From Mathematics to Mens Fashion
Blake Smith, ’07, on How a Liberal Arts Education Equipped Him to Start a Business
Written by Kokko Tso
In telling the story of his company, Cladwell, 2007 alumnus Blake Smith recounts one of the earliest experiences he had as a young professional working for an entertainment company:
One of my first assignments was to help hire several executive producers. Shortly before my trip to Los Angeles, my boss pulled me aside and told me, ‘Blake, don’t take off your glasses. You look too young without them, and no one will take you seriously. So, dress up nicely and leave the glasses on.’ With this in mind, I went down to a local clothing retailer and told the salesman, ‘I need a suit that will make me look professional and mature, yet cool—I’m flying out to Hollywood in a couple of days.’ The salesman, who was an elderly gentleman, prescribed an old-fashioned navy suit, complete with wide lapels, pleated trousers, and huge shoulder pads. Not knowing better, I bought what he suggested. The resulting look could only be described as that of a sixteen-year-old kid wearing his dad’s slightly-too-big suit. I got to Hollywood wearing this awful suit and began interviewing these executive producers, all of whom were much older. I’ll never forget the one that gave me a good look over, then asked, ‘Son, how old are you?’ At that moment, I had the sinking realization that I was wearing my contacts, not my glasses. I thought fast, and quipped, ‘Old enough to rent a car!’ I had just turned twenty-four.
Reflecting on this experience, Blake realized that the story that people tell with their clothes is very important. “I hadn’t done a great job of telling my ‘story’—in fact, I outsourced it to some random salesman who didn’t understand my needs, personality, profession, and physique.”
After the trip, Blake called a college friend, Chris Merchich, ’07. “In college, I had always admired Chris’s sense of style, so I explained to him my situation and asked him to suggest a wardrobe for me that would be appropriate for my line of work,” Blake explains. “Chris sent me an e-mail with a list of everything I should buy. Here’s the weird thing—I bought everything on that list. Like most people, I receive tons of e-mails everyday telling me to buy this and to buy that, and I ignore most of them. However, I bought everything Chris suggested without question because I trusted him. I knew that his suggestions were tailored to my build, my complexion, my work environment, and my budget.” Thus, the idea for Cladwell was born.
Cladwell is an online tool that helps men find clothing that best suits their needs. Users create a profile by answering a wide range of questions, from their dressing habits to their hair color. Using a combination of recommendations from Cladwell’s team of expert stylists and a meticulously designed algorithm, Cladwell then recommends a list of clothing items that best suits the user’s needs.
“At its heart, Cladwell is about helping men dress smartly,” Blake says. “We’re not just trying to push stuff onto our customers. That’s why we build our list around what you already own. If you already own a good pair of blue jeans, we’re not going to tell you to buy another one. We create an ideal wardrobe that matches you, and it’s the minimum amount of items that you need to own in order to be covered for every situation in your life.”
Looking back, Blake never imaged that he would eventually be running a men’s fashion startup. “In college, I was all over the place,” he laughs. “I applied to Hillsdale because I was initially interested in the Journalism Program. Then, as a freshman, I decided to study physics. I finally settled on a major in computational mathematics and a minor in psychology. My academic story really illustrates the beauty of Hillsdale’s liberal arts curriculum—it enabled me to pursue my love of learning and various subjects, and didn’t pigeon-hole me into a single, narrow discipline. In my opinion, college students should try to study as many things as they are interested in because they never know how these subjects might be useful to them in the future, no matter how far removed it seems from their current area of focus.”
To current students, Blake advises, “Invest time and effort in the people around you. There’s a certain type of person that ends up coming to Hillsdale. C.S. Lewis says in The Four Loves that friendship is comprised of ‘Me too!’s. At Hillsdale, there is such a concentration of people with whom you share values, purposes, and goals. There is nowhere else like it.”
Kokko Tso graduated from Hillsdale College in 2013 with majors in music, Latin, and history. He currently works for his alma mater as the Digital Content Manager.