Trad to the Bone

10/6/2008
One of the most fundamental tenets of preppydom is its imperviousness to change. Sons grow up wearing the same blue blazers, khakis, oxford-cloth shirts, striped ties and tassel loafers as their fathers before them, and their fathers before them.

While men's wear megabrands such as Ralph Lauren and J. Crew keep the classics fresh by giving them a fashion twist, hardcore traditional clothiers stick to the tried and true year after year. And yet, despite a slow economy and the lack of novelty to motivate the consumer,  a handful of America's last remaining retailers of traditional American natural-shouldered, Ivy League-style men's wear are finding they can thrive by embracing that most modern and dynamic of sales tools, the Internet.

'Trad' retailers find new markets online
"We've carried seersucker and patch-madras shorts since 1959," says Ethan Huber, who runs O'Connells (oconnellsclothing.com), which was founded by his father in Buffalo, New York. Though the shorts may remain unchanged over the past half century, the business is doing "very well" thanks in part to the company's e-commerce efforts, which have allowed O'Connells to win new customers across the Unites States, as well as in places such as Japan, Italy and Scandinavia. The careful use of keywords and image tagging ensures that anyone in the world looking for a saddle-shouldered Shetland sweater or poplin sack suit will find his way to the site. 

Though O'Connells created an online presence in 2005, it only added a shopping cart feature this year, which was custom built for the company by Buffalo, NY-based Core101. The result has been "outstanding," says Huber, who estimates that online sales now account for about 10 percent of total sales, and are growing steadily.

Not only is the clothing American in style, it's also made domestically (save for a few items from England). O'Connells' suits are made by Southwick, Samuelsohn and H. Freeman & Sons - essentially the last remaining American suitmakers - and come exclusively in the Ivy League sack-suit cut, with a boxy, undarted jacket chest, a three-button closure that rolls to two, and plain-front trousers. It's a look that made Brooks Brothers an American institution decades ago, before that stalwart of American style updated its image.

"We've learned there's definitely a devoted group of people young and old who have a 'trad' or preppy lifestyle," says Huber," and who are really passionate about this certain type of dress, and they're looking for a company that has some integrity. "

While the Internet has brought new business to this traditional retailer, it also requires extra resources such as inventory space and a knowledgeable staff to field e-mail and telephone questions. Still, the effort pays off, says Huber. "Without the Internet, we would survive just fine, but the possibility for growth might not be there."

Trying to replicate the store experience, eliminate catalog costs
Growth is exactly what store manager Maurice Himy has in mind for Cable Car Clothiers (cablecarclothiers.com), San Francisco's retailer of traditional clothing since 1939. New to the company, Himy plans to use the Internet to build sales and cut costs.

The site currently generates about 10 percent of sales, with many orders coming everywhere from Sweden to New Zealand, but Himy believes it should be more like 30 percent. He's currently working with web designers to update the site, which hasn't happened for several years, with an eye to trying to replicate the store's gentleman's club-like atmosphere.  "I'd like a web site that conveys the classic haberdashery experience you get when you come in the store," says Himy.

By focusing on e-commerce, Himy also believes he can save money on one of the highest operating costs of traditional retailers: A lavish, full-color catalog. Cable Car Clothiers' biannual catalog costs more than $30,000 to create and $20,000 to ship. Worse, Himy estimates that up to 6,000 catalogs each season are thrown out because of outdated mailing addresses, as bulk mail is not returned by the post office. An e-mail announcement and digital catalog online are obvious cost savers Himy plans to investigate.

Though Ben Silver (bensilver.com) operates two stores in Charleston, SC, it was founded in 1983 as a mail-order company. Today the company's web site has helped boost mail-order sales to 70 percent, with about 20 percent coming exclusively from the web site. "The web has been a remarkable vehicle for us," says company chairman Bob Prenner. The site uses a proprietary customized solution based on Microsoft components.

Because it is difficult to say exactly whether an order originated from the catalog or website, Prenner says the two work in tandem. "With our customers, the web is a tool," he says, "but you need the catalog as a hard copy."
Ben Silver specializes in shoes from Crockett & Jones, windbreaker jackets by Barracuta, and suits by Samuelsohn that sell for $1,100 to $1,800. Everything is made in North America or Europe.

The style is traditional - even if the buying channel isn't
Initially Prenner was resistant to e-commerce, believing his customers were not computer savvy. Now, he realizes, "everyone is on the Internet." That includes younger men, who generally become customers around the age of 35. "I think the younger generation is discovering that not only do they look better [in traditional clothing], it's easier to dress in the morning."

Traditional retailers who don't make the venture into cyberspace do so at their peril. Baltimore-based Eddie Jacobs (eddiejacobsltd.com) was founded in 1939 selling natural-shouldered American suits and Ivy League-style sportswear and accessories. But business "could be better," says Eddie Jacobs, Jr., who inherited the store from his father.

Part of the reason may be that while the company runs a web site, it hasn't sought to utilize it as a prominent sales vehicle. "We haven't pushed our web site as much as we should have, and we intend to change that," says Jacobs Jr. "Once someone comes across it, we generally get a sale out of it."

The company didn't establish its site until 2006, which Jacobs Jr. admits is very late in the evolution of the Internet. Today the site accounts for less than 10 percent of total sales.

Finally, there are those who plan to keep doing things the old-fashioned way. Eighty-two-year-old Charlie Davidson, owner of The Andover Shop (the andovershop.com), which operates two stores in Cambridge and Andover, MA, is a gentleman of the old school who "can't stand the Internet. I can't believe that someone with taste would buy something over the Internet."

Though the company has long printed a lavish catalog, Davidson calls it a mere formality whose purpose is to stimulate trunk-show sales. He estimates that the catalog and web site account for about 10 percent of sales, and he has no ambitions to grow that number.

"You have to have a warehouse bigger than the store, and inventory controls," he says. "I have a standing offer with the Harvard Business School to set up a complete Internet business; we'd share the profits 50/50, but they have to do all the work.

"Fortunately," Davidson adds, "no one's taken me up on the offer."

Christian Chensvold is an Apparel contributing author.
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