Who Needs A Clothing Retailer?
Thank you very much for tuning in to My Back Pages. With your kind encouragement I am putting all of these articles together (and adding some missing stuff) with the idea of making a personal history of life in the clothing business between 1970 and 2001, which was kind of like living through a war, or a plague. This is a big task; no way to write new stuff for this column. So I hope you'll be patient until I get the thing published; meanwhile I thought you might like to read (or re-read) some of the "greatest hits" - columns from the last few years.
(From October, 2016)
The best I ever knew was Jimmy Hagan. He worked at Britches of Georgetown in the store on Connecticut Avenue. He was what made the specialty store special, knew everything about the products he sold, about the industry, trends, and about his clients. If you wanted something he didn't have he got it for you. He loved the business, and loved the customer. He was a natural. Anything he didn’t know, Jimmy made it his business to find out. He would call me at home at night to ask stuff like what mill it was that made this or that fabric, something about the jacket he’d sold to Al Gore or George Bush, Sr. But he’d never brag on all the big-shot politicos and mucky-mucks he dressed. He just did what he did, and he elevated it from a job to a profession. I have a picture of him next to my desk and think about him just about every day. Jimmy Hagan was just a clothing salesman like Mohandas Gandhi was just a politician.
I have met many others, men and women, from Beverly Hills to Boston, who are intelligent, thoughtful, well-trained professionals, educated and enthusiastic about clothing and, more important, about you. They are rare birds. Not one among them would ever try to impress you by saying something like “European cut” or "tropical worsted" without knowing exactly what was meant by the term. None would use words they only sort-of knew the definition of, such as “Super 150s,” but they would make it their business to know what it meant. Nor would they tell a customer a thing was “hand-sewn” or “bespoke” if it weren’t. They have no desire to impress or to baffle. They know too much and have too much respect for their customers to use these mindless catch-phrases. They sell with pride and authority because they are well-educated experts in the field. If you want to be confident in your appearance, I suggest you seek out a pro. Trouble is, this kind of expertise is on the professional endangered species list. It is. Here are a few reasons why.
Nobody gives a damn. I guess, anyway. Once I asked a guy on the main floor of Bergdorf’s why the shirts on the wall behind him were over $300 each and he looked at me with a bored, dismissive expression and said, “They’re Borelli.” Like that explained something. He might have said "Because that's how much we charge." Couldn't he have found something to say about the cotton, or the workmanship, or anything besides just the brand name? I guess he thought the customer so brand-enslaved or status conscious or brain dead that the name of a $350 shirt is supposed to say it all. Does brand recognition mean it fits? Or is comfortable? This is the Kardashian School of Retailing. The old standard USP (Unique Selling Proposition) has been replaced by HIHOT: “Hey I’ve Heard of That.”
The Land of Plenty has become The Kingdom of Too Much. Not only are there seven thousand brands to choose, and seventy thousand places to buy them (Online! Mobile App! Free Shipping and Free Returns! 30% off! Today only!) but there are seven hundred thousand articles, blogs and reviews about everything you might be looking for. Pick an item, and a brand, and I bet you can find overwhelming amounts of opinions about it, and for every paragraph you find saying Robert Graham shirts are wonderful you will find one saying they suck. And for every blog article extolling the virtues of Oxxford Clothes, you’ll find another that says they’re stupid. Nowhere, by the way, will you find what these reviewers' credentials are; just opinions looking for a place to land. Are there no objective criteria anymore? With so much information so readily available, you’d think we’d be informed.
But you want to get clothes that fit, that are up-to-date but not ultra-fashion. You want to spend your money on things that are worth the price, no matter what your budget. You don’t mind paying for something as long as you’re going to get your money’s worth. Ain’t that right?
Step One: Find a good store and go to it. I know, it’s hard. Especially when, sitting right there, right now, in your funky gym clothes at your computer at 10:30PM, in the privacy of your own home, you could go to over two million websites (or just to Amazon.com) and outfit yourself for a visit to the Queen’s Enclosure at Ascot while catching the last inning of the Mets or whatever. Or so you think. I know folks who’ve tried, with costly, disastrous, and humiliating results. Then there’s always the “wardrobe adviser” at Trunk Club or some other self-appointed expert. Besides their names and what you know about yourself, what can you say about them? Where even are they? Minnesota? San Diego? Do they know about your town, your neighbors, your climate? You think they have a good reputation. A good brand. Or don’t they? This blogger over here says not! Jeez. And even that’s a hassle because when it arrives you won’t know whether it even fits right or looks good, let alone how and where to get it altered. Never mind, if you don't like it you can just cram it back into the box and send it back. Nice.
Step Two: Look around. If the kids in the store are wearing magenta tuxedo jackets with torn jeans, button-down shirts and a bowtie… (Wait, is that Billy? You may be in my store!) But if the clothes on display look like the kind of stuff you want to wear, or can see yourself in, maybe.
Step Three: Talk to me. Or someone like me. Dean, or someone like Dean. Oh. Right. I almost forgot. People like us are hard to find. People who’ll tell you why the shirt costs that much; why the trousers you used to like in the size you used to be don’t exactly work on you today; how to take care of that polo shirt with the incomprehensible care instructions; what “2-ply 120s” means on a shirt fabric, why it’s not the same as 120s suiting fabric, and why you should care in the first place. But even more important, in a retail store that’s worth its salt you’ll find people who are not sales-people. You’ll find consultants, in reality. Investment advisers. You’re coming to make an investment in you – in the you that the world sees, to all outward appearances the real you – and you want some advice. You’re moving some capital, from your treasury department to the department of the exterior, and by golly you don’t want to make a mistake.
Dedicated to the Memory of James Reed Hagan (1949 - 2000)