Finding fortune in pants that fit
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Dan Nakaso
P.J. Benoit plans to return for the 20th-year reunion of his Kaiser High School class in August, hoping to fulfill the prophecy of his classmates, who voted him "Most Likely To Be a Millionaire."
Benoit, 37, launched his online custom jeans business, mejeans, in January and has taken orders for more than 1,500 pairs of jeans since — at $89.99 a pop, including delivery.
Benoit's Chicago-based business has been featured on NBC's "Today" show and CBS' "Early Show," and in the Chicago Tribune and Wall Street Journal. And nearly 100 mejeans gift certificates were included in the gift bags given to presenters and performers at December's Radio Music Awards, even before the company went live on its Web site, mejeans.com.
"We're growing a little bit quicker than we thought we would," Benoit said. "But it's good. It's very, very good."
The idea to start a custom jeans company goes back almost 20 years when Benoit transferred from Chaminade University to Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., where he needed to trade in his board shorts for something warmer.
Six feet tall, Benoit's steady diet of hamburger steak, mac salad and rice had swelled him to a 42-inch waistline.
He went shopping for a pair of Levi 501s in Wisconsin and could find only a pair of white jeans in his size.
"I remember walking back to the register with my white jeans and I walked past the 32s to 36s where they had every color, hue and fabric," Benoit said. "That kind of stuck with me."
Then three years ago, Benoit was working in supply chain management in Chicago, specializing in international freight forwarding, when a co-worker commented on his ill-fitting jeans.
"He said, 'I'm going to buy you (a rear end) for Christmas.' I said, 'It's not me. It's the jeans.' That got me started," Benoit said.
By then, Benoit's waist had shrunk to a size 35 or 36. "I'm certainly not a unique body type," Benoit said, "and I'm still having problems finding jeans. Obviously, the jeans weren't fitting me right."
He began looking at other online, custom jeans businesses, met with consultants and tried to figure out ways to reduce production costs while ensuring quality.
Some companies used Mainland, union labor and million-dollar laser cutters. So Benoit decided to ship his work overseas to places like Mexico, China and Thailand, where the cutting is all done by hand.
He works out of a rented office in Wheaton, Ill., with no overhead or inventory.
And while other companies use algorithms that calculate jean sizes based on height, weight and shoe size, Benoit decided to build his jeans from 10 specific body measurements, including the circumference of the customer's knees and where the customers wants the pants to sit on their waist.
All correspondence is done by e-mail to "provide a trail of communication that protects everybody," Benoit said.
But even before the patterns are cut, employees begin an on-going process of making sure the measurements make sense so "we send you a pair of jeans that are correct," Benoit said.
In some cases, as in building a pair of jeans for the female reporter on the "Early Morning Show," mejeans employees suggested a low-rise boot cut rather than the straight leg jeans she ordered.
"We ended up sending her both pairs of jeans, and she said, 'You're right. This pair looks much better on me,' " Benoit said. "We can only go off of what measurements you give us. But we tell customers that this is a partnership."
Each pair of jeans comes with the customer's name on the inside label and the company's mejeans logo on the outside, which can be covered by a belt.
mejeans has since shipped orders to every state plus Australia, Austria, Monaco, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Canada.
Now that Benoit is planning to return to the Islands this summer, he has begun thinking of the potential that his classmates saw in him two decades ago.
"They voted me 'Most Likely To Be a Millionaire' and, gosh darn it, I want to prove it," Benoit said. "I don't know if I'll come back a millionaire. But I'd sure like for them to think I am."
Reach Dan Nakaso at email@example.com.