Badowers: The fashion center

by Harry Sheff

Badowers has evolved, proving to both its owner and the greater world of menswear that Des Moines has a fashion customer.

“Every weekend we get people popping in the store asking us how long we’ve been here,” says Kevin Hansen, manager of Badowers in Des Moines, Iowa. “It’s fun to tell them we’ve been here over 50 years! We all still get a kick out of saying that.”

The story of Badowers is one of many changes. It was founded in about 1950 (no one is sure of the exact date) by Fred Badower, a master tailor who survived the Holocaust before coming to the U.S. Now on its third set of owners, it’s the last independent men’s specialty store in the city of Des Moines. In the last few years, it’s evolved from a traditional clothing-driven store to something more balanced and contemporary.

Midwest Clothiers, a menswear retail group that started with Clive, Iowa-based Mr. B, bought out Badower’s and a couple other local stores in the early ’90s. “When we first acquired all the stores, we were kind of competing with each other,” says Midwest’s owner Tim Sitzmann. About five years ago he got the idea that Badower’s needed to change somehow. “Kevin and I started talking about what the future of Badower’s was, and he had a really great vision for combining tailored clothing with denim, making it a unique shopping experience. So I said, hey, let’s run with it.”

“A lot of guys in Des Moines would come to Badower’s for the basics, but we were really missing the fashion customer,” says Hansen, who had worked for Sitzmann at Mr. B. “Seeing guys in our neighborhood, I knew they weren’t buying what they were wearing in Des Moines. I wanted it to be from us.”

Hansen doesn’t think of himself as a retailer. “I didn’t grow up knowing this was something you could do for a living,” he laughs. “But I’ve always loved clothes and enjoyed shopping, so this was a natural fit.” His background is mostly sales—he once worked for Meredith, the Des Moines-based publisher of magazines like Better Homes & Gardens—and he’s been a wardrobe consultant and personal shopper.

He brought in some new brands, like Luigi Bianchi Mantova and Eton, and expanded the shoe selection, adding brands like Alden and the Wolverine 1,000 Mile collection. The result was a younger, more fashion-forward store that was no longer duplicating the inventory of Mr. B. The good news: “Our core customers didn’t leave,” says Hansen. “And they’re buying off-the-rack more than ever because we now have more sportswear.”

“I give Kevin a ton of freedom!” says Sitzmann. “If I didn’t give him enough rope to hang himself, I don’t think we would be where we are today. I push him to be different, to think about how to grow the volume, and he takes on those challenges. He’s taught me that in this rapidly changing business, we could create a new client. I thought we had that client already, but we didn’t at all. That customer was in Des Moines, but he wasn’t shopping in our stores. I’m learning that social media marketing works, and inviting guys to the store for parties actually turns into sales.”

Badower’s holds three or four events a year in conjunction with their seasonal lookbooks and new collections. “It’s a way to get people in for food and drinks where we can say, ‘Hey, you don’t have to buy anything; just hang out, look at some clothes and talk with us,” says Hansen’s second in command, Michael Chilton.

“When we had Todd Snyder here last fall, it was probably the biggest event we’d ever had,” adds Hansen. “There were about 200 people passing through the store that night. Todd’s a great guy and his clothes have sold really well.”

The Badower’s lookbook, which has become a seasonal project, is an affordable, modern way to convey the store’s personality while providing visual materials for postcards and the website. “The model is a good friend of mine, a doctor who lives in Iowa City,” Hansen explains. “The group of guys who helps us put the lookbooks together also helps us with branding and events. When we shoot, we haven’t gotten our deliveries yet for the season, so it’s hard, but we try to put together five or six good looks. It gives us some image pieces we can use for post cards to put in customers’ bags and out in the businesses nearby.”

And it’s elements like the lookbooks that have given Badower’s a national reputation. “We get a lot of calls from around the country and even Japan looking for some of the products we carry,” observes Chilton. “We get calls from New York for LBM 1911 quite often.” Adds Sitzmann, “This is the uniqueness of Badower’s. Its success proves that Des Moines is not just a small town, that you can do fashion business here.”

Fast Facts

* Established around 1950 by Fred Badower
* Location: Des Moines, Iowa
* Size: 3,000 sq. ft.
* 100% men’s
* 100% branded
* Classification breakdown: 35% sportswear/denim, 25% clothing, 20% accessories, 20% furnishings
* Top brands: Luigi Bianchi Mantova, Eton, Wolverine 1,000 Mile, Gant Rugger, Baldwin Denim, Todd Snyder, Cause and Effect

Designer Todd Snyder on Badowers

Before designer and Iowa native Todd Snyder worked for Ralph Lauren and J. Crew, he worked at Badowers. “I was a tailor’s assistant at Badowers in the ’90s,” Snyder recalls. “I was very green when it came to sewing—it was only my third year. I was trying to learn everything I could. I used to spend my entire paycheck there.”

Snyder launched his own collection last year with much retail success and press attention. “Badowers was kind of where it all started for me, so I wanted to do something special with them,” Snyder says of his launch event there last fall. “They were really changing their direction and I wanted to be a part of that. They’ve been big supporters, and that means a lot. And it gives my family, who still lives in Iowa, a look into what I do.”