Antar Levar is the type of guy you immediately like. Sitting across a webcam from him, he’s warm and friendly and immediately puts you at ease. He lives in Atlanta, but with his jet-set schedule – New York and Miami last week; Houston, Memphis, and the west coast coming up – a quick Skype chat was the best way for us to talk.
Why does he travel so much? That’s just part of his over-the-top level of service. Since over 85% of his customers are celebrities in music, sports, television, etc., Antar differentiates his bespoke brand by traveling to wherever his customers are; a fitting at his show room in Decatur (an Atlanta suburb) or at your studio across the country – if you’re lucky enough to be able to work with Antar Levar Bespoke – it’s all about you.
I’ve repeatedly said that clothes should make you look and feel better when you wear them, and nothing gets that flattering fit just right better than a completely custom-made suit.
Today I wanted to give you a bit of a different take on the world of menswear: a view behind the scenes to one of the up-and-comers in bespoke (custom) suiting.
I was able to speak with Antar earlier this week and he gave me an insight into where he come from, how he first became interested in men’s clothing, and where he sees himself in the future. I hope his story inspires you to think bigger and work harder because your future is what you make of it.
When was it that you first realized you were interested in men’s style?
Antar Levar: I used to work in IT. I went to school for it in LA, and everyone used to always say to me “You don’t look like you work in IT.” For me it was like, once I’d leave work, I was done. We’d be in meetings and they were all talking about what the new technology and they’d be super excited, but I was like, “So what?”. I knew what they were talking about, but it wasn’t my thing.
People always ask how I got started, and it’s like.. it’s so weird because when I was a kid, 5 or 6, I used to look at catalogs. Going through it repeatedly looking at clothes – all the time. All my friends knew that I had these catalogs and I used to spend so much time… then when I got out of college I used to keep a stack of magazines, GQ’s, Esquire, all these different magazines. I never thought I’d be doing it one day.
Antar Levar Bespoke, your company, has been around since 2010 (?) – How did you first get into custom suiting?
AL: I’d always talk about wanting my own brand one day, but I didn’t think it was real. But to make a long story short, I started working for a tailor when I was in college; learning to measure and tape. And I started getting my suits made and I started bringing my friends to my tailor. I started helping to design their suits – telling the tailor how to make it and what to do. And all I was getting was a discount on my suits. And I thought that something had to change because I saw how much money I was bringing him. I asked him to cut me in, and he said “no”, so at that point I was done. I didn’t buy any more suits from him at all, and I went to about 80% of the tailors in LA asking them if I could be an apprentice to learn the business and everybody said “no”. I get it, their businesses were like a baby, and I wanted to come in and just see how did the baby become and adult – all of the sudden. I realized they were telling me, “If you really want it, put in the work like I did.” If you want something bad enough no one can keep you from getting it.
What do you think is the most style item that regular guys miss?
AL: I think they miss the caring part. They don’t put enough thought and care into how they are perceived because your image is a reflection of who you are and it’s how people perceive you. Because when you don’t put the thought into how you are perceived you lose the potential that you could have. I’ve gotten business in bars just by being dressed up and a guy asks who did my suit and I say, “Let me introduce you to this guy named Antar.”
How do people describe who you are?
AL: Man, I’ve got many hats, but one thing that everyone who knows me knows that I am a perfectionist; I don’t cut corners and I’m very very detailed. I mean, you have to be in the business, but it helps when that’s who you are already. I’m not going to give you a product that I don’t believe in. Just today I made a suit for a big time guy, and it just wasn’t to my liking, so I said, “Bro, let me do it over, and you don’t pay me.” I could sell it to you and let you have it, but I have it in the back of my mind that you’re walking around in something that’s not a reflection of who I am. At the end of the day I want you to come back to me, so I’m willing to take the loss.
You gotta be willing to lose before you win.
I’m a perfectionist and I’m a man of my word. When I tell you I’m going to do something, it’s done. I don’t shuck and jive and say that I can do something when I really can’t. I hear so many horror stories in the business, and I don’t understand it because this is my business, and I’m going to do the right thing. When somebody does business with me, they are buying me first, and then the brand. It’s a privilege and an honor for someone to have so many options and they choose to come to you. That’s some of the biggest applause I can ever get; you’re spending money with me, and you don’t have to.
If there’s one main thing you want in life, what is it?
AL: I’m about to be so flat-line with you that you’re going to say, “that’s not the answer I wanted.” But I’m going to be honest with you (that’s one of the things everyone who knows me will say, that I’m really honest), but I really want to become a multi-millionaire. That really pushes me. Not only that, but to have my brand outlive me. Just because I’m in the business now doesn’t me that the business, well, the brand, can’t keep going on when I’m gone; beyond me. Every piece that I make is a timeless piece that, just like music when it’s recorded, can outlive me.
My wife was just telling me the other day… when I first started, I had one suit. So, when a client bought two suits from me, he already had more than me. [Laughs] But even funnier than that, when I’d go to a client they would say to me, “I want a suit like that. I want that same suit”, and I would think “that’s the only suit I’ve got!”
The thing is, you’re never going to have enough to get started. I hear people saying “I want to do my own business”, and you’re never going to have enough. You’ve got to make do with what you have to get to where you want to go.
It was navy with a 3.5" peak lapel, roped shoulders, and all that good stuff. I don’t even wear it now [Ed. I’m sure it’s earned it’s rest -KM] … one suit.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome?
AL: I have to say, it’s always maintaining consistency, especially when, I’m not the person doing to sewing [Ed. According to Antar, there are two sides of the business, the designer and the tailor. Antar falls into the former category. -KM] I have to relay the information to the person doing the sewing. Even though it’s direct communication, it’s not as direct as sewing it myself, so you have to be that much more equipped and prepared to pull out your vision. In the tailoring business it’s so easy for one mistake to through the whole thing off. If you make the arm hole too big it’s done; you can go down, but you can’t go up, so once your arm hole is down too low it’s over. So one little thing can throw it off. That attention to detail – that communication – will make or break you.
I have a system of threes, well four. I tell you verbally, I write it down, I put it in an email and on a sticky note. Four methods of communication just to display one detail. And sometimes I take a picture; that’s the fifth element.
But communication is especially important when I’m dealing with someone who’s abroad. [Ed. Antar Levar Bespoke uses tailors from Savile Row in London -KM]
When you die, what do you want to have been known for?
AL: I want to be known as a person who started from nothing; to go from an idea to making it tangible. This [Antar Levar Bespoke] was just an idea; to go from having it, and the next day starting to do it. And when it’s over… I want people to say that he started from a vision, and he made it come to fruition.
Of course, as that vision starts to become reality your goals change. My goals change daily; always changing, but they never change without accomplishing that goal first. You hit it and then go to another and another. I’m so far from where I want to go. I’ve always been a big thinker – a big dreamer. I heard someone say that…
Your dreams are only dreams until you start making them a reality.
So in that process of making them a reality you have to have consistency – you have to have determination – and work ethic. Because dreams without work stay dreams.
One thing you’re not going to do; you’re not going to outwork me.
My day is 24/7. I may not go to bed until 3:30am, and I’m working. I’m not sitting, I’m working. And then I get up at 6:00am and may go to another 3:30am.
How do you find new clients?
AL: I strategically calculate my clients. I do extensive research on a client that I want. If I see somebody on TV or whatever and I can see that he has style – that he understand the concepts or is almost there – I do as much research as I possibly can, and then I work my network. I work with people that I already know to get me to that person. I strategically envision myself suiting up this person, and, it’s so crazy, when you put your vision behind your process, your dreams and your work, it happens. I envisioned suiting up this one guy for two years, and last week it happened. I’ve seen it happen over and over and over again. You keep working at it – you set a vision for what you want to do – and I’ll be doggone if God doesn’t make it happen. But you have to do the work.
I mean, I’m naive because I think I can suit the world.
I know it’s a crazy thought, you’ve got your Brioni’s, your Tom Ford’s, your [Ermenegildo] Zegna’s, your other clothiers, but I think I can suit the world, and I think that no one is untouchable. My rational is you as a consumer don’t do what I do, you need what I have. You’re going to wear suits – why not wear my suits? It’s not that I’m guaranteed to get your business, but I have an opportunity. That’s how I look at every client. I treat no one different. I don’t care if you’re a janitor or a celebrity, my level of service is always the same. And I don’t judge you on your cap – everyone’s on a budget. I don’t care who you are, you’re on a budget. I’d rather for your to come to me and say, “Antar, I need more suits” rather than me to come to you and say “John, you need more suits.”
I still get excited when I make a suit and think, “he’s going to love this!” and then he does! It makes the job that much more gratifying.
I’m helping these gentlemen with confidence.
I lot of them are in high positions and they have to feel confident in what they are doing, and one way you feel confident is your looks. If you look the part, your feel great and you’re outwardly showing it, and your job is a reflection of how you feel. And I’m thankful to help with that.
Who do you look up to?
AL: I don’t want to sound like I’m being braggadocios or naive, but I’m… I’m only paying attention to myself. I’m only looking at…
Am I better than I was yesterday?
I’m always looking at how I can change what I’m doing to make it better. I’m always looking at how can I make a lapel better. I’ve got to be a crazy mad-man because you can’t do much to a lapel, but you just try and find your voice, your style, your thing that you can hold on to as a staple of the brand. Like the roped shoulders.
Do I know who Tom Ford is? Of course. But do I constantly pay attention to him? No because I don’t have enough time for me to grow if I’m paying attention to what somebody else is doing.
This is what I love about what I do: It’s a garment that any race can wear; any nationality. You don’t have to break down barriers. That’s the cool thing about this. You have a service that’s universal. I don’t want to be know as a guy who make suits for black guys, or white guys, or Asian guys. I want to be know simply as a guy who makes bespoke suits.
It’s weird because I didn’t get into this planning on being worldwide, but people know who I am in Italy, and I had a guy from Spain asking how to get my suits. It forces you to want to be great, if you choose to be. But some people don’t choose to be. Some people want to be comfortable, but not me. I’m not comfortable at all. Until I can wake up one day and I can have the gratification of being a household name, I can’t rest. I have so much work to do because I got a late start – I’m 37.
How do you keep yourself uncomfortable?
AL: I want to be better. It’s not that I want to be better than anyone else; I want to be better than me. To me, I’m my only competition. That’s my reality. Me. And I don’t expect anyone else to get that. No one is going to believe in me more than I do. So I’m my biggest fan and my biggest critic.
You’ve chosen roped shoulders to give your suits a signature silhouette, but how has your style evolved since founding the company?
AL: I’ve learned to have an eye for what I want. I’ve change a bunch of things. I do a whole different breast pocket and the trousers are a lot more tapered now. There are certain things that I’ve tweaked, and I’m still tweaking. That will never stop.
You’ve recently stepped out into the accessory world… Where do you see that taking you? Are you planning on expanding into retail?
AL: I want to be able to do the shirts through an ecommerce store. Now I’m doing pocket squares with the hand rolled edges from Italy. I’m also doing ties where you can choose the fabric and everything. But I’ve been working on a new thing for the past six months… I’m finally doing shoes. This is the next phase; hand-made shoes. I’m so excited because I started with a goal, and it happened. So I can get these in stores, and, if these catch on, you’re outta here. How crazy is it to see your name in shoes? From beginning to end. To start off with “I want a shoe” to “there it go”. I’ve got a couple more weeks, but I’m wearing them now. I want to see how it feels, and then I can tell them what I want to adjust. I want to make sure that the finish is accurate enough, and I want to make sure that the fit is accurate enough. I’ve got four shoes right now, but I’m going to add four more. I just wanted to have classic shoes in classic colors that I can put onto ecommerce. That and ties. I’m not saying that ecommerce for me is the end all be all, but it’s a start.
You were recently featured in the April 2014 digital edition of Modern Luxury. – How have you been getting your name out?
AL: Yeah, Modern Luxury came to me and asked me if I’d give a little blurb about what I do, and of course I was honored to, but we’re speaking about doing something bigger in their September fashion issue. And actually, next month I’m going to do a half page ad with them. This is the first one I’ve ever done, so hopefully this will just let people know that I’m out here and doing this.
Up until now most of it has been word of mouth. I don’t want to force my way in. I’d rather be someone that you want to get to know. One of my selling points is that I come to you. There’s nothing like servicing someone in their own home.
Your closing phrase, “keep winning”, where does that come from and what does it mean to you?
AL: I always say …
Keep winning because if you’re winning you can’t lose.
If you’d like to get more information about Antar Levar Bespoke, head on over to antarlevar.com. Right now it’s the older site, but his new redesigned site including ties and shoes should be available by mid summer.
NOTE First, thanks for reading this far – You have epic endurance! Interviews with makers like Antar are a new thing I’m trying for Steam & Roll. If you hated it, well, you must like pain to get this far, but if you enjoyed it and want to see more like it, will you let me know in the comments? Who should I interview next?