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Blog Posted in avatar   Kevin Thorbourne's Blog

Harlem Son: Memoirs and History--Tailored Clothing and the African American Man

By Kevin Thorbourne
Posted Feb 23, 2011 in Lifestyle
As a young boy in late 1950's Harlem, the one thing I remember most was the way men dressed. On Sunday's, 125th Street was a virtual fashion show with men in suits and Stetson hats. Most of the style of dress at that time was driven by jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Dexter Gordon, and Billy Eckstine, who designed his own dress shirts.
At that time, sales of tailored clothing to African American men were driven by what was known as the "ethnic market." Clothing stores which catered to Black men. Men's stores like Leighton's, Cy Martin's, and House of Cromwell offered silk and mohair suits, cashmere topcoats and alligator shoes, in many colors. The Blye Shop, known for their alpaca sweaters had clients like Nat King Cole and a long list of athletes and entertainers.
The New York Garment District which was first created to produce clothing for Southern slaves because it was cost-effective to keep them laboring in the fields, became the driving force for both men's and women's clothing in the United States. As early as 1910, 70% of women's and 40% of men's clothing were produced in New York City.
In the early 1960's, low-end clothing stores like Robert Hall provided clothing for those looking for a "cheap suit," but if you wanted some "fine vines" you shopped at BB Lorry's and AJ Lester's. For custom silk pants, with double extention waistbands and gun shaped pocket flaps, you went to Mr. Tony's or Orrie's on 125th St. In Queens you went to Revel's on Jamaica Ave. and in Brooklyn, you could find a myriad of men's clothing stores along Pitkin Ave.
In the 1970's, if you saw a tape of the Muhammad Ali-George Frasier fight at Madison Square Garden, just looking at the crowd will tell you all you need to know about fashion in that decade. When we came back to our senses in the 1980's, African American men with high incomes had suits custom made at place like the Custom Shoppe, which had stores in every major city; on every major street.
Black men who wore ready-to-wear, shopped at Field Bros., Wallach's and NBO, National Brands Outlet, which had a very large market share. At the very high-end, there was Barney's, at the time, located on 7th Ave. and 17th St. and Beau Brummel. On Long Island there was Ed Miller in Hempstead. His son would later open a fine men's store in Woodbury, LI, Thom Miller's Town and Country. Clapper's, a high-end men's store had two stores in Roosevelt Field and Walt Whitman Malls. Tyrone's was a great men's store on the South Shore of Long Island. Sym's Corp also had a share of the men's clothing business.
In the "opening price point" market, Today's Man came roaring into town in 1990. They were a Philadelphia based men's clothing store which first created the big box stores. Department stores like Saks, Bloomingdale's, and Macy's sold designer suits by Armani, Hugo Boss and Calvin Klein. The company that wanted to dress the "asses of the masses" was Men's Wearhouse, a Houston based men's clothing store founded by George Zimmer, who first sold raincoats. Men's Wearhouse is now one of the largest clothing company's in the world. They also have the market share in tuxedo rentals, in the whole country!
Although African American men spend more on clothing than any other race, there are few African American designers. A few years ago a young man with film-noir sensibilities worked for a high-end haberdasher, Britches of Georgetown in Washington, DC. He would later work for Ralph Lauren, and to say that he was preppy would really miss the point. The young man is African American designer Jeffrey Banks who first started his own boyswear business. He would later design for Merona sportswear and finally created one of the most sophisticated men's clothing lines under his own name.
The "ethnic market" is still alive and well in the name of Porta Bella, a men's clothing store chain with about twelve stores. Although they have stores in mid-town Manhattan, they are on every major street in the African American community. It's difficult to say were fashion will go going forward, I just hope we don't go back to the plaid suits of the 1970's!