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QUID PRO SID: The Classic Style and Sensibility of Menswear (2)

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By Stan Mukoro

Although Sid Mashburn is a definitive gentleman’s haberdasher in Atlanta, his global sense of style is worthy of national and international acclaim. Featured as one of GQ Magazine’s top ten picks for

Stan Mukoro, Sid Mashburn and a friend
Stan Mukoro, Sid Mashburn and a friend

“The Most Stylish Men in America” and also voted as one of the magazine’s 100 best men’s stores in America, he needs no introduction.

Mashburn has made more than a mark – he has worked for Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, Tommy Hilfiger, Lands’ End, British Khaki and Ashworth. So, it’s no surprise that in a time when men’s fashion is up and down, the dapper and dandy designer has increased his presence enormously by opening a men’s specialty boutique so ambitious and charming that it literally rejuvenated me upon entry.

Designed by the 40-something year old Mashburn, the self-titled boutique in Atlanta, Georgia, reintroduces the true haberdashery experience with a gentlemen’s claub and living room feel. It’s a store that promises new heights and realized dreams for retail and for its clients. It’s a delicious irony that on the day I walk in for my interview with him, the sounds of Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade is playing throughout the boutique.

In all of my years of following fashion, I’ve never been obliged in such a way. That alone, peaked my Nigerian curiosity to find out more about the stylish apparel architect with partially buckled double monk strap shoes. Like any real visionary, he was ready to chat. Enjoy the second part .A

STAN:  When did you leave Tommy Hilfiger?    SID:  1999. I stayed at Lands’ End through mid-2006, and in that time we went from $1.2 billion to $2 billion in sales. It was a nice run.

STAN:  What were your responsibilities at Lands’ End?
SID:  Overseeing design for men’s, women’s, kids’ and home. It was a great experience. The people there are great, hard working, and they’ve overcome a lot of what their business model seems because their service is so great. Also, while I was there, we were the largest purchaser of ETRO fabric in the United States.

STAN:  Do they own ETRO?
SID:  No, but we were the largest purchaser of their fabrics. We would buy ETRO fabric and primarily make it into women’s shirts and sell them. It was a nice business. We were one of the big purchasers of Zegna cotton cashmere corduroy. Even though you don’t see it in the marketing at Lands’ End, someone is infusing quality.

They love quality and are very strong on how they offer quality products. Lands’ End was purchased by Sears in 2002, and it changed a little bit over the years, but over the course of time, you know, I could tell that my ideas and Lands’ End’s ideas were growing apart so I left the company in 2006.

From there, I found there’s a dearth of really good men’s stores all over the United States. Unfortunately, however, the generation that makes up their primary clientele is getting older and their kids don’t necessarily want to shop there.

The number two guy at these stores is not really up for buying it yet, and they’re not as aggressive on bringing the younger customer in, so what’s happened is you’ve got all this really cool stuff and a lot of brainpower that’s just aging, and there’s this big gap between the new kids stores, like Wish, Urban Outfitters or even J. Crew and the old-line specialty stores, so you’re missing quality; you’re missing sort of how to dress up, you know, because what we’re wearing today, a lot of people don’t know how or where to go to achieve this look. So, what we’re trying to do here at our store is not be sellers, but educators.

STAN:  You desire to make every man’s visit here an educational experience?
SID:  Yes. It’s really how we take care of guys and teach them how to dress for different occasions. Some occasions call for a T-shirt and jeans. Some occasions call for jackets, some for a tie and what we want to do here is teach a guy how to do that. A critical part of what we do here is we’ve got sort of three tiers  — a good, a better and a best. The good is Levi’s jeans, $48 a pair.

That value is unbelievable. And then we have Sartorio suits made by Kiton for $4,800. Okay? That’s the best. What we’re trying to do is, in every classification; fill out the good, the better and the best. In many stores, they would fill the good, better and best out only from a price point perspective. We’re not interested in the price point perspective as the driving thought. We’re interested in the quality perspective as the driving thought, so we have consciously not put in “good” on suits and sport coats, because we haven’t found it yet. Now, we have it coming. The same thing on dress shirts. We’re really better and best. We don’t have the good.

STAN:  When will “good” be here? End of the year?
SID:  I’m hoping it will be here in the fall, and what we’re excited about is – you all of a sudden make quality fashion more democratic because you’re offering it to more people. You can call it democratic. You can call it egalitarian. You can call it popular. Whatever it is, I want the young guy that’s in Mississippi that loves clothes but doesn’t have the means to be able to get in the game or come here, because so many more people would be interested in clothes if they knew what they were buying.

There’s a mystery. It’s like it used to be in the old days when you bought a car, you would look under the hood like you knew what you were doing. Nobody looks under the hood today. We’re trying to show under the hood for people that come in here so at least they understand what the investment they’re making is, because even at a good price point, it’s still not cheap, and I want to get some return on the clothes

I buy. I’m not looking to just buy a shirt.
So, how do we make that connection to provide some return on investment? Even if I’m spending $48 on a pair of Levi’s jeans, I still want them to perform for me. If I’m buying a $175 shirt, why is this shirt $175? Well, because the buttons are 30 cents apiece.

The fabric cost $15 a yard before it’s shipped over here. So, what we’re infusing in all this is a level of quality that shouldn’t be questioned. So, we buy all of our piece goods from Italy, England and Japan.
For all of our trousers and jackets and sport coats and suits, everything is two-ply, two-ply. What that does is ensures the quality of construction will give you more return, basically. It’s going to last you for longer. The same goes for our shirts. With the exception of this fabric I’ve got on and some Oxford cloth, everything is two-ply, two-ply, and we primarily use mills from Italy to make all of our shirts, and what’s interesting is the same fabric is being woven over in China and in Asia, but their finishing is still not quite up to par.

STAN:  Okay. So that’s the good.
SID:  Yes, that will be the good. We will have some of that as the good. So, anyway, we’re very excited about what shirts, trousers, suits and sport coats we are going to offer in the future. We’ll be able to offer a mostly handmade suit for under $1,000, which is still expensive, but if you think, wait a second, $1,000, seven years, $140 a year —hmm, $140 a year, if I’m wearing it a minimum of 20 times a year, $7 per wear, that’s not bad.

The thing about it is one of the vendors we use is a company called Caruso, out of Saronno, Italy. Recently, the guy that used to run Brioni in Italy bought into Caruso. In my opinion, he saw the value and quality that’s there and thought this could be a more important brand. I’ve got suits that I’m wearing from Caruso that I had made 12 years ago when I was working for Tommy Hilfiger, and the way we style things is we style it so that the lapels are narrow and the fit is close.

These are not out of style either. So, how do you not just give a quality garment that’s going to hold up, but how do you also build a timeless garment that’s still going to look relevant in ten years from now?
STAN:  I have one of your jackets on right now.

SID:  You look great in it.
STAN:  What’s your vision for the Sid Mashburn brand?
SID:  That’s a really good question Stan, because the vision is how to be the best men’s store in the world. That’s the driving force. I mean it’s great to be a good men’s store. It’s great to be the best men’s store in Atlanta. It’s great to be a good men’s store in the Southeast or in America, but how do we take this and make it accessible to the world.

And, not like we want to be this big powerful house so much as how do we make ourselves accessible to guys in Africa, you know; to guys in South America, because to me our style is pretty international. Now, we may wear it in a slightly different way, you know, with no socks, you know, kind of an American — a preppy kind of way. But, for instance, I love fabrics from Senegal, okay, those batik fabrics.

STAN:  Yes, batik.
SID:  I love those, and how cool are those in a sport coat, or how cool are those in a pair of trousers. Have you seen this month’s Vogue?

STAN:  No, not yet.
SID:  If you get a chance, look at it. There’s a girl in a picture, and she’s wearing a Marni skirt, and I don’t know if it’s Senegalese or where it’s from but it’s banging. It is very cool, and I’m looking at that going… I wouldn’t just want that in a pair of shorts. I don’t want that in a pair of trousers or a suit. I want it in a sport coat with a pair of gray trousers. That’s another interesting thing. Like today, these khaki wool pants you are wearing, your blue shirt, your blue blazer, that’s like the baseline, but then you’ve got the ascot and you’ve got the shoes and the socks that kick it up. And the other piece we like to do when we try to put guys’ wardrobes together is you think core, core plus and fashion.

You would never wear all fashion in one outfit. You would wear mostly core and core plus pieces and use fashion as the icing on the cake, or the caramel or the hot fudge. And today, look at your outfit. Khaki pants, blue blazer, blue shirt but then the orange socks, the ascot. Boom! You kick it up. You know, look at me. I’ve got on a blue suit and a blue shirt, but then —

STAN:  You aren’t wearing any socks.
SID:  Right. And, I’ve got on a salmon-colored tie.
STAN:  And, see how well it all works together.

SID:  That’s the hot fudge right there. And you know what? You don’t need much of it. And, for instance, if I had on a Senegalese print, like a batik print sport coat, which is hard to imagine, but I’ll show you. We did this jacket right here.
STAN:  Oh, wow.

SID:  We did this as a sport coat last year. Think about this with a pair of pants, but then look at it with the blue blazer.
STAN:  Very nice.

SID:  See, the blue blazer takes it down, and then just a white shirt, even a polo shirt, and then if I had this on as a blazer —

STAN:  Same thing.
SID:  With gray trousers. You always want to take the edge off everything you’ve got on, but you also want a little bit of kick.

STAN:  So what’s the plan now? How will you grow?
SID:  The growth — what I would like to do is to be the best men’s store in the world, but what we’re looking to do is open up more stores. Controlled, though. I don’t want to just have stores, start blowing this thing up. New York, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles are three places where there is huge opportunity. We would also like to build an Internet business. The reason we’ve been hesitant so far is because, when you go online to sell, you better have your inventory ready.

STAN:  Exactly. You have to be inventory-ready because, you only have a small window of opportunity.
SID:  You better be ready to service that customer, because if they can’t order something one time, they’re like, okay. If they can’t order something a second time, then they start getting frustrated and you can lose them, and to get them back is hard work. Especially when they were captive in the first place.

So, an Internet business plus store growth is what our goal is, but when we go to those places, the critical elements are service, the vibe, the quality pieces, great tailors and people that will take care of you like you’re a friend coming into their home.

An acquaintance of mine is a store designer out in California. Crazy guy. His name is Richard Altuna. He once said, “Sid, when the customer walks in the door, you want them to smell the cookies baking.” So, think about it. If you went over to a friend’s house and when you walked in, you could smell something delicious cooking for you. That’s what we want. We want customers to feel the warmth. The thing we talk about with the guys is when someone walks in the door; you want to touch them with your eyes. That’s why we offer soft drinks or coffee.

We also don’t really offer alcohol at first. If someone’s comfortable and they’re in here and are a friend, then we say, “Would you like a beer or something?” We’re looking for different levels of intimacy with the customer. The first time we greet you, we say “If we can help you with anything, holler,” and then a few minutes later we gauge how interested you are, and then we come back to you and say, “Hey, I’m Sid, let me tell you a little bit about the store.” But we don’t want to do that when you walk in the door, because you feel attacked… Or you feel too jumped on.

STAN:  How did you come up with the design of the store?
SID:   Honestly, Stan, I’ve been working on this for 20 years. I mean literally. I’ve got tear sheets. Do you know what a tear sheet is? It’s basically when you get a magazine and you go through and you tear out sheets and you put it in your vision folder. It’s nice to incorporate some touches of traditional and modern in your interior ideas. Our in-house tailoring shop is open air so the customer can feel like we aren’t hiding anything. We’re open all the way through. It’s a little bit of what Wolfgang Puck did with Spago Restaurant with the open-air kitchen, and the same thing at Bacchanalia Restaurant.

STAN:  Very nice. It’s a nice blend of many ideas and cultures in your store.
SID:  Yes, today, your experience included some Nigerian music by Fela Kuti, Italian handmade suits and American Coca-Cola soft drink. That is who we are here at Sid Mashburn. When we built this store, the critical part was that we were not going to do a demographic. It was a psychographic. So we don’t care about the colour of the man, we don’t care about the age of the man, we don’t care about the sexuality of the man, and we don’t care about the finances of the man. We care about the man. That’s it. First and foremost, tell me about the man. And, if the man knows about clothes, he’s going to love us. If he knows nothing about clothes, he’ll still love us. If he’s in the middle and doesn’t care about clothes

STAN:  He still will love you all (laughing out loud).
SID:  Yes (laughing). He is still going to want us, but he won’t know to what degree. I guess the last thing to think about is: how do we really, at the end of the day, just take care of guys, make guys feel good and not be afraid of clothes, and also for people to go, “You look good today.” You know what I mean?

STAN:  Certainly. How do you service an international guy that is visiting Atlanta? Do you consider your store a one-stop shop?

SID:  Yes. The way we term it is Sunday to Saturday, because traditionally in the South you had church on Sunday, you worked Monday through Friday, and Saturday you worked in the yard or exercised and then went out for dinner on Saturday night.

So, that’s the way we’re thinking – how do we take care of a guy all week, except for his exercise clothes? So when an international man comes in, we’ve got international clothes, particularly with the Italian, and even the stuff that’s not made in Italy, that we make in Brooklyn but cut more European. And, I don’t mean to say we don’t cut it American, because we’re thinking about that too, because when we cut the pattern of the pants, we’re trying to give a little more room up through the waist, because guys here in the States are a little bit bigger through the waist than they are, particularly in Europe.

So, that’s the goal: how do we make that international guy feel comfortable when he comes in? We’ve sold to guys in Italy, England, and Amsterdam, all over the world. Interestingly, when I go to Pitti Uomo, which is the trade show in Florence, I run into a lot of guys from various stores and just see what they see, and I found out that there’s a store in Amsterdam called Pauw, and, funny enough, the first year we both bought this big houndstooth topcoat. We were the only two guys in the world that bought it, a guy in Amsterdam and a guy in Atlanta.

So, funny enough we sold every one of those coats and when I see him it’s like okay, what are you thinking? Where’s your head? What are you liking?

We don’t always agree on everything, but I do appreciate guys in Europe more than I do here, from a pure retail perspective, because I think they’re more in touch with the market as it moves forward, as opposed to just taking care of their customer, because if you don’t help your customer go out on a limb a little bit, you’re going to fail. If you only satisfy his wants and needs, you’re going to fail.

You’ve got pull him a little bit, otherwise how is he going to evolve as a dresser, and how is he going to be relevant? Because, he’s going to wake up one day and his shoulders and lapels will be too big, his pleats too big, his pants too big and say to himself as he looks in the mirror, “What happened to me?”
STAN:  I notice you also do luggage.

SID:  Yes, we love luggage, and what’s interesting about our luggage is we do very outdoorsy, rugged luggage and then we do very refined luggage.

STAN:   Who make’s your refined luggage?
SID:  Globe-Trotter. They produce the briefcase Sir Winston Churchill carried.
STAN:  Do you carry certain pieces or the whole set?

SID:  We have the whole set in various colours. It is very chic and made of 12 layers of vulcanized paper. It’s like a secret sauce.

STAN:  What colours?
SID:  Green, black, navy, red and orange.
STAN:  Orange is my favorite.

SID:  What’s super nice about it is when you look on the carousel at the airport, you’ll know your luggage when it comes around. It’s completely handmade. It holds up beautifully. I mean, it gets scarred and beat up over time – considering it goes through a baggage carousel, but it’s outstanding when it comes to longevity. With regard to luggage, we’re more of a men’s needs store as opposed to a classification store. I don’t have eight lines of luggage. I’ve got two. I’ve got the two I would use. Period.

I’m not interested in giving guys a selection of a lot of stuff. I’m interested in giving you an edited point of view of what I think is important for your life. That’s critical.
STAN:  Indeed

SID:   It’s the same sort of idea even with shoes. We carry the Clarks Desert Boots for $99.50.
STAN:  Clarks from England but originally from Africa?

SID:  Yes and we also carry Edward Green shoes for $1,300 a pair. Again, we love the idea of the lowbrow and the highbrow and how the two can coexist. And then, what we do is for the Sid Mashburn product; we always like to take a little bit more than middle ground from a pricing perspective. So, my shoes, for instance, are $595. They have a lot of handmade details on them and are made in Northampton, England, where John Lobb, Edward Green and Crockett & Jones are. They’re all in the same neighborhood.

But, we like to take something that’s a little more affordable. We’ll take a little bit of the handwork out, stuff that we don’t think is as important. That goes for our trousers too. Instead of paying $495 for Incotex, you buy the Sid Mashburn trousers for $350.

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