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Custom clothier turns to technology to boost efficiency and profits.

When Annette Wallander started her custom clothing business, she wanted to create a place for women looking for an alternative to impersonal department store racks. And from the beginning, she succeeded with The Garment District.

“Men have always had tailors,” Wallander said. “There really isn’t a good way for a woman who wants a certain type of material and style — and wants it to fit her — to find it.”

Women could come into the store, choose from a seemingly endless array of designs, colors and fabrics. The garments were custom-made and, through a series of fittings, perfectly tailored to each customer.

Prices were relatively low. A custom-made skirt and suit jacket would cost about $750 — comparable to the price of a designer suit from an upscale retail store.

But the process was time consuming and profit margins were small. Wallander would never be able to realize her dream of opening stores in other cities.

Rather than close up shop or struggle to make the store eke out modest profits, Wallander went shopping. This time, instead of visiting fabric and design shows, Wallander began looking for a new production system.

She found the perfect fit in a software package that meshes customers’ measurements with clothing designs to generate made-to-measure patterns that can be sent along with fabric directly to a contract sewing shop. The software package replaced the time-consuming step of first making each garment from muslin fabric that was fit to the customer’s body and served as an exact pattern for the final item.

With the new system in place, Wallander expects to be able to make more capital investments in the company and still break even this year. Next year, she anticipates turning a profit and hopes to start working on expanding the business beyond just a single location. Wallander said she would like to take on some investors to finance additional stores, opening four or five in the next few years.

“We really want to be first to market,” she said.

Clothing design always has been a passion for Wallander. She started sewing her own clothes when she was 10 years old and went on to a career in the retail industry. Most recently, she worked as a wholesale buyer for Liz Claiborne before setting out on her own.

She opened The Garment District in 1997, choosing a store-front location in Hyde Park on Edwards Road. Wallander said many people were skeptical about her plans for the business because they thought no one could offer women the selection they want while still making each item to order. Today, she offers customers 75 basic designs from which they can make a myriad of alterations, such as lengthening a hem line, changing a neck line or adjusting a sleeve shape.

“We can have all these options in one 1,100-square-foot space and not have all the markdown exposure,” Wallander said.

Many sales at The Garment District are for special occasion outfits, such as mother-of-the-bride dresses, but business and day-wear orders are picking up. Carol Williams, a news anchor for WCPO Channel 9, had two jackets made at The Garment District a year ago because she was having trouble finding suits that properly fit her size two frame.

“It is hard to get jackets that fit and look good and you don’t have to have altered,” Williams said.

The Garment District does very little marketing and relies heavily on word-of-mouth and repeat business to drive sales. So far, that strategy seems to be working, with sales up more than 100 percent over last year. (Wallander declined to disclose exact revenue figures.)

Jean McDowell of Hyde Park first went to The Garment District on the advice of a friend after spending hours looking for a dress to wear for a special anniversary.

“I am at the age when Lycra is not the most becoming and sleeveless dresses, spaghetti straps and so forth,” said McDowell, 70. “All of my friends agree that this is not the year for us.”

At The Garment District, McDowell was able to help design an outfit with long, flowing pants, a beaded jacket and a camisole. McDowell said she was so happy with the results that she already has placed her second order with Wallander.

“Since the pants were so lovely, I decided I needed a very simple top for more simple occasions, and I am thinking about doing some things in the fall,” McDowell said.

Susan Hickenlooper, also of Hyde Park, has rapidly become a frequent customer. She first visited the store on the advice of a friend in February when she was having difficulty finding a dress to wear to the opening of the Cincinnati Flower Show. Hickenlooper, a board member of the Cincinnati Horticultural Society, had looked in New York and Florida, as well as in Cincinnati without luck.

“I am nearly 5 foot 4 inches, and evidently my proportions are not the same as what the manufacturers make,” she said.

Since her first purchase, Hickenlooper has gone back to the store, ordering everything from khaki pants to cocktail dresses. The pricing, she said, is excellent when compared to designer items that often cost $2,800 for a single jacket.

“I can buy about three outfits for the price of one jacket,” Hickenlooper said. “I have gotten many more compliments than when I have been wearing designer things.” – Lauren Lawley Head

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