David Alan: Tailored for Success

In the world of custom fashion, few stories are as compelling as that of David Alan, the Pittsburgh native and entrepreneurial spirit behind David Alan Clothing. His journey from medical sales to styling celebrities and crafting a unique brand in the fashion industry is a tale of resilience, innovation, and the relentless pursuit of passion.

Alan’s career began in medical sales, a field he chose for its lucrative potential and practicality. However, he soon realized that material success alone was insufficient for his fulfillment. This realization sparked a journey of self-discovery, fueled by his insatiable appetite for learning through podcasts and a desire for something more meaningful.

“I realized material things are just things and that ‘stuff’ really doesn’t drive me or motivate me to do anything differently. I felt that there was a bigger purpose for me, but I didn’t know what that purpose was yet,” Alan says.

This quest for purpose ended up leading him to a career field far removed from medical sales. He began with a simple idea: selling neckties with golf course logos in the pro shops he frequented. This venture, although modest, was the stepping stone to his future in fashion. Limitations he faced with partners in this early endeavor led him to pursue his dreams solo, marking the start of his true entrepreneurial journey.

Alan’s first major breakthrough came with the invention of interchangeable necktie knots. Named the Proper Knot, this innovation was born out of necessity and a desire for novelty in his wardrobe. His journey through designing and manufacturing these knots was a testament to his dedication – teaching himself to sew and overcoming production challenges.

Alan recalls, “I remember getting that first prototype for the Proper Knot. It was just basically a piece of elastic with a triangle fabric and a loop on it where you would tuck a necktie through there. And I just remember grabbing it, thinking, ‘okay, this is the start of something.’ So I ended up launching a company where all we did was make these necktie knots. I’d get an order in and the lady manufacturing them would take two to three weeks to make them. I realized at that point I was never going to grow a business relying on that type of turnaround. I ended up going to JoAnn Fabrics, I bought a sewing machine, and then I literally taught myself how to sew from YouTube videos. I realized I had to put everything under my control in order to make it successful. I’d work medical sales during the day and then I’d sew every evening. There were times during that stretch that I would not sleep for two days and I was pulling an hour nap here, an hour nap there. So I was running pretty ragged for a couple of years.”

The interchangeable necktie knots organically led to the custom suit side of his business. Alan’s entry into this space was driven by his experiences buying suits in major cities and realizing the potential for personalized fashion. “I was buying suits for work in New York, Chicago, and I was working with people that were working with celebrities.  I could never figure out how they were working with celebrities when I wasn’t happy with the product that I got from them. I didn’t understand anything about the business or anything about the product other than it was really cool that I could pick out all the details of a suit and have it individually made for me. So I just came home one day from a work trip and went to the internet and started Googling, ‘how do you make suits’ and ‘how do you connect with factories.’ I started ordering fabric, ordering samples, teaching myself how to measure. I had no blueprint.”

Starting with friends, he gradually built his reputation for custom suits, combining affordability with quality. He started with the goal of simply paying his car payment each month, then having some extra spending money so he could save more of his regular income from his sales job.

This venture took a significant turn when Alan connected with WWE wrestlers. Through a connection with a local sports writer who was a regular customer of the Proper Knot, he was introduced to a pro wrestler who happened to be in town. Alan says, “In October 2015, my friend called me and said, ‘WWE is in town. There’s one of the wrestlers that I know very well. He loves suits. He loves fashion. I think you’d want to meet him and connect with him.’ So I met him in the middle of October at the Marriott next to the arena. I’m supposed to meet him at 9 o’clock and he didn’t get there until 12:30. So I’m just sitting there with two books of fabric in the lobby waiting for him, but I didn’t leave. I knew just getting my foot in the door would be huge. Finally we meet, I get him measured and everything. And that was the start of my relationship with WWE. He bought 10 suits the first night that I worked with him. Ten! I did them all for him at cost and then I messed up every single suit. We went back and forth for three and a half months or so until it dawned on me that I should just perfect one suit and make sure that it fit and then do the rest. There were a lot of growing pains in the beginning. He fortunately was very genuine and patient through the whole process. He was so understanding that I was new to what I was doing. And he just was a very incredible human being that opened up a lot of doors for me. In January 2016,  he called me and said, ‘I want you to travel with WWE. I want to introduce you to everybody in the locker room.’” It was Alan’s ability to tailor suits to unique styles and preferences – and the trial-and-error process of perfecting his craft – that opened doors to a new clientele, including celebrities and athletes. 

His first foray into traveling with the WWE was also met with unexpected twists and turns. “That first trip is a funny story.  I was so excited I hired a driver to drive me to the airport. And I flew on Spirit and I went to the wrong airport,  so I missed my flight the first day. I was like, ‘shit, this is bad.’” Alan explains that he had to scramble to book another flight out of Pittsburgh with very little cash on hand at the time from investing in the businesses. Eventually, he did end up at the right place, albeit quite late for the event. “I still sold 52 suits in three days to nine different athletes.”

In March 2016, ESPN did a story on WWE and one of the wrestlers discussed Alan, his clothing brand, and the custom suit he was wearing. It was an incredible moment for Alan that would soon turn into disaster: “My boss in medical sales happened to be watching ESPN at the time and saw the story and then ended up pulling my cell phone record. He realized I was traveling when I wasn’t supposed to. So I ended up getting fired shortly thereafter. And at that time I had just built a house. I had paid off my student loans and then I was fired within six or eight months of that.” 

Alan called his financial advisor and explained he needed to liquidate the entirety of his 401K account because he wanted to focus on his fashion brand without having to search for another job. “It was $180,000 that I had saved up. I thought that money would last me two, maybe three years, and give me time to grow my business. It lasted six months. And I was completely, utterly broke by 2017.”

Facing insurmountable debt, Alan ended up doing debt relief on all his personal credit cards. “It was a business decision because I realized I wasn’t going to climb out of that. I defaulted on three credit cards. I was getting harassed by attorneys all the time. My credit was 500. I pretty much lost everything. I’d come home and my water was shut off, my power was shut off, my gas was shut off probably 15 to 20 times during this period,” he recalls.

“2017 was a pretty brutal experience for me. It was a dark situation. I have a tattoo on my arm of a number: negative $86.40. That was my bank account in 2017. It’s a reminder of where I came from. I went to get groceries at Giant Eagle and I got declined on my debit card and I realized I was in a bad spot. Probably about two weeks away from completely going under. And so I rallied. I started collecting outstanding debts just to make sure my employees were paid. 2017 was when everything started shifting. I had a lot of experiences that year that made me really see that I have what it takes to be successful, to keep pushing forward no matter what.”

Another pivotal learning moment for Alan came at the beginning of 2018 when he was asked to work on a collaboration for WWE and KFC. “I was tasked with turning two WWE wrestlers into Colonel Sanders. Ric Flair was the original for the project, but he ended up getting really sick. So within one week of the event, they picked a different person, Shawn Michaels.That was obstacle number one, changing models on such a short deadline.” Alan arrived in New York on a Saturday at two o’clock, with the event being held on Sunday. Upon delivering the suit, he was thanked for his quick turn-around time but told it was the wrong color. “They wanted pure white and it was an off white,” he explains. 

When the project director told Alan that they planned to simply go and find a pure white suit off the rack that night, he thought, “no, this is a huge project for me.” 

“I told them, ‘I’m gonna handle it, I’m gonna knock it out.’ I had no idea what I was gonna do.”

Alan initially went to Target with an ill-advised plan to bleach the suit.  With a bucket of bleach and rubber gloves he went back to his hotel room. Fortunately, he only dipped one pant leg in at the cuff,  letting it sit for a half an hour. It ended up deteriorating the fabric. Off to Google once more, he searched “craft stores in Manhattan.” At 6 p. m. Saturday evening, he headed out into the Big Apple with only a hope and a prayer. “I go to the first craft store and I’m talking to this employee, a high school girl, and I’m like, ‘hi, I need help. I don’t know what to do. What should I do?’ After discussing the different options, Alan settled on fabric spray paint. “By the time I got all situated, it was 9:30 at night and I had no choice but to just spray paint all night long in my hotel bathroom.” Where there’s a will, there’s a way, right? 

“It was brutal. I woke up high as a kite from all the fumes of the paint. I can’t imagine the hotel staff was happy with me when I left. I held up the suit to the window and I thought, ‘wow, I think I pulled this off.’ I ended up hitting it with another coat that morning. I got it to them right in the nick of time and it was perfect, I couldn’t believe it. That was another experience that taught me so much.”

For the rest of 2018, business continued to grow and expand. Alan reports that every year since then, they’ve been profitable as a business. “After going through those difficult times I realized what I needed to do to make it work,” he says. Fast forward to 2019, and Alan’s clothing company was hitting six figures a month, consistently. And then 2020 happened. 

“In March 2020, we did $1,200 in sales. And I was just like, ‘oh, we’re in a bad spot again.’” Not sure what  was going to happen and suddenly facing a huge setback, Alan reached out to his partners. Realizing that every minute was crucial, Alan pushed them to launch a new company, then and there. “I remember one of my partners was on the highway at the time. He pulled off the road to take notes because he could tell how serious this situation was.” Just 24 hours later, they ended up being one of the first companies in the country to sell face masks. 

One viral Facebook post was all it took to sell about $56,000 worth of face masks at $9 a mask. With limited supply in the market at the time, and a stylish product, the masks were an instant success.  All in all, Alan says they sold about 500,000 face masks and made about $2,000,000 to keep everything afloat. He also donated about $25,000 to Allegheny Health Network for women’s behavioral studies. “I was also able to get my two partners to quit their day jobs. They were able to come on full time after this. It was a good feeling to be able to provide something so essential, and to be able to give to charity, change my partners’ lives, and ensure my other employees still had jobs during the pandemic.”

By October 2020, with the market so saturated with masks, Alan and his partners decided to pull out of the business and start to once again focus on the clothing brand. “It was our lifeblood to get through the pandemic, and we were able to do a lot of good, I think, but we knew the time had come to pull out. And we stayed true to who we were the whole time and kind of just kept pushing and kept going so it allowed people to believe in us and trust in our business.”

Alan says it was a very educational experience from a humanity standpoint, but also business in general. Learning how to quickly start a brand new business, deal with customer complaints and Facebook shutdowns (due to initially slow shipping times because of supply-chain issues) and how to get his team through tough times all made him a better entrepreneur. 

When asked what he would tell other business owners, he says, “You have to understand it’s going to be frustrating, but you just keep going with it. You’ll have support and criticism”

Thankfully, post-pandemic business started to take off for Alan again. He says, “It was a big change for us when the dust settled a little bit. I think people were just ready to get out and about. Business has been great and now with expanding into the new space in Mt. Lebanon, I’m just excited for the future. I’ve learned so many lessons through all of this. The most important thing is probably that life takes risk. It’s a big risk to do something different. But it’s worth it. People are going to judge you or misinterpret your intentions a lot. They’re going to judge you no matter what you do in life.”

When speaking with Alan, his passion for helping others shines through immediately. He says that charity has always been at the center of his mission. “To give back, to make the world a little better. I love helping people. Just the fulfillment of helping other people means so much because I didn’t have that in the beginning.I had nobody to help me. I mean, I was so alone with everything. So if I could help somebody fast forward a lot of things for themselves, that’s part of my goal.” Keeping in line with that goal, David Alan Clothing hosts an annual fashion show that benefits local charities. This year, the spectacular red carpet event was held in Pittsburgh on October 14th, with proceeds benefiting the Ryan Shazier Fund. Over $75,000 was raised during the event through ticket sales, auctions, and more. Many of Alan’s clients were present, flashing the signature DA label inside their suits at every opportunity. 

“It’s amazing to see people fall in love with your work. I’ve had the honor of working with celebrities and athletes like Pat McAfee, Mitch Keller, and David Bednar. Gregg Rudolph, a major client. I’ve done stuff for Jim Tressel, Sonya Deville, Teddy Swims, John Cena. I did Ric Flair’s wedding. I did the Undertaker’s Hall of Fame outfit.  And Ryan Shazier, I did his wedding. We designed his suit with his logo on the back of his jacket. It’s surreal sometimes, thinking I’ve met all these people, they love what I do, and it started with neckties and a desire for something different.”

Additionally, Alan has done quite a bit of public speaking and already has several speaking engagements for the coming year. “I really enjoy that side of it because I just like sharing and I like people too. If I could change one person’s life, help someone believe in themselves, that’s really the coolest thing ever to me” As well as public speaking, Alan has built a state of the art podcast studio at his new location. Purposefully making the podcast room a focal point, it has glass windows so customers can see the recording process while shopping. Looking forward to a new podcast release at the end of the year, Alan says he wants to bring people together to share their stories. 

Today, Alan’s business portfolio includes David Alan Clothing, a marketing company, a ready-to-wear line, and his original interchangeable necktie knot venture. He has also expanded into women’s fashion as well as accessories, bags, and shoes, demonstrating his adaptability and commitment to inclusivity. As he continues to expand his brand and influence, Alan remains a beacon of inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs and fashion enthusiasts alike.

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