“Clothes make the man,” as Mark Twain famously stated. But what about the woman?
So easily regarded as simply frivolous, fashion—especially women’s fashion—is often the quiet battleground of competing social, political and economic forces. Setting aside all the (very worthy) debates raging around dress-code double standards, the negative health impacts of high heels and racist overtones in lipstick shades, one particular aspect of women’s fashion has been largely overlooked: the suit.
As corporate professions have been historically male-dominated for centuries, there exists a vast and healthy marketplace for men’s suits at all price levels. But for women, finding a well-fitting professional suit is a challenge, especially at lower price levels. In light of this disparity, a University of Alberta law graduate has launched Austen Adler, a company providing made-to-measure suits for women.
“The idea for it came in my very first week in law school,” Jacob Marchel says. “As a guy, the market has existed for 100 years … there’s nothing that I can’t necessarily buy as a guy, for professional clothes. So I spent a day [shopping] and I had no problem. I went to Moore’s, I spent $1000, and I was good for three years for my clothing.
“But I remember coming back, and I was sitting in the library and a friend of mine, she came and she looked exasperated and she just said, ‘I’ve spent an entire weekend looking for one outfit.’ And as a guy—not to gender stereotype—but that idea just completely blew me away. How do you spend an entire weekend looking for an outfit, that you didn’t actually end up finding?”
After his friend explained the very different experience women often have when shopping for clothes (especially professional clothes), Marchel joked that it seemed like a good business opportunity. He didn’t actually start working on the concept for another two years, until a confluence of events led to the fruition of Austen Adler.
For anyone working in various corporate professions, a suit is mandatory. Dress codes aside, image is an intrinsic part of a company’s brand and hiring managers won’t consider those who don’t fit that image. Accessing affordable, well-fitting suits is a necessary step prior to entering certain fields—and while it might be tempting to think that such white collar professionals make buckets of cash and can therefore afford to shop at high-end clothing stores or hire a tailor, that’s a vast oversimplification. There exists a spectrum of careers that require one to wear professional clothing—plus, most recent graduates and people just entering a profession likely aren’t starting out with gold-plated salaries (if they ever make one).
“I want this to be the first suit they invest in,” Marchel says. “Having a good suit is a part of your armoury of how you get a good job and how you network and all that. I don’t want to break the bank while they’re still in school or just a recent grad.”
Austen Adler’s first line focuses on five different styles, two classic and three modern. The suits, a blend of wool, cashmere, viscose and a bit of elasticity for stretch, are $350 each (including shipping), contain enough hidden fabric to be easily tailored up or down one-and-a-half sizes, and are currently available in four colours. They are made overseas in a little town that Marchel discovered in his research, and while he prefers not to disclose details about the suits’ provenance for competitive reasons, he assures that he did his homework in sourcing out a sustainable place in compliance with all labour safety laws.
“That was really important to me, because my interest is actually environmental law—sustainability and responsibility is a big thing,” Marchel says, noting that he has visited the manufacturer personally. “So I made it a point that they have all the government regulation they need and that it’s clean. … What I’m hoping to do is, once I have some exclusivity clauses signed in with the contract, I’m going to be trying to make it as transparent as possible so that people could actually see pictures of where [the suits are] made.”
Part of Austen Adler’s mandate is to reframe the fashion industry, particularly at the local level.
“I want to create a fashion network in Edmonton,” Marchel says. He has partnered with Mariam Elamy to design the first line, but also wants to reach out to design students to offer them a chance to make some money on a commission and build their résumé while they’re still in school.
“Even though we kind of put the designs together with the manufacturer, the goal is we’re actually trying to crowdsource fashion designs,” he says. “Instead of sort of the elitist, hiring a design team.”
Marchel also hopes to simply make Austen Adler suits work for all women.
“Our new line, I’m trying to get really ethnically diverse modelling,” he explains. “I was actually inspired by some of the controversy that MAC had, with its makeup: there was some darker-skinned African models who responded that the lipsticks didn’t look as good on them because of their complexion. I want to make sure I have colours that look good on whatever your skin tone, whatever your body form.”