I am a big believer in new, highly focused online fashion brands that can be built with a purely digital strategy. Combatant Gentlemen is a case in point. The company bootstrapped to $700K in revenue, followed it up with a $2.2 million financing round, and is on track to deliver $15 million in revenue this year. The market is large, and hence the opportunity to scale exists.
Sramana Mitra: Vishaal, let’s start at the beginning of your story. Where are you from? Where did you grow up and in what kind of background?
Vishaal Melwani: I am a third-generation tailor. I grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada, believe it or not. My dad was a second-generation tailor. My parents came to America in 1976 from Hong Kong. The goal was to basically have the American dream and focus in on what they knew. He made custom suits for a lot of politicians in Las Vegas at that time. Las Vegas was really a frontier town. In the process, he met a man by the name of Gianni Versace and he actually made a suit for him. What he didn’t know at that time was that Gianni Versace who now is a huge couture house today, would be his business partner for the next 20 years. Gianni Versace was very elated by my dad. They became really good friends.
They decided to go into business together and this is when Gianni himself was just tailoring for France and Italy. He got a lot of money from the local Italian government to start his own brand. One of the first flagship boutiques, besides Milan and New York, was the Las Vegas store. That was the first franchise that they’ve ever done. Then they did the Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. From there, it just blossomed into about 22 stores with my dad and the whole family at the helm of the business. I grew up in this weird couture high-end fashion world focusing on what’s really going on around me. For more cumbersome work, my dad would bring me in and I would be his backup seamstress. I would do hems. I would alter clothing.
I’ve always hated that part of my life, going in on summer vacations and literally just selling things. It was this mundane thing that I had to do but what was really cool about it was that I was able to travel the world with my dad and go to Milan, showrooms, and go over the world and see what they were doing. For a couple who immigrated to the US who didn’t have much money to then finding themselves in this empire with the Versace family was really cool. Growing up in that realm was really interesting.
When I was 18, I got the, “You have to go to college or we’re not going to pay your bills.” I ended up leaving Vegas and going to California where I attended University of California, Irvine where I studied International Business. It was all I knew at that time. I knew how to import. I export goods from overseas. I figured I’m not really into school so I just do something I really know.
The one thing that my parents wanted me to do was stay away from fashion and tailoring because it’s a very hard job. It’s grueling. The fashion world is very difficult. Being their only born son, I wanted to rebel and said, “I’m going to clothing.” I ended up moving to Japan for a couple of years and I got a job with a huge trading firm where I was SVP of denim exports. Denim was my passion at that time. Because I could speak English and I understood Japanese, I could then correlate back and forth between huge fashion brands over here like True Religion and also get the orders put through Japanese mails.
The one thing that I didn’t really like was the rigid Japanese business structure. Although it’s very successful for a lot of people, I couldn’t handle the fact that it was so cut throat and so severe. After a couple of years, I came back to Southern California. There are a lot of brands that could use the help and I wanted to do this on my own. I started my own trading firm which was called Melwanis MFG that help young brands get into overseas manufacturing.
At that time, there was a huge bubble in active wear, street wear, and urban wear. A lot of these guys were making several millions of dollars off of just making T-shirts. My goal was to get them to expand their brand and revenue without having too much trouble. I said, “I have all this access to all these factories whether in Malaysia or Japan. Let me help you get into these factories.”