- Associated Press - Sunday, May 17, 2015

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - During a rare break in his schedule, Little Rock designer Jamie Davidson sat in a Fayetteville restaurant and tried his best over lunch to recall where all he’d been during the previous 10 days.

Davidson had definitely been to Philadelphia, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (https://bit.ly/1JLDCQe ) reported. There were stops in at least four Virginia cities and a trip to Charlotte, North Carolina.

And maybe Mexico City? Probably Mexico City.

Davidson was pretty sure he’d recently visited the factory that manufactures his Strong Suit line, but that might have come during a previous 10-day stretch that included trips to Boston, Toronto, Cleveland and Houston with stops in New York, Kentucky and Michigan.

“I can’t keep track of where I’ve been. It’s so fast-paced,” Davidson said. “There is so much to do. So much to do.”

Not that Davidson, 43, is complaining. The schedule is a byproduct of the success of Strong Suit, a clothing line that he launched two years ago and is featured in about 30 men’s stores across North America.

June 1 brings the launch of an e-commerce site dedicated to a customized and personalized Strong Suit shopping experience. On top of that, Nordstrom has agreed to carry the line - largely priced under $600 - in Dallas, Atlanta, Austin, Nashville and Chicago. Davidson notes that his first purchase order for Nordstrom - due in late August/early September - eclipsed his entire first year of sales for the line of suits and sport coats.

National success is nothing new for Davidson, who has previously seen clothing and accessory lines carried by Dillard’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, but growth is even more rapid for Strong Suit. Already the brand has attracted notable investors, including e-commerce whiz and entrepreneur John James, William Dillard III and Advantage Capital Partners of St. Louis. Strong Suit received $1 million in funding and is one of 13 companies that the Missouri venture capital firm has chosen as part of a round of investments aimed at Arkansas companies.

Advantage Capital Senior Vice President Dan Gould, who sits on the Strong Suit board, said his firm believes very strongly in its investment in Davidson. Strong Suit was appealing because Davidson owns the brand and manufacturing, and he has a global vision. Currently, the company has seven employees, but it figures to ramp up hiring in the near future, including a to-be-named executive overseeing finances and operations.

“There are other entrepreneurs in Arkansas who will grow, but still stay mom and pop. That’s not Jamie,” Gould said of Davidson. “As an outside investor we’re looking for companies that are going to build in Arkansas, but be more of a national, global presence. I think Jamie represents that. He owns his own brand, and while he’s not manufacturing in Arkansas today, it’s certainly something he could be doing down the road. I like the way Jamie thinks. I like the way he operates.”

Adding Acumen co-founder James to Davidson’s well-established business was “icing on the cake,” Gould said.

James developed a reputation in the e-commerce and venture capital world because he helped Acumen secure $100 million in outside funding and become a major player in online retail. Country Outfitter, which sells boots and accessories, is Acumen’s most successful brand and has been hailed as a leader in e-commerce.

As Davidson developed the idea for a custom-suit shopping experience online, he felt very strongly about adding James to his team.

Davidson, Gould and James recently met face to face in Fayetteville to discuss their to-do list for Strong Suit. James said the retooled Strong Suit site will launch next month, and its customized features will roll out in the weeks and months that follow. There are plans to add personal stylists to assist with the purchase in the vein of Trunk Club or Stitch Fix, a site geared for women.

James said Strong Suit is among a rare group of Arkansas-based companies that have secured $1 million or more in outside venture funding. Springdale’s Nanomech, which develops nanotechnology for use in machining and manufacturing, lubrication, packaging, biomedical implant coatings and military applications, also is an Advantage Capital investment.

Acumen Brands, co-founded by James, is on the list and Strong Suit joins other promising companies like retail analytics firms DataRank and Field Agent of Fayetteville and social shopper marketing firm Collective Bias of Rogers to appeal to outside investors.

James’ knowledge of e-commerce and his ability to “speak the language” of investors looking for promising startups and entrepreneurs make him an important part of Strong Suit’s future, Davidson said.

“There are a lot of guys out there that understand social media and know how to build a website. There are hardly any guys who have monetized it the way John has,” Davidson said. “He understands all the moving parts that quite frankly I do not. I knew if John came on board, he’d manage that process from beginning to end better than I ever could. There are a lot of brands that start on the Internet and move into wholesale. There are a lot of wholesale brands that try to do the Internet. I want to be really great at both of them. There’s no way I could do that by myself, and there’s nobody else in Arkansas as qualified to do that side than he is.”

Menswear continues to be a moneymaker and could reach $40 billion in global sales by 2019, according to a recent report from market research firm Euromonitor International. Last month when The New York Times added its first new section in nearly a decade, it chose to focus on men’s fashion.

Davidson, who is also evaluating a possible flagship store in central Arkansas, sees a market for reasonably-priced suits that appeal to younger, more fashion-conscious shoppers. He envisions enough in-store growth and online sales that Strong Suit could one day be a $100 million brand.

Despite his vision and confidence, doubters are just as common for Davidson as the near-constant travel. There always seem to be questions in more metropolitan areas about the viability of a national or global fashion brand emerging from Arkansas.

Davidson answers those questions by pointing to two of the state’s global success stories - former President Bill Clinton and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

“Nobody really understands what Arkansas is,” Davidson said. “There is definitely an entrepreneurial spirit here. If I grew up in New York, I’d be working at Ralph Lauren or J. Crew, but I grew up in Arkansas, so I’m doing my own thing. There’s kind of a Darwinistic approach to how that works here. If a successful president can be from here and Wal-Mart can be from here, why would you be skeptical of anything else?”

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