Bards Clothing President Matthew Banever wasn’t deterred by COVID-19 when it came to launching his business. Instead, he embraced a new opportunity. Matthew reached out to MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price to share his entrepreneurial story.

NAN PRICE: Give us a little background. How did you develop the concept for Bards Clothing?

MATTHEW BANEVER: I had been working in West Hartford Center for about seven years. I had positions at retail boutiques Jos. A. Bank and Daswali Clothiers, where I started discovering a love for the business aspect. I’ve also been involved in the community through the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce, where I was one of the founding members of Future Leaders of West Hartford (FLOW); the Mayor’s Charity Ball; and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

I always enjoyed making connections, whether it’s with customers, suppliers, or people in the community. And I loved that balance of those three. As I became more involved in the business side of things, I realized I wanted to be a part of it. 

Over the last six or so years, I’ve had this idea in the back of my mind to put together a retail business. Like many entrepreneurs, I was waiting for the right time and all the stars to align. Finally, when quarantine hit, I was very much unessential. I was just sitting on my couch. And, after years of going full steam ahead, I thought: What am I doing? I can clearly make this business work.

NAN: Tell us about how your original plan to open a storefront shifted with the COVID-19 pandemic.

MATTHEW: I spent all of 2019 writing a business plan for a brick-and-mortar store with seasonal inventory. I had a 35-page plan locked and loaded, ready to go. Then, when it came time to quarantine, I was reading through it with a red pen. I started rethinking and crossing a lot of things out.

I read so much about the need for sustainable, American-made, and tech-friendly clothing. I thought: Why would I bring all these suits in the hopes that somebody buys them, especially with everything going on? I realized I can just make a suit when somebody orders one. So, I adjusted and maneuvered my business plan.

NAN: How so?

MATTHEW: When I started seeing stores closing and big companies claim bankruptcy, I came up with a two-step plan, which was to start my company by going direct to consumer.

The first part is to establish my name by going to people’s homes or offices and measuring them for custom clothing. That serves two purposes: one, building credibility and two, with the whole mindset of COVID-19, it keeps sanitation and cleanliness very concise. Having people come into a store wearing masks and wiping down dressing rooms kind of takes the luxury away from luxury clothing. Instead, I’ll come to your home or office, wearing a mask, of course. People know their own home or office is clean, so they have the safety measures in place and I provide that luxury service.

I feel there will be residual effects from COVID-19 for years. It will change how people want to shop. So, going direct to consumer seems like something that would work for several years and would be perfectly in line with the necessity of building up a startup.

Then, by the time I’m a little more established, I can open a showroom that doesn’t have piles and racks of clothing. Instead, I see it as a place where clients can come in and spend some time being measured in a relaxed, friendly environment that would bode well with the entire brand I’m building.

NAN: How are you building and marketing to your clientele?

MATTHEW: I built a website and I decided I’m not going to do Facebook. I’m going to heavily promote on Instagram. I’ve seen that be very successful in luxury brands.

I also send out weekly newsletters so I can become a source of knowledge, not just a place to buy things. I’m working on establishing myself in that way, where I can network without going to networking events. Weekly newsletters are a way for me to consistently be in people’s inboxes and, when the time is right and people go back to weddings or presentations or other events, I’ll be there.

That’s one advantage to things going virtual. I have one client who’s been going to an annual convention for 10 years. Typically, about 200 people attended. Last month, they decided to broadcast the event and more than 2,000 people attended. People are now realizing they’re being seen by more than just the people in the room. And, there are pictures from an event, sometimes a webcast, an article, or a social media post you’re tagged in. I keep reminding people: There are going to be more eyeballs on you than ever before and you want to look good for that!

I do have a pretty finite core clientele and a few customers I’ve carried over. My business is very much based on word of mouth referrals. That’s the best way for me to build up this business. People aren’t apt to just wander in and buy a suit right off the rack, because they feel like it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a $200 suit or a $2,000 suit, people still want that trust, which comes from word of mouth.

NAN: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned starting out?

MATTHEW: One thing that was really important for me before pulling the trigger and leaving my good job was the ability to look forward. I could see opportunities coming. If what you want to bring into the world can connect things, that’s enough of a net to make a leap.

I saw a rise in American-made and sustainable clothing, and I’m able to offer that to my clientele. I can put that together for the products I offer that are sustainable, technology-based, and purely made in America. It’s been great to know what I want to bring into the future and try to tie it all together. And, you’ll find out that it’s much more comforting when you start to tie those knots nicely and neatly.

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