It was a double whammy that confronted retail entrepreneur Mario Alberghini in 2016, shortly after he opened La Tigre, a small menswear shop in San Juan, Puerto Rico named after one of his favorite osterias in Bologna. Barely a year after opening, a catastrophic hurricane hit the island, forcing him to start over in a new location. Rather than a mall, Alberghini opted for space in a mixed-use luxury development where he also purchased a residence.
It proved to be a great move: more than 600 residences in the development soon housed mostly young, wedding-focused clients looking to upgrade their wardrobes after years of casual dress. But just when things were looking up, along came the pandemic, an even more devastating blow but one that forced Alberghini to reexamine his game plan. “When we first opened, we carried only luxury sportswear out of Italy. But within the first year, we realized our customers (online shoppers my age: mid-30s to mid-40s) wanted more dress-up options, customization, and some accessible pricepoints. So, we shifted our mix.”
La Tigre’s current mix remains mostly upscale, including Mazzarelli, L.B.M. 1911, PT Pantaloni Torino, Germano, Entre Amis, Anderson’s Belts, Barba, and Altea. There’s also MTM clothing from Luigi Bianchi Mantova, custom shoes by DIS, Alden footwear, and a new women’s made-to-measure program with Platinum Apparel.
Alberghini is a graduate of Bologna Business School. He started his retail career as a stock boy at Puerto Rican chain Clubman, and later worked at the NYC offices of Canali and Zanella. His father Walter was an Italian immigrant who, in the late ’70s after ten years entertaining on Italian cruise ships, settled in San Juan, married a Puerto Rican lady, and went into the menswear business as a buyer for Clubman, the first buyer representing a Puerto Rican store to shop Pitti Uomo. “He introduced a new generation to classic Italian menswear,” says his son with much pride. “He was a true salesman, a man of great style, and the reason why I fell in love with this industry at a very young age.”
The takeaways from La Tigre’s reinvention are lessons from which most menswear stores can learn: 1.) Reevaluate your mix regularly to make sure it’s still relevant, to add areas of opportunity, and to make sure your customers don’t get bored. 2.) A focus on customization, personalization, and made-to-measure will differentiate your store from online competition. 3.) Seek out partnerships! A collaboration with a lifestyle magazine allowed LaTigre to star in a fabulous photoshoot showcasing gastronomic experiences on the island, while promoting a guayabera designed by Alberghini and handmade in Puglia. 4.) Add something for the ladies! Many come into the store to shop with their guys; modern MTM tailored suiting looks to be a hit; and 5.) Expand from strictly apparel to lifestyle and hospitality! La Tigre’s mix includes European outdoor furniture and home décor. What’s more, their website features a pasta recipe from Bologna and Alberghini’s favorite Negroni recipe, with a footnote explaining that “The Negroni is important to us because it’s the drink we offer when you arrive at our flagship. As soon as you enter, you automatically become a friend…”
Although it will take more than the perfect Negroni to turn business around for many independent menswear stores, Alberghini is optimistic. “Although the past five years have been defined by circumstantial hardships, they’ve also provided us with a sense of resilience that is now sewn into the DNA of our business. Yes, our target consumer is mainly shopping online, but people are so bombarded by content, by promotional sales from big retailers, that they struggle to find that special item that captures their imagination. A positive in-store experience and personal guidance from professional sales associates add much value to in-store shopping. Also, people are changing their mindset about how they want to dress: Post-pandemic, do you really want to show up in sweatpants to meet someone you haven’t seen in two years? I don’t think so, and my customers don’t seem to think so either.”