Men’s fashions change very slowly. By and large, the shirts I wore in high school are still in fashion. (Too bad they don’t fit). In fact, I bet that many of the shirts my Dad wore in high school would still be in fashion. So, there’s not much room for innovation in men’s shirts, is there? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
It’s a good thing that Elliot Gant didn’t get the memo. Elliot, who started Gant Shirtmakers with his brother Martin in 1949, died a few days ago at age 89. The Gant brothers innovated where most other managers never even thought about it. The Gants observed closely and made a series of innovative enhancements. Though each innovation was small, the cumulative effect was huge (as they say in New York).
Here’s how the New York Times describes how the Gant brothers changed and enhanced the traditional button down shirt.
The Gant brothers perfected the collar’s shape, known as the perfect roll, formed by the front edges of the buttoned collar. They introduced the box pleat in the back to allow more freedom of movement, the extra button in the back of the collar to keep the tie in place, and the patented button tab that connects beneath the necktie to push the knot up and out. (The tab won an award from Esquire magazine.)
They also introduced the hanger loop on the back of the shirt so that it could be hung on a hook — in a locker, say — without wrinkling.
The Times writes that the locker loop became, “…a collegiate and high school totem: A young man would remove it from his shirt to signal that he was going steady.” I remember it somewhat differently. If a girl liked you, she would walk up behind you in the high school hallway, pull the loop off the back of your shirt, and keep it as a memento. Sadly, most of my shirts still had their loops.
How did the Gant brothers create a teenage totem from something as unoriginal as a shirt? According to the Gant website, the Gant brothers knew their customer well and focused on a very specific segment: young, preppy men. They never let their gaze wander. They also dedicated themselves to quality as an important differentiator in a largely undifferentiated market.
They also innovated in advertising and marketing communications. They relocated their company from Brooklyn to New Haven, Connecticut largely because New Haven had a large population of skilled tailors. It also, of course, had Yale University. As the website notes, the Gant brothers used Yale for design inspiration and also for marketing. They created the American East Coast University look, which was “distinctive and debonair”. It was what the cool kids wore.
Gant chose to market in nontraditional ways as well. They started with the Yale Co-op, a campus store “…where [students] went to buy clothing and as the Ivy League Look exploded the Yale Co-op was the nexus of the new style.”
Gant also advertised in non-traditional media – non-traditional for men’s clothing at least. They started with small one-eighth page ads in The New Yorker, a magazine for the smart set. They grew upward and outward from here.
When we think of innovation today, we of then think of big, audacious game-changers – artificial intelligence, robots, automatons, and so on. But let’s remember that we can innovate on a smaller scale as well. Changing where and how you place a button on a shirt can create a valuable brand, important differentiation, and even a teenage totem. Innovation doesn’t require large-scale genius. It simply requires observation, imagination, and dedication. Thinking small is just as important as thinking big.