Man of the Cloth
by Shelly Steig
Clothes make the man, claims an adage in the business world. UNO graduate Scott Kuhlman has turned this wisdom on its heels, establishing a thriving business by being the man who makes the clothes.
His fashion corporation, Kuhlman Company, will open its 60th retail store by the end of 2005, a mind-boggling achievement considering Kuhlman didn't open his first store until August 2003. With upscale locations in the likes of New York's Rockefeller Center and Washington, D.C.'s, Georgetown, Kuhlman and his partner-wife, Susan, are on the fast track to success.
Kuhlman found his niche targeting mission-oriented males who didn't want to wander through women's lingerie searching for the men's department, as well as the 30-ish newbie professional who was looking for a fun and affordable shopping experience.
Naysayers predicted Kuhlman's approach wouldn't work, but people have flocked to the stores.
"Our customers love us because we're giving them an incredible product for an understandable price," he says.
Inside the small, colorful and well-organized Kuhlman stores, shoppers find traditional and fashion shirts in a rainbow of hues and patterns, as well as suits and ties. A broad audience constitutes the clientele—a surfer dude in jeans and flip-flops might be wearing the same shirt as a business professional in coat and tie. The Kuhlman brand has become hot, riding the coattails of the "metrosexual" trend into the era of the "ubersexual," defined recently by Daniel Altiere of Fox News as "the man who can talk fashion with women but also compete for them with the fireman at the bar."
Few epitomize the newly coined term better than the 41-year-old designer and UNO graduate Kuhlman. During the interview he wore a pair of flat-front khaki chinos made out of canvas from an Italian cotton mill, a washed cashmere sport coat in a big, oversized plaid, a pink- and blue-striped shirt, and a brown polka dot tie. But he's a snappy dresser who loves football, does the renovation work on his 100-year-old house, and builds desks for his firm's Minneapolis headquarters.
He inherited the building skills from his father, Donald, a well-known contractor in Ogallala, Neb., who also was an impeccable dresser. The designing skills evolved from a variety of factors: His mother, Marbara, is a cloth spinner and weaver, so Kuhlman's always been around textures and colors; his grandmother, Bette Padley, was an excellent seamstress who created Halloween costumes for the seven Kuhlman siblings—costumes that Kuhlman's two children, 12-year-old Ellen and 9-year-old Audrey, still use. And Kuhlman's grandfather, William S. Padley, an attorney who tried several cases before the Nebraska Supreme Court, always dressed "to the nines."
It was Kuhlman's seventh-grade science instructor, though, who introduced Kuhlman to the retail side of fine dressing. Dick Lungrin left teaching to open a namesake men's store in Ogallala and invited Kuhlman to work there after school. Kuhlman continued working at Lungrin's during his years at Ogallala High School, where he also was the starting varsity quarterback.
It was at a sporting event during his junior year in 1982 that Kuhlman saw capri-clad Susan Andersen. Kuhlman approached her with a somewhat unconventional pickup line: "Hey, I'll buy the rest of the fabric for your pants." The harbinger of a future life worked, and the two began dating.
Susan graduated from Cozad High School and headed to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln while Kuhlman stayed in Ogallala his senior year. He joined her the following semester at UNL. After unloading his car at the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house, he snagged a job at Ben Simon's in Lincoln. Susan graduated in four years, but Scott was on the six-year plan. Between his job—he had worked his way up to become a buyer—and courting, there was little time left for school. The couple married in 1987, then moved to Omaha so Kuhlman could manage the Ben Simon's men's department there. He enrolled at UNO and in 1989 completed his bachelor's degree in finance.
From there Kuhlman had a series of jobs, including stints with designer Joseph Abboud, wholesaler Hartmarx (where he attempted to revive the Perry Ellis brand), and S.F.I. International, a Canadian company that wholesaled to Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue.
During that time he learned about the sourcing and development sides of fashion, built an impressive Rolodex of clientele and suppliers, and created the look he now calls "Anglo-Italian."
"When most people think about Italian men, they picture big, huge shoulders and a black suit," Kuhlman explains. "But that's not the case at all. It's usually earth tones and very round shoulders and elegant, luxurious fabrics. Brits love color. The look we've achieved by combining the two is one that we see in Europe all the time, but we've Americanized it."
The demand for Kuhlman products has been high. The company's website, kuhlmancompany.com, is nearing 1 million hits per month, and stores are earning an average of $700 per square foot. The company went public on June 9, 2005, through a reverse merger with Gaming Venture Corp., USA. Kuhlman has applied for the American Stock Exchange and currently trades under the bulletin board as KHLM at approximately $2.85 a share. He plans to move into the European market with the opening of an Italian store in a few months and is launching a new brand aimed at the weekender called "SK2." His recently launched women's line has been well received—so much so that women's fashions will share equal space in Kuhlman stores.
Daring to Dress
All of it has come just since August 2003 when Kuhlman opened his first store—on the equivalent of a dare.
At the time, Kuhlman was traveling extensively in Europe through his job at SFI. There he noticed shirt shops on nearly every corner and wondered if the concept would work in the United States. He offered the concept to management at Marshall Field's, but they weren't interested. So Kuhlman took matters into his own hands, opening an 800-square-foot shop in downtown Minneapolis. "I leased the space and within a week had the store open," he says. "I had all intentions of closing it down once Marshall Field's said ‘Uncle,' but from the first day it opened it had a tremendous response. I couldn't produce shirts fast enough. And I said, 'Hey, I've got something.'"
Kuhlman has translated that "something" into a Starbucks- or Southwest Airlines-like business plan that allows him to systemize and cut costs, then pass the savings along to customers. He uses an "Extreme Makeover" approach with the opening of stores; Kuhlman can have keys in possession on a Monday and get the store open for business by the weekend. He trains management through the use of video emails, employs only four to five workers per store, and does very little advertising other than an email "blast" detailing new products and sent every 10 days to registered customers.
And the pricing can be as attractive as the clothes, sometimes running one-fourth the price of some designers. "It's who you know and how you put it together," Kuhlman says. "You have to know what you can take out and what you can't. With garments, it's the fabric and yarn that you use. For instance, in our suits we use the finest fabric from this little region in Italy called Biella. You can't reproduce it because of the water in the region. And no one in the world can make fabric like they make it. It's the best of the best. So I go to Biella and buy fabric from the finest fabric mills. The masses want fine things. We are giving it to them."
Does Kuhlman worry that his company's bright future (as well as his bright shirts) might be dimmed by a fading fad? Kuhlman laughs and says, "The world has changed dramatically. I wore a pink, gingham checked shirt to my 20th reunion. We're not a bunch of football jerseys and oversize print shirts at the barbeque any more."
Shelly Steig is a contributor to the UNO Alum, the quarterly magazine of the UNO Alumni Association. She can be reached at Thewritephrase@aol.com.
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