Editor’s Letter: Saluting the Merchants

Vision and creativity, still the backbone of our industry.

Karen Alberg GrossmanNo issue of MR Magazine is more exciting for us than July. In it, we profile our Uptown/Downtown award winners, those merchants singled out by the menswear industry for their vision, creativity, tenacity, temerity. We love the risk-takers, those merchants who know the rules well enough to break them, who scout out emerging talent and develop new concepts, who sell their customers not just want they want to wear but what they should be wearing to reflect their personal style. (Or to quote the late great Stanley Marcus: “I don’t subscribe to the idea of giving customers what they want. The great merchant has the responsibility of giving customers what they should want and educating them about why they should want it.”)

This year’s winners are a wonderfully eclectic group, from small independents to top corporate execs. Voted into the 2011 Hall of Fame, Nordstrom’s David Witman has set the course for the store’s successful menswear business for the past two decades. A low-key guy with a wry sense of humor, he’s known for his unwavering commitment to Nordstrom values and for seeking out vendor feedback. “Humility and integrity are the two words that come to mind when I think of David,” says Tom Cohan of Façonnable. “He’s been the driving force of Nordstrom’s menswear for the past 20 years, yet there’s not a lot of ego involved. If you look at their menswear mix, it’s changed a lot over the years while still staying true to Nordstrom’s core. I believe David’s leadership is the single biggest reason for this.”

Our other Hall of Fame winner, Russ Patrick of Neiman Marcus, is known to be a highly principled, pragmatic retailer and a true gentleman. Says Mike Cohen of Hickey Freeman, “Russ is a thoughtful merchant: He digs deep to figure out why things are selling or not. He’s incredibly tuned into the selling floor and very connected to each of the stores.”

In my meeting with Patrick, he mentioned being in a showroom in Florence years ago and being told by buyers never to buy checked dress shirts. “I often tell this story now that checks are a huge part of our business. It reinforces that our responsibility as merchants is to keep trying what’s new.” He cites the Tom Ford collection as a current example of this. “It’s exciting how big Tom Ford has become for us in such a short time. It’s a strong silhouette and when the customer buttons the jacket and looks in the mirror, he’s instantly sold! I love seeing the range of customers that walk out buying Tom Ford (and it’s not inexpensive…). We’re now working on in-store shops in more doors…”

While Witman and Patrick are exemplary of how to combine the corporate with the creative, they’re wise enough to recognize how much can be learned from the entrepreneurs. Our specialty store winners this year are an impressive group, each with a passion for the business that’s intrinsic to who they are. I learned so much from all of them, as I know you will when you read the profiles in this issue. From cultivating unknown brands to building new businesses (Blackbird’s fastest growing category is a unisex apothecary; David Wood has added a unique line of irreverent greeting cards) to creating entertaining blogs and profitable e-commerce sites, these merchants are never content with the status quo. (Fred Segal Man collaborates with emerging designers, promoting these partnerships through shop-in-shops that change every month or so!) Always inventing new events to benefit local charities (e.g. a ‘Dapper Dads’ fashion show at Kositchek’s where local businessmen model clothes and solicit votes for themselves; a trade-in trade-up promotion at Harleys), these merchants continue to amaze and inspire us.

To all our retail winners: thank you for sharing your vision, for sticking with it even in the worst of times (e.g. those days when virtually no one walks through the door), for keeping it real and keeping it fun and for the important work you do in your communities. You’ve made us proud to be in the menswear business, and excited to anticipate what lies ahead.

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  1. avatarSCOTT GAYLORD says:

    While I salute this years Award winners, I would like to take this opportunity to see what I see happening to our beloved industry.

    It seems that every decade or so we go through the same process of killing off men’s clothing, specifically suits and sports jackets, for garments that are much more in-tune with sportswear. Then we wonder why the “clothing” business seems to be in decline. Too many look at numbers only and fail to understand the responsibility that Stanley Marcus spoke about so perfectly.

    I am not against such categories, but when used to replace instead of supplement, then we as both manufacturers and retailers fail.

    The suit as an institution has survived and modified over the centuries because it really works. There is no singularity however in describing what a suit should be. Suits can be soft, firm, structured, casual, 2 piece, 3 piece, formal, unconstructed, etc.

    All of these have different values and appropriateness. It is up to the professionals to help determine which styles work for each individual client. Unfortunately too many latch onto one style/maker/etc and fail to offer distinctive proposals to their clients.

    Custom and made-to-measure clothing are simply options. Creative merchants will find interesting ways to create demand with these variations without eliminating off-the-rack ideas. In fact, I believe that enlightened merchants would purchase “special items” that can only be produced by ready-to-wear specialists and then offer custom/mtm as viable alternatives.

    Overall, we have to get out the rut that is that of sameness and boredom. Doing things the same way over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of? That’s right. Insanity.

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