Best Buyers 2012: Gary Dante, Suitmart

Man on a mission: Suitmart’s Gary Dante is targeting a new generation.

When he was really young (would you believe eight years old?), Gary Dante worked in a dry goods store in Louisiana with his father and grandfather. “They were typical Jewish merchants,” Dante recalls. “There was a right way to do things, a wrong way, and their way… My first job was sweeping the wood floors and then marking the tickets on Levi’s. I worked every weekend for two years before I had a chance to sell anything. It was all about paying your dues.”

Dante recalls a particular incident when his grandfather asked him to arrange a 40-foot long wall of work clothes (overalls, chambray shirts, etc.). “I arranged it by size, color, style, but he wasn’t satisfied with what I’d done so he threw the entire wall of stuff on the floor, raised his right hand and said ‘Fix it!’ It was a tough training ground but I learned a lot about the business, even measuring and cutting fabric.”

Working his way through school, Dante eventually married his college girlfriend, moved to Houston and went to work for Nathan’s, a mostly urban retailer. “In urban fashion, you either get it or you don’t. We’re not buying hardware or commodities: it’s in your gut; you feel it or you don’t.”

Feeling it, Dante moved on to Craig’s Stores where he worked with Jay Plotkin; the two clicked and in 1992, opened the first Suitmart. “I had come back from Atlanta and was totally enamored with Steve Greenspan’s concept (now called K&G). We loved the idea of everyday low prices rather than random 20-off, 40-off, and more. We loved the idea of ‘stack it high, sell it cheap!’”

Suitmart today has four stores that range from 16,000 to 25,000 square feet; the mix is 60 percent dress-up, 40 percent casual, targeted to urban customers (about a third of the business is big & tall). From a three-day-a-week store, it’s evolved to seven. Prices are low to moderate: suits range from $99 to $249, shirts from $14.99 to $39.99, jeans from $12.99 to $29.99. Brand names are key and Dante says he buys regular market goods, a lot of off-price, and many exclusives.

What’s hot these days at Suitmart? “Slim-fit in suits, dress shirts and denim: that big shleppy look is pretty much over. Our goal is to cultivate a new generation of customers who might never have bought suits. The older guy is spending less: he doesn’t have the same needs he once did; he’s less concerned about what he wears. But to a young guy, a suit is not a suit: it’s an outfit! I went to a wedding in Dallas this weekend and at the rehearsal dinner, all the young guys were wearing suit coats over woven shirts with jeans.” According to Dante, the other factor driving suit sales (in addition to slim fit) is aggressive price promotions (buy one, get one free, or sometimes two).

Other hot trends include sportcoats and blazers (“It’s a smaller business but should be great for spring ’13 in new colors and fabrics.”) and bold color. “We just got our first shipment of colored denim and we’re seeing some action, although we still need to find the right fit,” confides Dante. Also performing well: dress shirts, thanks to some great brand names!

Asked about mentors, Dante can’t say enough about Don Rosenfeld and Jay Plotkin. “Sadly, Don just died. We worked together at Nathan’s from 1977 to 1985 and what I learned from him was to seek out the next big thing. He’d say, ‘There’s always something that will sell: your job is to go out there and find it!’ As for Jay, he’s taught me so much about integrity and family values. He’s also taught me how to stay grounded, to slow it down when it comes to decision-making, which is often hard for me to do.”

On what it takes to be a good buyer, Dante doesn’t hesitate: “You’ve got to shop the market without blinders, which is why we never make appointments at trade shows. Our goal is to find the next winner, which you can’t do if you shop only your regular vendors. I’m in NYC every three weeks, California four times a year, Atlanta three, Vegas two…
“And of course it takes strong relationships with your suppliers. I can’t thank the vendor community enough for their support over the past 20 years; we wouldn’t be here without them…”

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