There was no worldwide pandemic when Ken Griffin started negotiations with Michael Sabino, founder of Button Down San Francisco, to buy the store. That said, Griffin and his partner Dan Keenan took over ownership this past June. Despite the pandemic, they’ve been aggressively implementing their plan to continue curating classically elegant European fashion while adding e-commerce, personal shopping, and a fabulous speakeasy-inspired barbershop. Sabino is staying on as a valued consultant.
Griffin’s resume includes working at two well-respected menswear giants: Nordstrom and Robert Talbott. “We did a sizeable business ($20+ million) with Talbott while I was at Nordstrom. I was always so inspired by Mrs. T: her integrity, work ethic, the respectful way she dealt with people. I learned so much from her. While working there, I sold menswear to Button Down, became friends with Mike, and always admired his business. So, this was a natural transition…”
Thanks to Keenan’s technology skills, the new owners’ first move was to launch a website. But Griffin admits that most customers are using the website to preview purchases; they then come into the store to try stuff on. “The website has helped us market ourselves, which we also do on Facebook and Instagram, allowing us to reach younger customers. Our neighborhood is also getting younger with more couples in their 40s and 50s buying homes. Another plus: our business has never been reliant on suits; we’ve always had a more West Coast casual mentality.”
Button Down was founded in 1971 by Michael Sabino with a mission to showcase Europe’s best menswear. Key brands include Fedeli, Baldassari, Barbera, Etro, PT Torino, Emanuel Berg, Mac jeans, Mason’s, Alan Paine, Peter Millar, and more. The store is about 3,000 square feet with a 600 square-foot modern barbershop. “This creates interest,” notes Griffin. “Trunk shows were no longer bringing people in.” The store’s ratio of men’s to women’s is 60/40 and there’s also a nice gift business including blankets, unique housewares, and hand-made wooden animals with proceeds benefiting female workers in Nepal.
Despite the pandemic, Griffin says that holiday business was healthy. Hot items included a knit/wool felt Baldassari jacket for $1125, private label sweaters by Gran Sasso and alpaca knits from Peru for $395-$500, fun printed shirts by Emanuel Berg, outerwear from Manto and Baldassari, Waterville and Millar vests, fun wools from Johnstons of Elgin, cashmere blankets and interesting housewares.
Griffin believes that, more than all else, knowing their customers is key to their business. “Their taste level is essentially updated classic but we try to gradually push them forward. We can’t be scared of trying new: if the store looks boring and predictable, why would anyone come in? Also, we’ve chosen to support the smaller niche brands rather than the majors so we don’t have to follow vendor markdown cadences or compete with big discounts on their websites.”
Griffin also believes in focused assortments. “Guys are not looking for dozens of options in denim. Better to pick our three favorite brands with slightly different fits and direct them to what we think is best.”
In addition to running the store, Griffin is active in his community retailers’ association: Presidio Heights Association of Neighbors. “We have about three dozen stores, restaurants, and businesses involved. We made up canvas totes to distribute to customers, and we’ve started a referral program to create awareness and camaraderie. People love to support local businesses, especially businesses that support each other. It’s been a very rewarding enterprise.”