Aaron Clanton of 9tofive: 5 Things You Need To Create a Highly Successful Career In The Fashion Industry
Build the right network: Finding the partners that will support and help grow your brand takes time. As you make new connections and expand your network, refine it so that you continue to develop stronger relationships with the right partners.
As part of our series about the 5 things you need to succeed in the fashion industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aaron Clanton
Aaron Clanton is the founder and CEO of 9tofive, a menswear brand that is revolutionizing the way shoppers buy suits. 9tofive makes finding the perfect suit convenient and uncomplicated, with its ready-to-wear designs and expansive tailoring and dry-cleaning network. Named as “Black Entrepreneur to Watch” in 2021 by Forbes, Aaron believes in forming productive and respectful partnerships with everyone along the supply chain, from the family-run businesses in Thailand and Vietnam who stitch the suits to the retailers stateside selling them.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My dad was a real estate entrepreneur and a well-dressed man. I’m talking wing-tipped shoes, dozens of white button downs always pressed. I learned the sacrifices it took to start your own business from an early age, but also the value in “having your own.”
I started my career in industrial engineering, working in banking and oil industries, the latter of which took me to Asia. While working abroad, I would visit local ateliers in China and Singapore and have them handmake suits for me. Then I’d come home to Buffalo, NY and everyone would compliment me on my perfectly tailored outfits.
I had the idea to bring this kind of suit-buying experience to the United States in 2013. I did a soft launch for 9tofive while simultaneously working for an eCommerce business where I learned about customer acquisition, marketing your brand and finding a niche.
Five years later, I quit my job and committed to making my dreams a reality.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started?
New York City is one of the fashion capitals of the world, where everyone has something special about them, making it hard to stand out. In the early days of 9tofive, I was self-funded, so I didn’t have a showroom for people to come and get fitted for suits. So, I started going to dry cleaners and tailors in the city and asking them if I could use their space to meet with potential clients who would then use their tailoring or dry-cleaning services. This turned out to be really successful for 9tofive, and I was able to build a network of dry cleaners and tailors who are now brand partners.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In college, I would sell sneakers and clothes out of the trunk of my car in front of the sneaker store at the mall. I had a bad habit of arguing with potential customers who didn’t like what I was selling — which led to the realization I was only selling things that I liked. Years later, I learned that to have a successful clothing brand, you need to have offerings that appeal to every person’s style. With suits, a classic tuxedo and navy suit can please the majority, but I also sprinkle in a few fun pieces like my Deep Plum Suit for more adventurous dressers like I am.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
First and foremost, 9tofive is one of the only Black-owned suit brands carried in a major retail store (we are currently available in select Nordstrom’s around the country). When it comes to CPGs and fashion, you typically find representation of the Black community in streetwear, skin and hair care or food; but there are very few Black-owned suit brands. Also, as a small, minority-owned business we prioritize working with other small, minority-owned businesses — from our ateliers to our dry-cleaning partners.
In terms of what sets our suits apart from other major suit brands, we’re giving people the experience of buying a high-end, perfectly tailored suit for a fraction of the standard price. We offer accessible luxury without the inaccessible price tag — whether it’s for your wedding day or your job’s business professional attire.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
1. Establish a routine and stick to it, especially the cut-off time. Tomorrow is always right around the corner, and you’ll burn out fast if you’re working through the night instead of getting the rest you need to focus properly on the next day.
2. Trust the people you hire and that they know what they’re doing. You can’t do it all and you aren’t expected to. So hire a team of people who offer skills you don’t have and give them the freedom to execute as they should. If you get sucked into micro-managing, you’ll be wasting the time you need to run your part of the business.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Since the early days of 9tofive, I’ve prioritized and hired women and BIPOC partners and team members, including our external partners like our dry cleaners and ateliers. Especially during COVID-19, where minority-owned businesses were hardest hit — and are the least likely to receive government assistance — we’ve really strengthened our community and leaned on each other to get through the challenges.
In 2020, we also offered customers a BOGO deal on all of our fabric masks and sent masks to the hardest hit hospitals in the Bronx and around NYC. During the protests against police brutality, we fundraised for the Eagle Justice Initiative, an organization committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that was relevant to you in your life?
I remember hearing my dad tell my mom, “It’s just money, we’ll get more money.”
I took this lesson to heart, especially as I started my own business. I invested everything I had into making 9tofive the best possible brand from the beginning: a great site, strong social media, quality product. Even though we’re a small company, the foundation we built has put us in a position today to have conversations with major retailers, make key hires in public relations and marketing and invest in nicer packaging. Money is a huge deterrent when starting a business, and with good reason; but I tried to remember that I would always have the opportunity to make more money, and only one chance to build my dream.
Do you see any fascinating developments emerging over the next few years in the fashion industry that you are excited about? Can you tell us about that?
I’m most excited for the increased BIPOC and minority recognition in the fashion industry. Recently, I was thrilled to see that my friend, costume designer Charlese Antoinette, was added to the Oscars Academy.
I’ve also been seeing more inclusion and recognition for Black fashion industry players. For a long time, black- and minority-owned businesses had to offer a new fad or “it” trend to break through in the industry. But today, our navy The Essential suit is pushing us through the door. We don’t have to ride a fad or style to get noticed, we can showcase a timeless product.
Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Things Needed to Succeed in the Fashion Industry”. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Perseverance: You’re going to hear ‘no’ a lot, and you’re going to have to be able to keep working towards your dream even if you’re the only one who believes in it. Not everyone is going to understand your vision. You just have to continue to get up every day and do what you need to do to bring it to fruition.
2. Progress > Perfection: I learned this during my time as an engineer. If you’re going to wait for your product to be perfect, it’s always going to be late. You have to get your product out there as soon as possible to give people something to connect with. Then, you can make improvements on the product. If you wait until it’s absolutely perfect, then you risk people forgetting about you.
3. Optimize the whole: This goes beyond the product and includes packaging, barcodes, website, customer service and everything else that is integral to a successful business. It’s not enough to just have a cool product. You need a website that’s user-friendly, an efficient shipping process and the ability to scale into a bigger box store (if you’re looking for that).
4. Passion: You have to be in it for the long haul. I was only able to put 9tofive on the track I wanted it to be on when I decided to quit my job and dedicate myself fully to the company. You have to jump all the way in. Don’t straddle the line because you’re scared of what the future might hold.
5. Build the right network: Finding the partners that will support and help grow your brand takes time. As you make new connections and expand your network, refine it so that you continue to develop stronger relationships with the right partners.
Every industry constantly evolves and seeks improvement. How do you think the fashion industry can improve itself? Can you give an example?
I think the fashion industry needs to focus on what Black designers and clothing stores can offer as equal not extra to mainstream fashion. The community does not need to be tokenized as the one Black-owned clothing brand in the store, it should have equal standing amongst other brands to win over consumers based on the quality and design of their clothing, not on short-lived appeal.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
It is so difficult these days to be connected with the people who make our clothes. They’re faceless beings that we don’t think twice about when we shop. I think it’s important for people to form an awareness of who cut the fabric and sewed the pieces together. When people really think about who makes their clothes and in what conditions they are working in, they’re more likely to buy from small businesses who are transparent about working conditions and treating their employees humanely, in comparison to fast-fashion brands.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow 9tofive on Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/9tofivebk/?hl=en.
And find me on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/aaronclanton/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!