Michael Isaacson of Tulliano - Proving That Through the Years, Good Taste Combined with Hard Work Pays Off Big!
A visit to Tulliano will do most entrepreneurs a world of good. They will see what a combination of hard work, talent, and exacting taste can get them, and in Michael Isaascon's case—a lot of money, and extreme satisfaction.
I met Michael, the exclusive founder and designer of Tulliano, last year. He donated some of his garments for a film. The wardrobe department needed upscale attire. When I visited Tulliano and was given a brief tour of the buzzing showroom, there were so many options. And back then Michael gave me his energetic rundown of his line that season. The shirts and pants possessed an understated classiness, refinement, sophistication of the mature, well-traveled, well-cultured male; and I knew that Agenda Magazine would be featuring this inspired designer one season.
This is boiled wool. I'm one of the few people who manufacture it.
I hadn't seen much boiled wool in my experience.
He had me feel the fabrics and showed me the multiple shirt and pant combinations. We walked down one aisle where pre-filled orders were stacked one on top of the other while a truck had just pulled away from the loading dock, carrying pallets of orders.
You see all these boxes? They will be gone in a few days. We are shipping out orders. These are all pre-packaged and already accounted for. [I am also fortunate that I have dedicated employees who stay with me for decades.] There is a strong loyalty among my staff.
Isaacon started in 1961 after he came out of the Army. I worked in a department store for $50.00 a week. Then, his best friend had an uncle in the garment district. He introduced Michael to a factory. In July 1962, the brother of the owner of the factory offered him a job. Michael interviewed with him for twenty minutes.
He asked me how much money I was making and I didn't tell him the truth. I told him I was making $75.00 a week. He said O. K., I'll match it and in a year, I'll give you $90. So I started there as a stock boy.
Isaacson did everything from taking orders to sweeping the floors. The owner always asked his opinion on samples.
I was opinionated—I still am, especially about what I liked. After a while he always wanted to know what I liked because it seemed to sell. He would go into NY to buy pieces all the time, and people would come in to see him. He would bring me in on the meetings, and he taught me the business. I never looked at the clock. I was supposed to go home at 5 p.m., but because the owner stayed late, so would I. I was off the clock. They didn't pay me for it. Because in those days, everybody was cheap, and I was [learning the business]. A year later, a territory in Michigan and Ohio became available and he asked me if I would move to Detroit. In October of 1963, I took it and moved to Detroit, until 1977, when I decided I no longer wanted to live there. So I packed up and moved to California with my family. I worked as a sales manager until 1982. Then I started my own company. And I struggled at that. In 1985 I had a partner who put up all the money, and that same year I caught him stealing. So I left the company in 1988, after we didn't owe any money—I made sure we didn't owe any money to anybody. We split up. He remained in business for two more years and he finally went bankrupt. And I am still in business after starting over in 1988.
Michael founded the label Tulliano in Rome, Italy, over 20 years ago. He registered the name, and the rest is history.
We produced goods in Italy as well as China. Ninety-nine percent of our production is in China and one percent is in Korea (with a couple of styles). We no longer make anything in Italy. But I still maintain an office there, and we design there. We can move faster than the competition.
Who is your competition?
The World. I don't want to name particular names because everybody is "fair game" as far as competition. Retailers generally buy by retail price points. So, a discount, for example, needs a twenty-dollar retail shirt. They have a price point that they can buy it at, but no higher. The buyer can't pay more than "X." So if you're a penny more than X, they refuse to buy it. When we get a price change in a factory or a country, because of evaluation, or reevaluation, like in the case of China, where the money is being revalued, I may be paying five percent more for the garment than the landed duty pay. The buyer cannot pay more than he paid last season for the same garment because he wants to set it at twenty dollars retail. The next price point is twenty-five dollars. The difference in volume for twenty and twenty-five dollars per discounter is probably fifty percent less when you go up. And then specialty stores all buy a certain price level. And then there's the store that doesn't care about price—they don't even want to look at the price. They just want to buy their fashion. Then they'll only look at the price to see if you're competitive. That holds true for me or anybody else in the industry. There are no secrets today.
[In my opinion], America has too much merchandise today—this is another problem. The ability to bring in more than the world can sell, that's why women are out shopping every day and there are specials everywhere.
That's true. It makes it easy if you're a shopper.
If you're like me, and I see something I like, I don't wait for it to go on sale, because if I like it, it's not going to be on sale. And if I'm traveling in a foreign country and I'm shopping ... let's say I find something in London in an Armani store. I don't wait until I get home to shop at Armani because every Armani store in the world buys their collection different. Because even though they work for Armani, they come and buy their collection separately for their district or store. I may not see that sweater or shirt in any other store in my travels—only because I want it. So if I'm in London and I see it, I'll buy it. You should always shop that way because you seem to always be mad at yourself for a short period of time, and then you get over it.
We make two collections a year: Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer. Men's business is always six months in advance.
What are your collections?
A contemporary collection aimed at the contemporary man. It's not aimed at the young man. It's aimed at the fashion dresser who is less than one percent of the population of the United States. About 95- 97% of my business is done between Wal-Mart, department stores, and the other discounters. They sell to about 97% of the population. The other 3% of the population, or the business, is done by specialty stores—either better or lower-end, which are disappearing every day by attrition.
You're casual wear?
Sportswear, sweaters, printed silk shirts, woven sport shirts. Hook-ups. These are outfits of shirts and pants that match—whatever the fashion of the day is going to be next season, whether it's color or style. In spring, we sell short sleeves, but there has been a trend toward long sleeves the past two years.
How do you project your trends?
I attend fashion shows in Europe twice a year. There's now one in Italy followed by one in Paris—about ten days to two weeks in Europe. I also shop the European stores to see what the trend is there, which maybe follows the trend here a year later. Europe does the same. They see what the young trend is here and they take it back to Europe.
What does Tulliano's mean?
Besides working really hard, what advice would you give to someone who is starting a business?
Become a doctor! (He laughs). You have to have a passion for what you do. You have to love what you do when you get up in the morning. If you don't, then you just have a job. You have to have some ability to go with it, but you have to be driven, and not everybody's driven.
Tulliano can be found at retailers all over the world. Their warehouse is located at 1375 Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90021. For more information contact them at 213-749-3388.
Interview by Kaylene Peoples