Suits Are Dead, A Memoir
Timing was not my strong suit. The dress-down era was shifting into high gear when I opened my first (and so far, only) retail venture, in 2001, just after terrorists had flown airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania hillside.
“What are you up to these days?” curious Princeton friends would ask, and I would cheerily respond “I’m opening a clothing store.” I remember the look in their eyes, the curious, sympathetic – Are you nuts? – expressions. Kind questions followed, like, “Oh, really? Where?” and so on. Being friends, and so not wishing to be rude enough or honest enough or even helpful enough to actually say, “Do you happen to remember The English Shop, Langrock, Alan Royce, and Harry Ballot?” All four of these venerable men’s stores, generations-old household names in Princeton, all of them had gone out of business, bitten the proverbial dust, in recent memory. Princeton had boasted of a thriving men’s tailored clothing business. The prevailing notion in Princeton and most of the civilized world, in 2001, however, was Suits Are Dead. Thus, anyone considering going into the suit selling business had to be, well, you know…
“But all those stores? What happened to them?” they asked. “They sucked,” I’d say, to elicit a laugh. In the ensuing silence hung the question, How will yours not suck?
They didn’t really suck. They just got terribly boring. They’d gone out of business, not because suits were dead, but because their stores were dead. Dead-ass boring. The world was experimenting with shape, color, fabric weight, fit, while these guys were worried about having enough of the same old same old to keep the mythical “Princeton customer” (who’d disappeared in the 60s) happy. The specific reasons, somewhat more complicated than Suits Are Dead, had boiled down to one thing: these venerable establishments hadn’t changed in any major way in twenty years. They didn’t know how. No savvy, affluent customer would have shopped in any of them. The guy who was buying the kind of stuff I wanted to be selling was going to Paul Stuart or Bergdorf Goodman in New York or to Boyd’s in Philadelphia. Princeton was a different community than it had been in the 60s and 70s, but all of the shops in town had failed to notice – and had failed by not noticing.
Allegedly four million dollars’ worth of men’s retail shuttered a half mile away, the giant Levi-Strauss-sponsored dress-down revolution in nationwide high gear, The Death of the Suit headline news. Definitely the right time to open a men’s store. Not.
In mid-2001 someone had told me to have a look at a building on Witherspoon, down by the hospital, an old market, empty for years. But it was not to be; no parking space behind the building and no public parking within walking distance. But, then, kismet. As I stood in front of the building thinking, Impossible, with a pessimistic shrug I turned around, and there, across the street, scotch-taped to the window of a pretty brick building was a little yellow sign. “OFFICE FOR RENT - Inquire Within.” Inside, behind the big, awning-shaded, floor-to-ceiling, colonial-style windows, I could see a clean, well-lit space that looked like it could be a clothing store. Out back there was a great big parking lot. The landlord was in his office, behind the computer repair shop across the hall.
“I’ll take it,” I said.
So between July and September we cleaned the space up, converted the back offices to warehouse space, hung railing and put up shelving for our wholesale inventory, and in the front put some of the furniture we couldn’t fit in our new little house. We ordered wooden armoires from an unpainted furniture supplier and hung curtain rods on the walls to display our merchandise. I was painting a wall when a friend called and said, “I hear two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center.”
The sheer craziness of it, as well as I suppose the possibility of some ad revenue should we happen to succeed, made the local newspapers take notice. Reporters came; asked questions.
The truth of the matter: “Well I had a bunch of stuff left over from our wholesale deliveries," plus, "I thought I could sell it to the public,” didn’t make for good copy. I had to make it up as I went along. Actually the plan was to do enough retail business to pay the rent so we could use the space as a wholesale office and warehouse. Also not great copy. So went for it. Sound philosophical. Purposeful.
“We are aware that suits are on the way out. But we think men want to look nice anyway, so we sell the modern replacement for the suit. You could say we specialize in casual elegance.”
That happens sometimes, doesn’t it? You say something off the cuff, totally spontaneously, out of the blue, and on reflection you realize Hey, that was pretty good. When I’d said just those words, “casual elegance,” I realized I had just articulated my entire aesthetic, my entire philosophy of dress, in fact the basic raison d’etre of the store.
“What’s that?” they asked.
“Nice trousers. Shirts that aren’t strictly dress shirts. Sport jackets and blazers. You know. In between sportswear and formal.”
Fifteen years have passed. Suits are dead. Again. Or so folks tell me. “No one wears ‘em!” They are eager to inform me. “Can’t remember the last time I had one on, ha ha.” Ties, too. Dead as doornails. By these folks’ lights I should probably stay in bed, pull the covers up over my head and wait for the repo man to come and take my house, my car, my record collection. What’s up with that? I mean can you imagine, for example, telling the local fish store owner, “Oh, I just can’t imagine eating another fish. I mean who eats that stuff, anyway?” Or telling a banker, during a recession, “Oh, I never borrow money.” But people think it’s helpful for me to be told I’m doomed. So I practice the art of purposeful ignorance. You can tell, if you look real close; I’m not paying attention. I’m thinking about the guy who told me he needs two new suits; or maybe the kid who’s getting married; or the trunk show we’ve got this weekend.
[Not listening is preferable sometimes, particularly when the subject is completely subjective. Take the great conundrum of the present age: The Millennials, that loosely-defined (or undefined) generation of baby boomers’ kids, my kids, and my kids’ friends. The pundits have labels for them: Sloppy! Cheap! Conservative! Radical! Difficult! Fussy! I am not sure what purpose is served by characterizing an entire generation in any particular way, but I can tell you that if you were to have generalized about my generation’s habits and preferences thirty years ago, you’d have never guessed the number of iPhone 6es, Maseratis, $1500 theatre tickets, and other status-ratchets we’d be into today. So I think I’ll wait until these kids create their own version of the American Dream before I characterize the entire generation as difficult, or blasé. I wonder who it is writing all those blogs about clothing? Must be some old guys somewhere…]
Anyhow, I’ll just keep on keeping on, reminding myself of the lessons I’ve learned, watch the trends and follow them – but not too closely – try to update and revamp our product mix, prices, assortments. Keep it fresh and relevant. Court the millennials, the boomers, the geezers, the kids, everybody, that is, who agrees that since we only get one life to live, why not spend it looking nice?