True Classic, a direct-to-consumer men’s wear brand, consists of elevated basics, two words which are becoming very common these days, with new brands touting, yes, elevated basics for men and women.
CEO Ryan Bartlett defends his use of the phrase, noting that True Classic sold $26,000 and 651 orders in one month. The brand has grossed $250 million in revenue since launching in 2019. After expanding into other categories for men, such as underwear and dress shirts, Bartlett is setting his sights on women.
He thinks he can do for women’s basics what he did for men’s, which is honing in on fit and fabrications. As Bartlett said, he knows what consumers, or at least, men, want. Women are more complex, so he’s turning to surveys and asking women what they want.
True Classic spends over $100,000 daily on Meta ads and donates 40,000 shirts per month to homeless shelters. True Classic also partners with Tiny House Project to build emergency tiny house shelters for the homeless.
“In a nutshell, I felt the market was being neglected, in a way, for men – the fit and the pricing,” Bartlett said. “Essentially, this company was built out of solving two issues. One issue was, I felt like was the fit of men’s garments. I felt like guys were kind of being neglected in the shirt space.
“It’s underserved in terms of price point and where I thought things should land,” Bartlett said. “Ultimately, it was as simple as that. I just wanted to create a premium product for an underserved market that fit better and looked better and but also didn’t gouge people on pricing.
From that idea, Bartlett built out a very small line, six colors and one sku, a T-shirt. “It took off right away,” he said. “It really had legs and word of mouth spread very quickly. It was really the perfect product market fit. I essentially just created this category out of my own gripes with the market.
“It turns out, the market was much larger than I realized,” Bartlett added. “It really just caught legs and people gravitated toward the brand. They loved the mission, they loved the product, they loved everything about the brand, so they really just bought-in.”
Once the initial products were released and men started wearing them, “we started to get a lot of repeat purchases and a lot of retention from our customers, so this proved out that there was a lot of brand loyalty right away.
“From there, there was a lot of nuance to the business and how you scale quickly, but it was largely due to Facebook and Instagram and paid social.,” Bartlett said. It was really just understanding digital marketing at a really high level. My background is very much derived from digital marketing and creative.”
Bartlett was able to hit the ground running due to his background. “I was able to make things work right away with little- to- no money,” he said. “We built this whole thing on $3,000 and we went to $100 million in two years – bootstrapped and profitable. That really sets us apart.”
In the future, Bartlett believes that a lot of brands will launch businesses similarly. It will be the new school in business,” he said. “It’s all digital and direct to consumer.”
Bartlett said he didn’t know a lot about apparel when he started thinking about True Classic, but he was definitely into fashion. “I’ve been into fashion my whole life, into style and looking better, but I was never into fashion in the sense of design or schooling, I just really knew what I wanted. I knew what I wanted it to look like and feel like.”
Bartlett was about to launch the business by himself, but decided it would be too much work. “I called my buddy Matt, who has since become a partner,” he said. “I asked him, ‘Who do you know in the apparel space. I know what I want and I know what the customer wants. If you’ve got a guy who knows apparel, I want to talk to him.”
Matt introduced Bartlett to Nick, who had been in the apparel game for a long time, and he sold his apparel business. “We hit the ground running, together,” Bartlett said. “His background was manufacturing and apparel, so I could lean on him for all of that, and I did the digital marketing and the web site development.
Then Bartlett and Nick brought Matt into the company. “He knows finance, M&A and startups,” Bartlett said. “The three of us together had the perfect complementary DNA.”
True Classic didn’t hire any employees for the first nine months. “We initially did all the work,” Bartlett said. “We didn’t hire people or go into debt. I was set on not going into debt and not raising money, because I just didn’t believe in that model even though I know that’s the way a lot of businesses are made today.”
The company only has 55 employees even as its revenue is outsized. “Most people who are doing our revenue, have 600, 800 or 2,000 people working,” Bartlett said. “We’re extremely lean, but it’s what allows us to be profitable. I was very mindful of that early on and it helped us drive EBITDA year-over-year.”
What came after the T-shirt? The next obvious transition was polos, long sleeved T-shirts, pocket Tees and different colors for every season. “Eventually, we rolled out active wear,” Bartlett said. “We did a whole line of activewear with joggers and athletic shirts and polos, just in different material that’s more breathable and moisture-wicking – all the things you love in active wear.
“Now, we’re doing everything,” Bartlett said. “We rolled out underwear and socks, and denim. We’re doing a lot with denim, slim fit, straight leg, all different sizes and different washes. And now we’re doing dress shirts and we’re going to do a blazer this year. We’re going into office attire, essentially.”
True Classic also operates retail stores, all opened in the last four months. Bartlett said the company will continue to scale up retail, if the stores are profitable. “We just brought a guy in from Untuckt, who opened 80 stores for them,” he said. “The way we’re positioning it, we’re making sure we’re profitable first. Right now, we’re pretty break even on the stores. We really don’t know how to make retail work for us, but we’re learning.”
Bartlett has an interesting background, to say the least. He was working in music, convinced that he was going to do it for a living. “It was a very rough life,” he said. “I was working my fingers to the bone and literally making nothing. Eventually, I kind of gave up on it. I had given eight years of my life to this and nothing is serving me at all, so I just pivoted.
“I started making money at poker,” Bartlett said. “I was making more money doing that than music. I thought, all right, maybe I’ll just play poker for a while, and chase that and see what happens.”
Bartlett played poker for three or four years until he went broke in Las Vegas. “I moved out there to play for a living,” he said. “I gave up on that and went into the nightclub industry for a while, eventually, finding my way back to music and computer science, and eventually moving to L.A.”
Bartlett got a job at an SEO company, a digital marketing company and learned a lot from them that helped shape his computer science skill.
True Classic is taking a dive into women’s wear this year. “We’re putting together some silhouettes that we think women would like,” Bartlett said. “We’re doing a lot of surveys a lot of testing, and we’re asking the women around us to help us. We’re basically trying to democratize it the best that we can and make good decisions about what women want.
“We have a lot of samples out right now,” he added. “We’re trying to see what women like, and what they don’t like about the perfect shirt. We’re really trying to solve a problem the same way we solved the problem for men. We’re just trying to make a fit that women really appreciate and say, ‘When I put this shirt on, I feel better.’
“That’s really the mantra of True Classic,” Bartlett said, “Look good, feel good. We really sell confidence, ultimately. We sell apparel, but the reason it really took off and resonated with people is that it really makes you look better in the way that it fits.”
It wasn’t until the fifth or sixth month of operating True Classic that it hit Bartlett that “we were selling a feeling. We were getting feedback from women ‘I don’t know what you did, but I bought this shirt for my husband and he literally changed the way he feels about himself.
“So, we were like, that’s the magic. We didn’t know it at the time, but once we got all that feedback it made so much sense,” Bartlett added. “This is catching on because the guys are changing their attitude about how they look at themselves and it costs them $50 bucks. The women love it because they can gift it to the man and the man looks better for them and for himself.
On the True Classic e-commerce site recently, a sale was in progress. “THIS WEEKEND ONLY.” “Don’t miss 40% CashBack.” “Cash in on spring styles to refresh your rotation,” is an example of the aggressive savings. An active crew neck top in heather navy, regularly priced at $29.99, was discounted to $23.99. “Plus, get $9.95 cashback.” That’s 40% off.
Asked whether he’s concerned about competing with scores of women’s “elevated basics” brands, Bartlett said, “It’s a win-win across the board. I got myself into a heavily commoditized business, so having competition doesn’t really scare me. It’s not like no one was doing T-shirts before.
“To me, it’s about intentionality and being really thoughtful about the products you’re creating for people. The reality is that if you’re more intentional, people will notice,” Bartlett said. “We’re going to make a Lululemon jogger at a third of the price. It’s up to you. Do you want to overpay?”