Ash & Erie’s “Shark Tank” deal with Mark Cuban put the Detroit company on the fashion map for men under 5-foot-8.
By Stephanie Steinberg
Photography by Hayden Stinebaugh
After working together at a Detroit startup for a few years, Steven Mazur and Eric Huang caught the entrepreneurship bug to start their own company. There was just one problem.
“We were coming up with ideas and none of them were really sticking. Eventually, one of our mentors said, ‘Why don’t you think about problems in your own life?’ recalls Mazur, a Warren native.
So, Mazur sent his now-fiance a text: “What do I complain about most?”
“Her immediate reply was, ‘I hate shopping with you. And everybody hates shopping with you because nothing ever fits,’ ” Mazur says. “That was really the lightbulb moment where I said, ‘That’s true. I go to the mall, spend an hour, buy something that doesn’t really work, take it to the tailor, spend $30, they alter it. It kind of fits at that point, but it’s not a great shopping experience.”
Huang — a Washington D.C. native who’s 2 inches taller at 5-foot, 8-inches — faced the same problem.
“Every shorter guy we talked to said they could never find off-the-rack clothes that fit,” Mazur says. “That’s when we said, ‘All right, we don’t have fashion backgrounds, we don’t really know what we’re doing in the apparel industry, but let’s go figure it out. Let’s be the ones to fix this problem.’ ”
After raising $26,000 from an Indiegogo campaign in 2015, they launched Ash & Anvil (now called Ash & Erie) and set out to build the first major brand for shorter guys.
In their coworking space in the M@dison Building in Detroit, the 27-year-olds list brands that cater to big and tall men, plus-size women and petite women. Yet there’s nothing for guys 5-foot-8 and below, which is surprising when they point out 1 in 3 American men — or 40 million adults — are 5-8 and shorter.
The fashion rookies didn’t just take traditional clothes and chop off length. “We looked at every little detail, the shape of the arm hole, the size of the collars, the tail drop,” Mazur says.
They then had more than 100 fittings with guys under 5-foot-8.
“We basically went on the streets, found guys and said, ‘Hey, do you want to come try on some clothes, have a beer, come to our apartment?’ And they did,” Mazur says. “We got a ton of feedback from shorter guys of all shapes and sizes so we could figure out what’s the best fit.”
They also enlisted the help of Lorraine Sabatini, a Detroit native and 40-year veteran of the fashion industry who’s designed jeans for Lucky Brand, Citizens for Humanity, Simon Miller and others in Los Angeles. Now back in Detroit, she designed the perfect fit for Ash & Erie jeans and shirts.
“It’s a really good niche because it’s definitely a need in the market,” Sabatini says. “With short women, there’s been the petite market for some years, but there hasn’t been anything for men.”
While they sell to 49 states (they joke there are no orders from Wyoming yet) and 19 countries, they’re working on letting every shorter American man know they exist. Which is something ABC’s “Shark Tank” helped with.
Huang admits the experience was “kind of nuts,” explaining “Shark Tank” reached out to them to apply. They found out two weeks before taping that they were chosen for the show where entrepreneurs pitch to big-name investors.
In the segment that aired in October 2017, the duo made the sharks laugh by wearing ill-fit dress shirts (made for the average-sized guy) and then ripping them off to reveal their well-fit Ash & Erie shirts.
Mazur told the investors they had more than $130,000 in sales in their first nine months. They just needed financing to meet demand. The ask: $100,000 for 12.5 percent of the company.
Mark Cuban took the bait. “I like your focus on it. I think there’s a niche opportunity there; 12.5 percent is not enough,” he said, and offered $150,000 for 25 percent of the company.
Kevin O’Leary also offered $100,000 for 15 percent, but the guys chose Cuban.
Since then, they’ve been in touch with Cuban’s team for advice (and no, the investor hasn’t stopped by their Detroit headquarters — yet).
“It’s hard to find an investor or an entrepreneur who has invested and been a part of a wide range of companies that include tech and apparel,” Mazur says. “So for us, if we have questions about fulfillment, tech, our website and online growth, they know how to handle that.”
They changed their company name shortly after the show. “A bigger company had a concern with the original name,” Mazur says, but their current name still pays tribute to the region. Ash is from Detroit city’s motto “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes,” and Erie is a nod to Lake Erie.
Their $159 jeans are made in Los Angeles, while their $79 everyday shirts and $95 dress shirts are produced in China, India and Turkey. Yet they have no plans to leave Detroit.
“Detroit is a really exciting place to build a brand right now. If we were in New York or LA, I think we would be one of many, many companies trying to build apparel brands,” Mazur says. “… and I think we’ve proven that you can build a company in Detroit regardless of the industry.”
Now only sold online at ashanderie.com, they haven’t ruled out the idea of a “guide shop” — similar to Bonobos where customers can touch and see products. But for now, they’re focused on expanding their line to have as many options as a traditional retailer.
“We’re solving a personal problem. I can wake up and wear clothes that actually fit me. That’s the first shirt I can wear consistently, every day,” Huang says, pointing to his blue oxford shirt. “That wasn’t the case before.”
West Bloomfield resident Henry Balanon, 36, loves their shirts so much, he owns more than a dozen.
“With a dress shirt, you want it to come to mid zipper, and all the other shirts I’ve tried came down past that. I would always have to roll up my sleeves because they would always come past my fingers, but these, I can wear them like a normal person,” says Balanon, who’s 5 foot, 4 inches. “The cool thing is in photographs, because the shirts are smaller, I don’t look as short when people take my photo, unless I’m next to a taller person, which is always.”
And it’s not just guys who rave about the fit.
“A lot of women will say, ‘Hey, my husband has been looking like a slob with clothes that don’t fit for decades. I’m glad you exist!” Mazur laughs. “Or there are funny things like, ‘My husband looks great in your jeans. I love how his butt looks!’ ”
Then there’s the 60-year-old man who wrote to say, “I’ve been waiting for this for decades. I’m glad to see it finally exists.”
Mazur says, “If we can help give them a little bit of a better shopping experience, to look and feel their best, then that’s wonderful. We’ve already done that for thousands of customers, and the goal is to do that even more.”