Southern Gents’ Fola Lawson Talks Design & Retail
Southern Gents, the Houstonian brand owned and operated by Fola Lawson, has lived many lives. It was a passion project that first started as a blog created by four friends with a penchant for collegiate wear. Almost a decade later, it is a full fledged online retailer with over 300K followers and celebrity customers that includes Patriots cornerback Marcus Jones.
Lawson, a University of Houston alum, is the Creative Director and thus, responsible for design, manufacturing and content creation. Today, he and Tunde Lawal – one of his original crew – are the ones largely involved with the company.
Southern Gents represents a sort of lost masculinity that prides honor and respectability. It is also, as the name suggests, purely Southern in its interpretation of professional wear. To Lawson, it encapsulates the hospitality the South is infamous for.
In a wide ranging interview, Fola Lawson discusses a burgeoning interest in design as a child, the effects of the pandemic and why he is hesitant to open physical retail spaces.
How did you first conceptualize and create Southern Gents?
I would say the brand idea was conceptualized while I was pursuing my finance career in downtown Houston after graduating college. I’ve always been an avid subscriber to GQ. I probably have over 200 GQ magazines at my house that I’ve archived. [So] those always served as inspiration.
I’d always looked up to [GQ] as a college student. But of course, in college you can’t really afford it. The jackets cost $3,000, and the shoes cost $2,000. But I always loved how the looks were curated and photographed. So it was always my dream to be able to present myself in that manner, and I wasn’t also seeing that locally in Houston. And so I started thinking about how to bring that lifestyle, that GQ lifestyle, to Houston.
And my first thought I knew that others around me weren’t as into menswear as I was. So I knew that there would have to be an educational aspect so then I started off with a blog. Then I rounded up a few friends of mine and talked to them about an idea of doing a networking mixer. Instead of going out to the club late at night, we would do something where everyone still in their work attire could just come after work and mingle.
And so we did the first event at a hotel downtown. And it was filled from wall to wall. It was an amazing event. We kept doing a few more and then, we just kept going with the brand from there.
You mentioned a couple of your friends. How involved are they with Southern Gents today?
So there’s a total of four of us [including] my other main business partner Tunde. Tunde runs the operations and he’s very involved. From day one, he’s been shipping out orders, stocking inventory in his apartment and dedicating space to his living area.
We would meet up after work because I had most of the products. There’d be an order that came in for a bow tie or a tie. So, we would literally have to meet it up at gas stations just handing over boxes like, okay, this needs to go out today.
So it’s been a fun journey. He’s still very much involved. The other business partners serve more on the board of directors. One of the other business partners, Steve, is responsible for handling our finances.
When you first transitioned into a business, what was the most rewarding and challenging aspect?
Business today is much different than business in the 1990s or early 2000s. It’s constantly changing. My biggest challenge has always been figuring that out. Every business is pretty much a vessel, and you’re basically taking that vessel into the ocean in uncharted waters, and every story is different.
It’s really difficult in this day and age to emulate what another business has done. What’s worked for another business may not necessarily work for your business. Basically, the most difficult aspects are figuring out the right decisions to make because retail is a unique space.
I have friends in real estate where groups of brokers will huddle up once a week and talk business. That’s not something that happens in retail. Retail is secretive and everybody holds their cards to their chest.
The most rewarding thing has been getting here. I think if I held a mirror up and I showed my younger self five to ten years ago, I wouldn’t believe where we are now. Sometimes I don’t know how we made it here.
On social media, I’ll see one of our customers getting married in one of our suits, or attending the father-daughter dance, or other life activities. So knowing that we’ve built something that customers really value, and resonates deeply with with our consumers has been extremely rewarding.
In terms of manufacturing, do you mainly operate in China?
Mostly, but not all. And this is more of a conversation of specialization. We attend trade shows just to find manufacturers and make sure that our products are of utmost quality. So when it comes to apparel, it’s really difficult to not use Asian manufacturers because they have a lot of years and experience.
But for other product categories, such as leather making or footwear, for example there’s not very good production in China, because it’s an intricate process. So, we manufacture shoes in Spain.
We don’t have the liberty to be basically extremely dedicated to one manufacturing zone. It’s a combination of who can provide us the best quality at an attainable price. It doesn’t have to be the cheapest, obviously. And besides quality and cost of production is the relationship aspect.
Going through the manual manufacturing process is very much like dating. You want to make sure that your manufacturers are happy and they should also be concerned if you’re not happy with them.
How did the pandemic affect Southern Gents?
I love that question. So, obviously, nobody saw the pandemic coming.It made us re-examine our business. And I think we’re on the right track. We have a less-is-more philosophy and want to stay within the confines of things that we’re good at.
A lot of our competitors, during a pandemic started making masks. Everybody needed masks, masks became a trend. We had to make a conscious decision not to go into that realm of mass production, just because we don’t understand it well. We also didn’t know how long this was going to last.
So the pandemic forced us to revisit why we’re in business in the first place. What are we selling and what do we want to be great at? The first revelation is just going back to the drawing board and making sure we were operating in accordance with our mission.
Prior to the pandemic, we had a just in time inventory system. It means that as stock was running low, we’d launch new production. We didn’t receive any deliveries for a year. during the pandemic I learned painfully in a pandemic, that if you don’t have a product, you don’t make sales.
So we have since changed our production system to the 10 to 50 products that we really believe in.
How prevalent was fashion style in your childhood? Was it something that your parents kind of cultivated in you?
My true love has always been design, so very closely related but also quite different. I’ve always been an artist since I was a child. I was sketching Marvel, Batman, Superman. And in my collegiate years, my first design projects were cars. So, I would build my Volkswagen European cars and go to his car meets, which also got me into photography.
When I became a working professional, I thought it would be a perfect practice of design to control the things that I wear. [I wanted to] bring my elements of design and express it in my clothes. Whether it was a tailored suit, a pair of mock straps, a pink shirt or a nice paisley tie. I think a lot of people have wonderful ideas. But the ability to be able to execute those ideas on a canvas is what holds most people back.
Southern Gents reminds me of menswear in the 1950s or 1960s. Is there anything about that period that appeals to or influences you?
Not directly but indirectly. I think that’s the era of the Renaissance man. It’s an era where [fashion] wasn’t so trendy, but classic. The 50s and 60s [consisted of] neutrals, white suits, a black suits, or maybe skinny ties. Things were made with proportion.
Are there aspects of Southern culture that inspire you and your designs?
Have you heard of the phrase southern hospitality? It’s more of a mindset to make people feel welcome. You want to make people feel that you’re going to take care of them. Regardless whether it’s holding a door open for him or having a conversation. So it’s more of a mindset of service, more than anything. But we also do try to make the brand something for everyone.
As Southern Gents moves forward, would you consider opening brick and mortar stores?
We’ve considered it many times, actually. But the problem with retail is the collapse of the brick and mortar. Our customers are overwhelmed with options today. You have Instagram shopping, ads on YouTube, Amazon overnight shipping. So it’s really difficult to get foot traffic into stores.
Something we did in our earlier days was pop up shops at the launch of our brand. We really noticed that the foot traffic is strongly correlated to how well whatever you’re selling performs. At our events, we curated the audience.
Also, you can’t just put a store anywhere. If you’re in New York, you need to know if you want to be in Brooklyn, Soho or Manhattan. And you can only imagine what the rent prices are. Then you have to hire employees just to man the store. There’s also the an inventory issue. How much inventory do I keep in my store location? So, it’s very difficult to justify opening a store. We have considered other things like pickup and we’re thinking about it.
Having a store would also force us to shift and reconsider our business model. I see two things when I go into stores. In stores like Macy, there’s no one in there and at Zara, it’s always packed. Zara is always going to bring out new designs. So it’s just a different way of doing business. Our focus is on curating content.
We look at ourselves as a medium for customers. We’re teaching our customers how to get the absolute most bang for your buck and most use per wear on their items.
We want people to live in their items. We also want to teach people how to not just shop with us but also have immaculate style. Once you become a well dressed gentleman, you’ll never go back.
Featured Image Courtesy of Southern Gents