THE FRANCO UOMO ORIGIN STORY
From “Little America” in Afghanistan to Santana Row
Nestled into the 356 Block on Santana Row—across from Hotel Valencia—in the heart of Silicon Valley, is a bespoke suit store with a subtle gold sign that reads “Franco Uomo.”
Luxurious sport coats on mannequins with ‘smart belts’ and bamboo socks sit in the window in a Kingsman-like fashion.
You won’t find any secret trap doors behind the mirror in the changing room (emphasis on you not being able to find it), but behind the rainbow of silk neckties and woven between the threads of the sewing machines in the Master Tailor Studio is a secret—a heritage—of where it all comes from; a story of inspiration in the roots of a brand now 16 years old.
It is a story of survival that begins not on Santana Row in America, but in “Little America” in Afghanistan.
David Shuja, wardrobe stylist at Franco Uomo, here gives an intimate interview with Sophia Papadopoulos on how the Franco Uomo brand came to be, and his family’s harrowing journey to make their American dream a reality, one suit at a time.
Interview by Sophia Papadopoulos:
How did your family come to own a luxury bespoke suit boutique?
David Shuja: My brothers and sister and I grew up in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Today, it’s war-torn and destroyed, but back in the 60s and 70s it was known as “Little America.” The Soviet Union and the United States were competing over influence in Afghanistan during the Cold War, so the USAID program made “Little America” a development project in Afghanistan to counter former Soviet Union influence.
Our town was built to modern standards, had state-of-the-art infrastructure, modern homes, a plumbing system, and many diverse people living there. Even the school system was run by America until the 70s. We had a modest living, owned American-made cars, and had custom suits made for us, so we thought this is how life was for everyone across the country. However, everything changed in 1979 when Russia invaded Afghanistan.
The Russians came in and immediately marked us as American agents because of our lifestyle and our close ties with American staff in the city. Our suits and clothes distinguished us from the rest of the Afghanis, so they harassed us for being different and because we wouldn’t join the Communist party.
What’s worse, they were going to make us fight against our own people. The only way out was to either go to Russia for higher education in Moscow or the Ukraine, or to flee to Pakistan, so that’s what I did; I put my life on the line to escape my country and almost died crossing through mine fields.
When I arrived in Pakistan, I cried every day; day-in and day-out because I lost all of my friends and my former life. I traveled around until, eventually, I discovered and was accepted into a joint UN and US Refugee Program. They paid for my travels to the United States, and upon my arrival in San Francisco, I was issued a $1,300 check, and was provided with options of schools to attend and other basic necessities.
I attended Chabot College, and was the first student in the class to get a job. Back then, the minimum wage was $3.35 an hour but I earned $7.00 an hour while working for an electronics company repairing laser printers in Hayward. I kept investing, purchased a home, started businesses, and built up capital until, one day, while driving up in the Hayward hills with my brother and father, my father suggested that we start a family-owed suit company.
We decided that was a good idea, and we spent many months figuring out the logistics and where we wanted to open our new store. Eventually, we decided to open our first store at NewPark Mall in Newark. We were very successful in selling our items at that location, and because of that success, we were invited to open a new store at Westfield Valley Fair in San Jose. When I visited the Westfield Valley Fair mall for the first time, I was so impressed by how beautiful the mall was and how extravagant the area was, that we decided to make the jump and open our second store in Westfield Valley Fair. Once we opened our second store, our items and brand continued to grow and expand, until we were invited to open a new store at Santana Row.
With every new store opening, we have continued to grow as a store and as a brand, but after all of these years, we are still wearing our suits with pride and living the American dream!
What is the Franco Uomo brand?
DS: The Franco Uomo brand started in April of 2004 in the Bay Area. Initially, the company started as a Pinstripes European Menswear line because we wanted to have an American name at the time. However, the name evolved into Franco Uomo and took on an Italian influence to represent the change in style to a more athletic Italian-style cut of our suits. The evolution of the brand represents the evolution of The Franco Fit into a more tapered look while still maintaining a distinguished British appeal. This is what we represent in our fashion, in our style, what we promote, and what we believe.
Who is Franco Uomo?
DS: When we came up with the Franco Uomo brand, we envisioned an archetype, an epitome of a man of style. This man is someone who cares about having the perfect fitting suit, someone who cares about being different from everyone else, someone who cares about every little detail in what he wears, and someone who is an artist for himself and cares about luxury and quality. The Franco Uomo man is someone who wants to stand out in a crowd.
What does the Franco Uomo menswear brand mean to you, David Shuja?
DS: Franco Uomo is my purpose and my mission in life because it’s so intimate. Compared to any other retailer, we build relationships and we focus one-on-one with people, and that intimacy is something that you’re not going to get anywhere else. That intimate approach is something that is special about our brand and we are best at catering to each individual’s needs. The Franco Uomo brand is something that I care deeply about and it’s what I find fulfilling in this world. It’s the link to my past and future.
What makes the Franco Uomo brand unique or different from other menswear brands?
DS: We bring a level of knowledge and expertise that benefits our customers, and we make everything in limited quantities, so each suit and each item is exclusive. You can’t find the items that we offer anywhere else. We also make exclusive custom-made items for our customers, and only in limited pieces as per demand.
As the suit industry evolved from semi-custom (also known as, off-the-rack and ready to wear) to Bespoke and Made-to- Measure, we pioneered in custom suits, joining the arena early on. From this experience, we gained the wealth of knowledge and the "know-how", and, as such, provide our customers with a perfect filtered suit with substance—we make the suit when they order it. We also possess a wealth of knowledge regarding the suits our customers order, so we are always open and available to answer any questions they may have regarding their custom suit. The level of service we provide is our backup guarantee. Our customers are encouraged to come back to us at any time, and we will help them with alterations, new fittings, and consultations. Our customers get a personal wardrobe stylist without paying the personal stylist fees. We are a one-stop shop; you receive all the services in one place once you order a suit from Franco Uomo.
What are any long-term goals for the Franco Uomo brand?
DS: We’ve been making strong-and-steady steps since the brand was started. Our long-term goal is to open franchises throughout the country while still maintaining our exclusive brand and have it available everywhere. Our look and style are very distinct, both in the quality that you can see and feel firsthand, and more importantly, in the way in which our custom suits fit. The Franco Uomo fit is so athletic and tapered that it stands out from any other brand. When you see someone wearing a Franco Uomo suit, blazer, or sport jacket, people recognize it. My vision is for the Franco Uomo brand to be recognized across the country, so when someone wears our custom suits, the style and elegance of our brand will be easily recognized.