Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

According to the NY Times, storied San Fransisco clothier, Wilkes Bashford, narrowly dodged going the way of the Dodo. Despite a growing population, and until recently, an expanding wealth base, it seems to me that specialized men's clothing stores have struggled as a business concept. Among other things, I chalk this up to the tragic homogenization of taste/style, men outsourcing their wardrobe decisions to their wives/partners, inconsistent dress-code policies at the office, the rise of online shopping, and the ridiculous "we're so desperate to get foot traffic in our stores" promotions that include "buy one ugly thing and get six free" at Joseph A. Banks. Also, the homogeneous big-box stores like Macy's are purely a volume play, so at some point they, too, engage in "80% off" sales to move the product they over-purchased off the shelves to make way for the next season of boring goods. While there is some price relief for consumers, a good thing, methinks, it's a sad trend for the clothes horse, but an inevitable one, I guess.

It looks like the white knight who swooped in and saved Wilkes Bashford from folding, the Mitchell family, have been successful in buying struggling local men's stores and breathing new life in to them. Interesting. Despite a slight affection for Brooks Brothers and J. Press, I always preferred getting outfitted by the local guys to the national and hyper-boring chains that dominate most of the retail scene. The local shops that were worth their salt offered better service, invested themselves in their relationship with you, usually had distinctive merchandise in stock, and made it a point to understand me as clothes horse consumer, rather than push conformist and seasonal trends my way. A few outstanding examples that I formally patronized were Atlanta's Michael Christopher(now semi-defunct), and H. Stockton; Charlotte's Old Dog, and Taylor Richard & Conger; and Nashville's Oxford Shop.

Despite several visits to San Fransisco over the years, I never made it to Wilkes Bashford, although it was always a store I heard was worth walking through. It does sound too pricey for my blood. What I find interesting is now that Wilkes Bashford, which served the hoity-toity monied elite of the bay area, has been acquired by east coast clothiers, will it still be able to select merchandise that its patrons are accustomed too, or will it lose some of its uniqueness by being part of a larger purchasing collective with an east coast bias? Clearly the old model didn't work out, as Wilkes Bashford was in death throws only a few weeks ago. However, I am always interested in the claim that nothing will change when new ownership takes the helm, despite the notion that change is clearly afoot. There are certainly upsides by being absorbed by a larger owner, like leveraging suppliers on volume purchases, along with other economies of scale, yet, there also exists the potential to get product dilution and lose the sense of local distinctiveness that was once a source of viability. The jury is out and change is clearly afoot, it will be interesting to see if the new model for local guys is to band together and consolidate in the name of staying alive. Here's to adapting and surviving.

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