My favorite chinos and jeans come from the same person: Peter Manning. Frustrated with the options available for men under 5’8”, Peter launched his own clothing company in March 2012, with the daunting goal of making wardrobe staples that fit well on short men. Given how well my Peter Manning chinos and denim fit on me, I’d say he’s definitely doing something right.
Peter was gracious enough to talk with me at length about his company and fascinating back story—how often do you meet a guy who’s gone from winning a Tony to being an award-winning real estate developer, only to then launch his own clothing line?
I found Peter charming and inspiring, with an infectious passion for pursuing big dreams. Read on for more about tackling the challenges of fit, taking sweatpants to the tailor (yeah, seriously), and sage advice from Peter for anyone wanting to start their own business.
Note: This transcript has been edited for length and comprehension. And it’s STILL a mammoth interview.
Aliotsy: Hi, Peter. Thanks for your time, I appreciate you being willing to chat with me for a little bit.
Peter Manning: Oh, no, happy to do it.
Aliotsy: I’ll just start with my first question. You launched Peter Manning in March 2012 and received press from the New York Times and Esquire. How did Spring 2012 go?
Peter Manning: It went unbelievably well, beyond expectations.
You know, our customer base came from all over the country. We just heard from so many people saying, “Oh my gosh, I’ve been waiting literally my entire life for this. Why has no one done this? Thank you for doing this,” you know, and tons of, “When are you going to make jeans? When are you going to make suits? What about this? What about that?”
So that’s been fun, too, trying to sort of listen to the customer and also try to figure things out and listen to the customer and find out what’s working and find out what’s not, and see what I have to adjust. I mean, we’re a young company, and this company is literally all about the customer. That’s all that matters to me, is making the customer happy and feel great.
Aliotsy: Well I think that’s a good segue into my next question. I think an introduction is in order. What is Peter Manning, and what makes you so passionate about it? And why do you think it resonated so well with your customers?
Peter Manning: For me, it’s just my whole life of frustration. I like clothes, I mean, I’m not crazy about fashion or anything; I like clothes, and it’s just always been a struggle to find clothes that fit. And it just was driving me crazy.
I talked to a bunch of top people at major retailers, and they just said, “Yeah, we know you exist, but we’re not going to do anything about it.” And then when I started doing more research and realizing that it was 25% of American men, I said, “I just can’t be the only one who feels like this.” Even if it’s 10% of those 25% of American men, they’re going to want some clothes that fit right.
And so I just decided I’d had it, and I really wanted to make clothes for me and the other guys like me who just wanted a pair of pants that fit off the rack. And it’s pretty simple.
Aliotsy: For the readers out there who are over 5’ 8”, could you explain your concept of the “tailor tax?”
Peter Manning: Yeah. If you want clothes to fit really well and you’re under 5’ 8”, pretty much every pair—I’ve never bought a pair of pants from any store that didn’t have to be altered. And you know, I’m 5’ 8”, which people say, “You’re not short,” and I say, “I know, but I have a 28” or, you know, sometimes 27” to 28” inseam and you have to take every pair of pants to be tailored and you just don’t want to do that. I mean, it’s okay with a suit when you’re getting it tailored, and that’s okay, but still, I’ve had to take shirts in because they hang down to the middle of my thighs so if I tuck them in they’re bunched all up so I get my shirts shortened. And finally I was like, why am I paying all this tailor tax on these clothes? I should be able to buy a pair of jeans and a pair of chinos that fit correctly. There’s got to be, you know, I’m not that short, and I’ve got a 28” inseam, and you can’t find that anywhere.
Peter Manning: So there’s gotta be other guys like me.
Aliotsy: So, you’ve got quite the resume. You were a theatre producer, one of the youngest producers to win a Tony Award, you’ve produced a Broadway play, you’ve run a non-profit, you study architecture at Columbia, it sounds like, and developed an award-winning building in downtown New York. How did, what brought you to wanting to launch this clothing line, and why now?
Peter Manning: Well, actually, in my early career as a producer, I have natural producing skills; you know, making things happen and putting things together and moving things forward comes easily to me. I kind of see the end result and sort of know how to move things forward. And so in the theater, that put me in good stead.
When I had a child, I left the theater because I had a great run and there was no way to sort of keep doing theatre and raise a kid. So I went back to school and studied architecture, and my friend said, “Why don’t you be a developer? I think you’d be a great developer.” And I didn’t really know what a developer did, but I talked to this guy who’s super-smart and had been wildly successful in real estate, and I said, “Okay, I’ll go figure out what a developer does,” and he said, “We’ll do something together.”
And so I went and figured out what a developer did, and, you know, walked every street in New York, and looked and looked and looked, and tried to figure out how the numbers worked. And found this site that was extraordinary, and figured out how to finance it, and picked the designers and the architects to make it, and I realized, “Oh my gosh. It’s producing. It’s the same thing; a developer is a producer.” And sort of in the middle of that process, I went, “You know what? I can use these skills anywhere.”
And I wanted to do this line of clothes; really, I’ve told this story before, but when I was 10, I wanted bell-bottoms and my mother said, “Oh, sweetie, I can’t buy you bell-bottoms, because by the time I shorten them, they won’t be bell-bottoms anymore.” And I just thought, I remember so vividly that the moment she told me that, I remember exactly where we were: we were in the car, and what street we are, and we were parking—and I just thought, “It’s not fair. It’s just not fair.” And it’s always just struck me as not fair that the retail and the whole industry would just ignore such a huge segment of the population. So, I just realized the skills of my prior career was actually the career that led me to this, because it made me believe I had the skills.
You know, I wasn’t someone who came right out of school and went into merchandising, or fashion, or design; that wasn’t what I did, so I was sheepish about—well, how do I do this? I’m just guy who likes clothes and has a good eye and asked “How do I go and do this?” And when I started talking to retailers and people in the business who I’d run into in life in New York, they said, “That’s a great idea.” And they would lead me to one person, and I would talk to that person, they’d lead me to the next person.
And I began to figure out slowly what it takes to design and make a garment. When I first started, I really was focused on having stores all over the country, and sort of during that time, I realized, I don’t need to start with a store. I can start online. And that way I can reach more people. So that sort of helped because starting stores all over the country is really hard. But doing it online is also hard, but it’s easier in many ways, and less capital-intensive, and it allows us to reach people all over the country, which is a thrill. I get excited about this stuff.
Aliotsy: Oh, and I get excited hearing it. I’m actually, personally, just generally really, really interested in entrepreneurs and people who start things. It’s really exciting to hear and I think it’s an aspect of style or fashion that you don’t hear very much about. I think there’s a lot of opportunity out there these days for people to take an idea and run with it, especially online. I understand it took you two years to develop the line. What did you find most challenging in starting it?
Peter Manning: The most challenging was getting people and the people who were helping (the graders and the pattern-makers) to understand the size system that I wanted to develop. I knew that the size system had to be different, that we couldn’t have small, medium, large, extra large; it would be too confusing, because small, medium, large, and extra large mean something out in the big apparel retail menswear world.
Peter Manning: So I knew I had to have a new size system, because I was focusing on just the size 5’ 8” and under, just this 25%; I wanted to be really focused on kind of micro-fitting as best as we possibly can. I know everyone’s different shapes and sizes so it’s tricky, but I wanted to really be specific about getting people to understand that the grading from our 5 to our size 1 is not a straight line down. It’s sort of more like a hockey stick. You know, 4 and 5 are sort of a leap, and then 3, 2, and 1 are a little more similar sizing but a little shorter, which is unconventional, and it means your technical design has to be each individually done.
What happens in the regular world, they’ll do a medium and then they’ll scale up and scale down and drawn a line, you know, a diagonal line, and change those measurements sort of on the computer. And we couldn’t do that, so getting people in the factory to understand—no one will know this isn’t like other sizing.
This is something new and you have to understand, that’s been hard. And that’s been the biggest challenge. And the most important, because getting that sizing right as we grow is really crucial, and looking to the customer and finding what’s working and, you know, veering from size 1 to size 2 and saying, “This is good, but this isn’t,” and having to really listen and adjust.
Aliotsy: Right, I think I read that when you launched the line, you said that you didn’t expect everything to fit every man who bought from Peter Manning perfectly, but you were going to listen to your customers. What did you learn from them, and how are you responding?
Peter Manning: I learned that our size 2 and 1’s were a little small, and our weekend shirts was a little narrow at the top and a little wide at the bottom, so we’ve adjusted that for fall. We learned that our t-shirt was a little too slim and our polo was a little too boxy, so we’ve adjusted those so that they’re sort of in keeping, you know, someone might want a size 2 polo but with a size 3 t-shirt; now, if they’re a size 2, they should get both of those in a size 2. So adjustments in sizing, really. You know, we’re going to add a little bit to our waist sizes, because our waist sizes on our pants are generally true, pretty true, and the fact of the matter is, out in the world, at most stores, it’s not true, people add a half inch. So I wanted to add some size for our waist so it’s in keeping with, if you think you’re a 31 at Banana Republic or J. Crew or the Gap, you’ll be a 31 with us. Because I wanted to sort of get us in the right mix there. You know, those are the biggies.
(Ed. note: This interview was held shortly before the release of the Fall collection, so you can expect all of these fit adjustments in the clothes currently online.)
Aliotsy: Okay. Let’s talk about the style a little bit. You described the clothes as timeless American sportswear. What does that mean?
Peter Manning: Well, here’s the thing. Most men wear variations of the same thing. Sort of chino pants with four pockets and pleats or no pleats—we’ll never do pleats, they’re a disaster for shorter men—but it makes me insane to see men 5’ 8” and under with pleats. But you know, a button-down shirt, t-shirts, polos, like that’s kind of across the board what guys wear. This is not like high fashion, this is really broad-based apparel. Kind of preppy-ish, but if you look even at guys who aren’t preppy, like you see them and they’re wearing a blue Oxford with chinos; well, they’re not preppy, but that’s kind of preppy, you know what I mean? So the guys who really wear a very limited kind of thing that most men wear. They like to wear the same things, and so finding those things that really work for the broadest swath of men, and then as we build the company and you can sort of go into different design directions with different lines. And I think we’ll sort of branch out as we grow to sort of capture other designs, people who are just in different kinds of clothing. And once we get our scaling and our grading and our size system really locked-in, we can do that.
Aliotsy: Great. I received a pair of chinos from you, and I appreciated the details like the French fly, you have asymmetric back pockets, there’s a discreet coin pocket on the front, and then a change pocket on the inside of one of the pockets that uses the same twill fabric that you use for the pants themselves. (Ed. note: in the interest of disclosure, the chinos were given to me for free for review.)
Besides fit and design, what was most important to you?
Peter Manning: Oh, well obviously, quality. I hate to use that word because it’s so over-used and so abused that it’s come to mean nothing, but really giving customers the best quality clothes that I can for the price. That is my goal. So that’s the most important.
Now, I would say now we’re sort of doing things in a kind of little more basic way, like my kind of concept is let’s build this guy’s wardrobe from the ground up. Let’s get him in chinos, let’s get him in his white and blue polo shirts, you know, sort of get him there and then add from there. So as we grow, we’ll change up pants and sort of add more design elements as we go, but I want when a guy puts on our clothes, to put it on and go, “Ah!” Because there’s nothing—I’ve never, ever felt that. You know, I shop a lot, I shop at all different places, and I’ve never gone in and went, “Wow, great! That fits just right.” It just never happened to me. And that’s all I want for me and for my customer, is to go, “Oh my gosh! This fits just right! I can walk out of the house right away with this.” And design elements are important, making sure the customer knows that we really care about that and we really fuss over it.
Aliotsy: Yeah, I really appreciate that. On my site, I frequently get questions from people asking where to get shorter sizes. And beyond a certain size, I don’t know how to answer them, and now I have Peter Manning to recommend.
Peter Manning: Well, I’m thrilled.
Aliotsy: I mean, I was looking at the site again last night, and I love that the longest inseam that’s available for chinos is 29”, because most major brands stop at 30”. But I think the most amazing thing is that your waist sizes go all the way down to 28”. I mean, most places stop at 32” and if you’re lucky you might occasionally find a 30”, but a 28” is fairly rare.
Moving on, what do you have in your fall collection?
Peter Manning: We’ve got a great wool sweater in four really gorgeous colors, we have a new shirt called the everyday shirt, which is a button-down collar and some great two twills, and a white and blue Oxford cloth, and two red and blue micro-check; and our weekend shirt, which is sort of the shirt that I started with, and that has two, like, the coziest, softest flannels, which I think will be great. And two patterns from the blue gingham and the green plaid from spring, because they were so popular.
And we’ve got jeans, and we’ve got a cargo pant that’s great; you know, so not a big, baggy cargo pant; it’s more of a slim cargo pant that sort of really looks elegant and smart. So it’s comfy but looks really chic.
And the thing that I’m loving, we created this sweatshirt and sweatpants that have a little more structure, they’re not just sort of workout clothes, so you can use them as such, but they’re the kind of clothes that I say you can go out on a Saturday morning and go get the newspaper, buy a bagel, walk the dog, whatever, and if you happen to run into someone you knew, you wouldn’t look like a total slob. So they’ve got some structure. You know, what really kills me is when I’ve had to bring sweatpants to a tailor. That really kills me.
Aliotsy: No. Way.
Peter Manning: Oh, yeah. And I’ve never had a pair of sweatpants that didn’t sort of all bunch down around the ankles. So it’s really great to have sweatpants, you know, with pockets and a back pocket you can put your wallet in it. I’ve been wearing them all the time, test-driving them, and it’s been great. They’re so comfy but they’re elegant. I’ve worn them with a sort of cotton sweater and a weekend shirt, and Vans to a meeting, and people were like, “Where’d you get those pants?” And I’m like, “Oh, I’m so comfy, my pants look great!” So it’s been fun. I’m really excited about the sweatpants and sweatshirt.
Aliotsy: I heard something about a blazer.
Peter Manning: It’s $795, that blazer, but it is exquisite. It’s made by Martin Greenfield who is one of the best tailors in the country, and he’s dressed presidents and he does Thom Browne and Rag & Bone, so this is a jacket that you’ll have forever. You know, it’s a classic blue blazer, beautifully made in an English wool cashmere fabric, that kind of year-round classic blue blazer that you could wear with jeans or with Italian grey flannels, and to a wedding. So it’s a really, really great blazer, but it’s expensive. It was expensive to make and it was expensive material, but I really wanted to do it right.
Aliotsy: What would the sizing on that be like?
Peter Manning: The same. It’ll be 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. So if you’re a 4 shirt, you’ll be a 4 blazer.
Aliotsy: Okay. I’m sure tailored clothing was definitely a step up, or a few steps up in difficulty. What kind of challenges did you face trying to get the sizing and construction on that?
Peter Manning: Well, the construction’s Martin Greenfield, they’re just the best. They do things by hand. When we go into suit separates like I want to do for fall 2013, getting the factories and finding the manufacturers who can do that work really well for a reasonable prices, that’s going to be tricky. But with Martin Greenfield, with the patterns we’ll be able to source those manufacturers now. Because I think a Martin Greenfield for Peter Manning suit would be, I think, prohibitively expensive unless we move in the direction of a premium line, where we do hand-tailored clothes. I’m really interested in reaching the guys who want premium clothes, but also giving the best clothes possible to the broadest audience. Because there’s a lot of guys out there.
Peter Manning: And I feel like they really need us.
Aliotsy: Yeah, absolutely. So suiting, wow. What can you share about the jeans?
Peter Manning: It’s a classic jean, it’s a little slimmer in the leg, sort of a mid-rise, you know, bit of a mid-rise, not too low. So it’s just a great, classic jean. And it comes in one dark wash, one that if you wash it all the time will get lighter over time and really age. Or you can wash it less frequently and keep it kind of crisp for when you want to wear it with the blazer. So, I’ve been wearing them endlessly, and I’m just loving them. It’s really, we really got the fit right.
(Ed. note: I picked up a pair of Peter Manning’s jeans on my own dime. They are absolutely my favorite pair. I’m wearing them right now.)
Aliotsy: Oh, excellent. And the wool sweater, I know I have a lot of trouble trying to figure out how exactly I want my sweaters to fit, sometimes they just feel too baggy, especially in the upper arms or down through the torso, and the sleeves often feel too long. What kind of things were you looking out for when you put that together?
Peter Manning: Well one thing is I wanted to have it sort of come straight down and not gather in at the waist, because I always find in sweaters, you know, they gather in the waist because you’re short and you have to like flip that material over.
Peter Manning: And so this is designed to just hang straight. It won’t gather around your waist, it won’t flip in, because you want things to sort of keep a straight line down, it helps you look taller. So you know, obviously matching the sleeves so you don’t have to fold them up if you don’t want to, so getting that sleeving, you know, sleeve length just right. And then having them hang just right, because also what I think about all the time is I want on the weekend to be able to wear a shirt with a sweater outside of my jeans. So everything is designed to work together. So the weekend shirt and the everyday shirt, you can wear outside of your pants with this sweater over it and it’ll just peek out and it’ll look like, you know, like six-foot-tall guys look. That’s all I want to do, is we just want to look like the guys who are six-foot tall and everything hangs on them perfectly.
Peter Manning: I’m just trying to get the same kind of proportion for our customer.
Aliotsy: Further down the line, I saw you have aspirations for moving to a place maybe where Peter Manning would be sold in a place like a Barneys or Saks; are you still feeling like moving in that direction, or opening a retail space?
Peter Manning: I think, you know, whatever serves the customer best, and I think right now we’ll see how that goes, we’ll see fall and I’ll begin the conversation with stores and see if they’re interested. And the stores can be difficult, so you want to have the right partners. And so I think we’ll just have to see how that goes. But certainly, if that’s how I can best reach the customer, sure.
Aliotsy: Great. Now, I know I have some readers out there who are toying with the idea of starting a business, you know, starting a clothing line or an accessories line. And like you, many of them don’t come from a fashion or a merchandising or a design background. What’s the best advice you can give them?
Peter Manning: Find people who do, and ask questions. Ask and ask and ask. And the other thing is, trust your instincts. Trust your gut. You know, trust your gut and verify, you know, because you want to make sure you’re right, but if you think that there’s something out there that people need or would want, you’re probably right. And you’ve sort of got to go try it, because everyone has opinions. You know, it was really hard for me because, I mean, a lot of people said, “Wow, that’s a great idea,” but a lot of people were like, “Uh, I don’t get it, I don’t—well, why’s no one done it? Why are you the one who’s going to do it? You’re not a retail person. Wouldn’t the retail people have thought of that already?” And I kept thinking to myself, “Well, obviously not, because I’ve never bought a pair of pants that fit. So, clearly they haven’t thought of it.” So even though people thought it was sort of crazy for me to go start a retail business, like that actually, I was right. So you know, you have to kind of trust yourself. But find people who know the business and who can help.
Aliotsy: Excellent. That’s all I had. Thank you for your time, I really appreciate it, and I really enjoyed this conversation.
Peter Manning: Thank you, and thank you for what you’re doing. It’s really great, and it’s a huge service. There isn’t enough out there, information for these guys. So I really, really appreciate it.
Thanks again, Peter. And thanks to everyone who’s stuck with the interview to this point. Be sure to check out Peter Manning’s whole collection at petermanningnyc.com.