Features

It Suits Him Perfectly

Tuxedo Venture Could Be a Rags-to-riches Story
Kevin Kousch

Kevin Kousch says he considers Formal Affair a sound business decision and a common-sense entrepreneurial gambit.

Kevin Kousch was walking on the beach in Maine when he got the call alerting him to be at work early at Yale Genton the next day.

Upon arriving, he and other employees were quickly informed by owner Mark Berman that the store, which was slated to undergo a much-publicized makeover, from formal clothing to more casual apparel, would, in fact, be closing its doors instead. Before that meeting was officially over, Kousch was already thinking strongly about purchasing the division of the company that he had managed for several years — its tuxedo-rental operation — and a few days later, he would officially seal the deal.

“Within 10 minutes after that meeting broke up, I was in Mark’s office talking about how I would like to move forward with the formalwear division,” he said. “Mark said he couldn’t imagine a better fit.”

His fast action has taken him from employee to employer in just a few months, from a situation where he managed a business as if he owned it — those are his words — to one where he really does own it.

Things moved so quickly that Kousch hasn’t had much time to think about his decision to create Formal Affair, a tuxedo rental and tailoring shop, located on Westfield Street in West Springfield. When he has reflected, there have been some expected nervous doubts, but mostly quiet confidence about what he considers a solid business decision — one that, well, suits him perfectly.

Indeed, while Kousch has some doubts about the viability of formal-clothing operations — “people just aren’t wearing suits anymore” — he believes there will always be room for a venture like Formal Affair, which he opened on March 8.

Moving forward, Kousch said he plans to apply lessons in customer service he learned while at Yale Genton (and also working as a concierge on a luxury cruise line), while also capitalizing on some of the many connections he made as manager of the RSVP Formalwear Shop.

Meanwhile, he’s learning while doing with regard to other aspects of business, such as budgeting, staffing, inventory, and marketing.

For the last of those, he’s putting his English bulldog, Dutch, to work; he’s featured in several promotional items, including a postcard for a prom-time special offer he’s running.

“People love him, and he’s very recognizable,” Kousch explained. “People will call or stop by and say, ‘are you the store with the bulldog?’”

He is, and Kousch figures that, between Dutch’s looks and marketability and his own experience in the formalwear business, his venture is, indeed, a logical fit for the Greater Springfield market — and his own entrepreneurial drive.

Ties That Bind

‘The rag business.’

That’s how some in the clothing industry refer to their sector. Kousch has been in and around it for most of his working life, and has seen enough to know that it is challenging and often tough to predict.

He told BusinessWest that he wasn’t completely surprised by the demise of Yale Genton — he had noticed societal changes, especially a far-less-formal workplace, and understood how competitive the market was for more-casual clothing — but the suddenness caught him somewhat off guard.

Ultimately, what it did was compress the process most entrepreneurs go through when first deciding if a venture is viable and whether they have what it takes to be a business owner, and then actually doing it, securing everything from a location to financing.

“I had about nine weeks,” said Kousch, referring to the timeline from when he was told Yale Genton was going to close to when it actually ceased operations.

He wanted to make a fluid transition, so as not to lose any momentum, but also to hit the ground running and thus be ready for one of this sector’s busiest seasons — high-school prom time. By his count, there are 30 high schools within a 25-mile radius, and he wanted (needed) a good share of that market his first year in business.

Going back to that compressed schedule for opening, Kousch acknowledged that most entrepreneurs take more than a few hours or a few days to decide whether something will work or not. But he already had a good understanding of the nuances of this business and a firm grasp of the market and the competition within it.

“Within a 20-mile radius there are four operations renting tuxedos,” he said, adding that, from his years of experience at Yale Genton, he knows how many black-tie events there are in this market (four major ones), how many proms, roughly how many weddings, and, all told, maybe 2,500 tuxes to be rented each year. He did all that math (again, quickly) and decided that he and Dutch would go into business together.

With financing from the Bank of Western Mass., he secured a sizable inventory (25,000 units, meaning everything from tuxes to shoes, bowties to cummerbunds), a location on busy Westfield Street, signage, and more.

Kousch has launched a number of specials and promotions to let people know he’s open and that he was the formalwear manager at Yale Genton, in order to generate some momentum and quickly establish a presence in what is a fairly competitive market.

He told BusinessWest that there are some challenges and nuances to this business that most not in it wouldn’t understand, starting with inventory.

There is a science, an inexact one, to determining which styles and colors to have on hand, how many and what sizes, he said, adding that preferences change, and often quickly. The key is to have a good variety, but not have too many of a model that could well go out of style within a few months or quarters.

Thus, Kousch keeps plenty of what he called “your basic James Bond look” — black tux, white shirt, black bowtie — on the racks, but also lots of options, particularly regarding color, especially with ties and vests.

“One of the first questions we like to ask now is not ‘what’s your size?’ but ‘what is your wife wearing?’” he explained, adding that he provide colors that will match and won’t clash.

As for a more unusual challenge, Kousch mentioned trying to properly fit high-school students for tuxes when they usually wear their jeans halfway down their backside.

“It’s a problem … most of these kids don’t know how to wear clothes,” he said, adding that he is patient with them and goes the extra mile — and for a reason.

“This is their first experience with renting a tux,” he said. “There will be more years down the road. When they get married, I want them to think back to the prom and come back to me.”

Overall, Kousch is confident about his venture, and admits that it there is a sizable transition to make when one goes from being an employee to being an employer.

“Before, when I went home at 5, I would concentrate on other things; now, I’m still thinking about Formal Affair all the time,” he explained. “And those 5 o’clock days are gone — long gone.”

Kousch said he learned a lot about the rag business, and business in general, from the Berman family, which owned and operated Yale Genton for decades, and he intends to apply those lessons. He’ll also try to maximize the many connections he made at that store, such as the one with the Spirit of Springfield, for which he ran tuxedo specials for attendees of its Bright Nights Ball.

He’s a Shoe-in

Kousch says it will take a few quarters, if not a few years, to ultimately decide whether his entrepreneurial gambit was a wise business decision.

But for now, he believes he has the many pieces in place to succeed in what it is a specific niche but also a competitive market. Among those pieces are know-how, connections, and even a dog with a face that resonates with his intended audience.

“When the phone rings, there are generally two questions — ‘are you Kevin from Yale Genton?’ and ‘are you the guy with the bulldog?’” said Kousch.

Because he can answer “yes” to both, he believes he has a good chance to succeed in a business for which he’s obviously well-suited.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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