By Peter Shawn Taylor | March 9, 2018
His boast that he sells 'The World's Most Dangerous Shirts' is bound to get your attention. And once you've noticed Jeff Alpaugh, it's hard to stop paying attention. This fashion dynamo, former Canadian Forces paratrooper and Laurier business grad is a non-stop promotion machine. From his memorable catch-phrases − Think about it! Be about it! − to his deal on Dragons’ Den to fitting Prince Harry for custom shirts − Alpaugh's mission is to put a little danger into everyone's life. (Or at least their wardrobe.)
Based in Fredericton, NB, Alpaugh, who graduated from the Lazaridis bachelor of business administration in 2007, has turned his unique life experiences into a booming online and store-front business that provides customers with perfectly-fitting, personally-designed shirts that promise to get them as much notice as he does. And he has big plans for the future. To find out how he got to where he is today, and the role the Lazaridis School of Business & Economics played in getting him there, we sat down for a debrief with the 32-year-old owner of Jeff Alpaugh Custom.
Q: Okay, I'll bite. What makes a shirt dangerous?
Jeff Alpaugh (JA): Danger is in the eye of the beholder. Everything about our shirts is custom: custom fit, custom design, custom fabric. We have fabrics you will not find anywhere else on this continent. We are right at the very edge of striking, fashion-forward shirts − without crossing the line into cheesy or ridiculous. We tell our customers to be a force of danger in the world, but don't be a danger to themselves or others.
Q: It's an intriguing sales pitch. Have you always been dangerously fashionable?
JA: People look at me today and think I must come from a very bourgeoise background. I can assure you that is not correct. My father still wears running shoes with his suits – even though I tell him he's killing my marketing efforts.
Q: So what happened?
JA: The story begins when I was in Laurier's business co-op program. I was a skinny, 19-year-old kid preparing for my first co-op job interview. I'd never applied for a white collar job before, and I was excited to get my first real suit. I figured I was going to look like James Bond. But when I got to the store, the salesman handed me a suit and said 'this is the one for you.' I didn't know anything about fashion at the time, so that's what I bought. It was a size 46 when I probably needed a 36. The shoulders were so big they practically sagged down to my elbows. Absurdly big. And as my classmates were getting jobs on their first or second co-op interview, I got rejection after rejection because I looked so hopeless. I don't blame the interviewers, however – I probably wouldn't have hired me!
Q: I'm hoping this story has a happy ending…
JA: I eventually got a co-op position through family connections. But more importantly I had a lot of time to reflect, and I realized two things: I didn't know how to dress properly and I wasn't good at selling myself. So I got a job at a men's fashion store and taught myself how to help other clueless, first-timers. I found I really enjoyed showing kids how to match patterns or pick colours; and I was good at it. After graduating from Laurier, I worked another year in men's fashion, and then I joined the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry because I wanted to serve my country.
Q: Being in the army sounds like a very different sort of danger. How did you go from being a soldier to running your own custom shirt business?
JA: Yeah, life in the army is the exact opposite of men's fashion. But I was the guy who tied everyone's ties on Remembrance Day. And I became fascinated with the emerging trend of online custom clothing. I thought it was a great idea, but none of the people involved seemed to know anything about fashion. So I had a decision to make: do I stay in the military or do I create my own clothing company. I figured the whole reason I went to business school was to become an entrepreneur, so in 2016 I made the move.
Q: What's happened at Jeff Alpaugh Custom since then?
JA: After we made the decision, I visited a ton of tailor shops in Vietnam, where most high-end brands are made, and checked out the working conditions, the quality and the reliability. Every shirt is individually hand-sewn for us in Vietnam to precise specifications, so people get a shirt they love. For the website I want to start using a 3-D shirt designer that can render exact models of the shirts as they're being designed. And while I'm spending a lot of time on the technical aspects of the business right now, eventually I want to focus mostly on promotion. I met Prince Harry at the Invictus Games [in Toronto] and designed a few shirts for him. It was pretty cool when he saw me and said: "Oh, you must be Mr. Dangerous." Plus the Dragons’ Den exposure has been great.
Q: What role has Laurier played in all this danger?
JA: I really enjoy a sense of camaraderie – that's one of the things that attracted me to the military. And there's a lot of it at Laurier as well. I still remember my very first tour of the campus, and seeing how everyone knew each other and interacted as a group. I was sold right away. Another big intangible at Laurier is the support I have received since graduating. The mentorship of David Rose [former Lazaridis School professor of marketing] has meant a lot to me. I still talk to him regularly. The same goes for [Laurier grad and founder of Awake Chocolate] Matt Schnarr. He gave me some very helpful coaching before my appearance on Dragons’ Den. And my classmates have also been huge supporters − buying shirts, offering advice and helping me make connections. If you added it all up, I'm sure it's tens of thousands of dollars of free assistance.
Q: And what ever became of that first, interview-killing suit that started this entire journey?
JA: I always thought that someday I'd fit into it. But even when I was in the army and working out every day, it still looked ridiculous on me. I finally had to give it away.
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