality because we have such a unique group of tailors that are so good at what they do, so once we get everyone else properly trained, really the sky’s the limit.
CL: What’s the most rewarding aspect of the business to you?
Wang: I feel like when we make something that makes someone happy, we’re adding a lot of value. Especially if a guy is getting married or going to big events to look his absolute best and we can be a part of it, that brings a lot of joy to me. [A suit] might seem like a minute detail, but think about the brides who spend exorbitant amounts for a dress, and the groom just has a rented tux. Twenty years later, he can look back and feel very proud.