- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2000

Local designer John Lewis started his company with one question in mind: "What if you could order your clothes like you order your fast food no mustard (no pockets), no ketchup (no lapels), a little more relish (2-inch pleats)?" he asked himself.

Today, his Arlington, Va.-based business, U-D-Zine, offers clients clothing that's made to taste, so to speak. Customer sketches, fashion photos and computer-generated drawings are used to create apparel, shoes, coats and hats that are "suited" to a client's moods and measurements.

The 40-year-old father of three John Lewis, 20, Aaron Lewis, 17, and Joya Lewis, 9 months managed to scrape together a meager $500 with his then business partner, Robert Cherry, to start the made-to-order clothing business in 1993.

Touting the slogan "Anything, anybody, any style," the duo sought an all-inclusive customer base in which the consumer, not the proprietor, would do most of the designing.

Mr. Lewis had an abundance of merchandising ideas, but finding a place to sell his concept with little investment capital presented a challenge.

So he employed a simple marketing strategy: He would set up shop in the one place he knew that people would bring their clothing to have it cleaned, altered and repaired a dry cleaners.

"We didn't have money to rent a retail space, so I started calling around to local cleaners," Mr. Lewis, a native Washingtonian, says. "We found a 6-by-4 corner downtown that barely fit a sewing machine and a place for me to stand," he says with a chuckle.

However, his business savvy paid off, and in less than a year, he was able to move into his own shop in Crystal City. Mr. Lewis and Mr. Cherry dissolved their partnership in 1996. Mr. Lewis now runs the business with his wife, Alesia, 37.

Mr. Lewis moved his operation to Ballston in October 1999 and grossed approximately $5,000 the day his shop opened. Yet, with an ever-increasing upscale clientele came an ever-increasing question: "Can you come to me?" his customers asked.

"Because of the Internet, people are becoming accustomed to shopping from their homes," Mr. Lewis says. In order to compete with major e-commerce companies, he began making house calls. By last July, the business was completely mobile. The designer now meets with his clients at their homes, businesses or any other mutually convenient location.

So, how does it all work?

Clients either call or e-mail U-D-Zine to set up an initial consultation. Mr. Lewis draws digital "blueprints" with his computer as his clients relate their ideas at the first meeting. Measurements are taken, and the client can select from more than 100 fabric swatches.

In addition, Mr. Lewis takes suit samples from his own label to illustrate handcrafted details.

The plans then are sent to a U-D-Zine tailor who will draft an initial pattern, cut the fabric and baste the seams.

A minimum two fittings are necessary to ensure an impeccable fit, Mr. Lewis says. Once a client gives the OK, the suit will be professionally finished, cleaned and pressed. Clients' patterns and measurements are put on file. Should they choose to have reproductions made, they need only call U-D-Zine and state their color and fabric preference.

Therein lies the beauty of it all: The style, color and range of clothing you want is always available in your size because U-D-Zine it, Mr. Lewis says.

A basic woman's suit starts at $310; the basic man's starts at $400. Customers who want specific details, such as pure silk lining and super-140 wool meaning 140 threads per inch pay more. The basic leather shoe starts at $375. The cost of coats and hats varies with the fabric.

Because of popular demand, U-D-Zine will go on line this winter, according to Mr. Lewis. Customers will be able to scan in a picture of their desired design as well as fill out an information sheet with their measurements and style request. Within weeks, the garment will be shipped directly to them, Mr. Lewis says.

"The business is really about a person who says, 'I saw this in a book 10 years ago and liked the way it looked, but I'd like you to make it in cashmere,' " Mr. Lewis says. "I'm not in this business to reinvent the wheel. I just want it to roll smoother."

For more information, e-mail U-D-Zine at [email protected], or call 703/522-2274.

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