A suit company wants to turn Philly inmates into artisan tailors - Generocity Philly

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Oct. 28, 2016 12:55 pm

A suit company wants to turn Philly inmates into artisan tailors

Hong Kong-based Bonham Strand is launching in Philadelphia, spearheaded by Penn grad and social entrepreneur Jong Lee.

Jong Lee (left) and his managing bespoke tailor, Ryan Ng.

(Photo by Tony Abraham)

Editor's note: Jong Lee graduated from Penn, not Wharton. It has been corrected. Edit 10/28 @ 1:40 p.m.
Full disclosure: This reporter couldn't say no to being fitted for a suit during this interview. He will be receiving a bespoke shirt from Bonham Strand.
Jong Lee wants to end the cheap suit business, and he wants to do it by employing returning citizens as artisan tailors.

Right now, Lee’s bespoke menswear business Bonham Strand is based in Hong Kong, where he employs elderly craftsmen and young, rehabilitated addicts as tailors. But the social entrepreneur’s vision is to expand Bonham Strand to 50 U.S. cities.

Starting with a pilot location in Philly. Why? Partially because he’s a Penn grad. Also, because there’s “an explosion” of young people here. Bonham Strand, he said, is “virally attractive” to young folks.

“I couldn’t think of a better place,” Lee said. “If it works here, we’re close to Baltimore, New York and D.C. We want each location to stand on its own and make their suits here.”

Here, Bonham Strand will look to employ former inmates “the minute” they’re released from prison. Lee hopes to do that by training inmates who have the “manual dexterity and intellectual bandwidth” while they’re incarcerated. The plan is to then get inmates training now, then transition them to an old covenant house he’ll convert to a live/work space — a halfway houses of sorts for recovering addicts.

For Lee, it’s all about keeping cash in local economies.

“Bespoke means human-to-human,” he said. “It doesn’t mean the same if it’s made 6,000 miles away.”

"The goal is to have two-thirds of all the revenues generated in Philadelphia to stay in Philadelphia. And we want it to go to human capital."
Jong Lee

Lee said it takes about a year to a year and a half for a tailor to learn how to cut pants, so don’t expect to see a Bonham Strand storefront anywhere just yet.

“We won’t rush it, but the goal is to have two-thirds of all the revenues generated in Philadelphia to stay in Philadelphia,” he said. “And we want it to go to human capital.”

That means the people who crafted the suit, serviced the customer — the whole nine.

“I really believe in ‘brother help thy brother,’ direct peer-driven involvement,” he said. “The spirit is to pay your own way, fix your own problems, help your own community.”

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He sees Bonham Strand as a way to uplift communities that have been impacted by generational disenfranchisement.

It’s what Lee calls a “second chance ecosystem.” In it, Bonham Strand sells Second Chance suits — a play off of “second-hand.” Bonham Strand takes donated suits, repurposes the material and tailors the suit to each individual customer for $75.  In Hong Kong, Second Chance suits are marketed to the unemployed. Though, technically, they’re available to anyone interested.

That’s how Bonham Strand hopes to put Men’s Warehouse out of business while reducing local recidivism rates and rejuvenating underserved communities.

“I want to end the cheap suit business,” he said. “And they’re not going to try to compete with me in Second Chance.”

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