Designers / Entreprenuers / The Sunday Times

Nish de Gruiter: Suiting Up

Don’t let Nish de Gruiter’s suit trick you into believing he’s a conservative guy. The truth is in the details: the tapering pants folded up neatly to reveal an ankle, his bare feet shod in loafers. The blue and white checkered jacket with its fine print doesn’t have any lining or padding at the shoulders and is cut so that it feels like a shirt but looks like a suit. (Nish doesn’t break a sweat in it since it’s made of fine Italian cotton.) The patch pockets at its sides add an informal touch. The colours of his narrow blue tie are picked up in an elegant little pocket square. “I always want to wear a suit that feels like a second skin,” Nish says.

Glad to be here: Nish after the Suitsupply showing at CFW on Thursday.

Though he last visited Sri Lanka as a 13-year-old, Nish packed with the weather in mind. He’s far more used to climes of the Netherlands where he was raised, Italy where he lived and worked for a while and America which he now calls home. Still, Sri Lanka was where Nish was born and from where a Dutch couple adopted him.

From his first visit back, he remembers the strangeness of finally being surrounded by people who looked like him and particularly the smell of the country – the spices and coconut oil which were so different from anything back home.

His adoptive parents arranged the trip because while they had given Nish a new life, they wanted him to know his roots. “In the house we had a row of Sri Lankan masks on the wall,” Nish says. His mother also nurtured in him a love of clothes, a passion that continues to shape his future and his career.

Growing up in The Hague, Nish says his mother would make all his outfits, stitching overalls and knitting sweaters and even making his baptism suit. “So, I was always into fashion, I was always looking at the buttons that went with the suit.” A love of haute couture and an eye for detail are qualities that have helped Nish rise to the position of Vice-President at Suitsupply (he prefers to call himself a “market maker”) but the real factors driving his success might just be an indefatigable entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to work very, very hard indeed.

A classic example of this is when Nish was enrolled in the Amsterdam Fashion Institute and he noticed that during the lunch break students would have to walk off campus to buy food. They’d often be late returning, and Nish used that to convince the dean to let him open his own on-campus food bar which would serve organic snacks. His economics professor helped him design and implement a business plan (for which Nish insisted on receiving marks that went towards his grades) and he created a roster of students who would take turns to run the place. Soon Nish had tied up with local fashion stores and clubs so that his customers would get special deals. It all worked so well that Nish turned the healthy profit that he needed to pay for school and simultaneously stay well dressed.

It was while still in school that Nish became convinced that he wanted to work for Brunello Cucinelli, the man sometimes dubbed ‘the emperor of cashmere’.

He wrote him five letters before Cucinelli became intrigued enough to consider hiring him. Nish was put to work in the laundry and told he needed to learn the business from the ground up. Which is what he did – moving to cutting swatches and then on to the design team. One day, unbeknownst to him, he found himself selling to Massimo Caronna, the president of Cucinelli in the US. He must have done a good job, because Caronna invited Nish to come and work in New York.

Nish didn’t intend to stay at Cucinelli forever though. An old friend from Amsterdam, Fokke de Jong, was the founder and CEO of Suitsupply with a thriving business and multiple branches across Europe. He didn’t think there was really a market in America, but Nish convinced him to open a store, certain that the relatively affordable yet fashionable brand would find a niche. He even put his money where his mouth was, investing all his personal savings in the new business. Starting with a small store in a Soho loft in NYC, they’ve since opened stores in Chicago, Washington DC and hope to open others in Atlanta and Philadelphia.

Now driving through the city on his way to the HSBC Colombo Fashion Week, Nish says he’s excited by the business opportunities and inspired by the colours of the tropics and the talented designers he’s meeting. It would be a great dream to open a branch of Suitsupply in Colombo. “I’m excited to be here,” he says. “I think fashion lives here and it will only get bigger and bigger.”

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 7 April, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Indika Handuwala.

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