Clothing king: Sid Shapiro

by Elise Diamantini

Chicago’s Syd Jerome has the deep dish on suits.

“If a guy comes in here looking for something and he can’t find it, then there’s something wrong with him,” quips Sid Shapiro, founder and owner of “The House of the Power Suit,” also known as Syd Jerome. At any given moment, Shapiro can proudly show a customer up to 50 different suits in his size. Even with vendor stores popping up in the neighborhood and competition from high-end department stores breaking sale early, its massive selection of SKUs and personal service is what has made Syd Jerome a true Chicago landmark.

Located in the heart of the Loop, the store is surrounded by the top financial institutions, law firms and corporations in Chicago. “Every day of the week there’s at least 10,000 people who walk by our store, so we do get a lot of foot traffic. On Saturday you can shoot a cannon down the street, but that’s our busiest day! We’ve become a destination.” In celebration of their 50th Anniversary (in 2008), the city of Chicago honored Shapiro by renaming the street “Syd Jerome Way” (a Chicago tradition). There was also a celebration at city hall with a proclamation from the mayor, which Sid notes as one of the proudest moments of his career.

Syd Jerome’s customer base runs the gamut from Chicago’s wealthiest executives to average guys in need of a suit. Outside of Chicago, Shapiro has customers in every U.S. city and almost every country. “The other day one of our customers who lives in Dubai needed a suit for a wedding. So he flew in, we fitted him for the suit and he flew back out all in the same day.” They even have third generation customers shopping with them. “We just made a suit for a customer’s two year old son, and we hope that little boy will become a customer one day. We groom them, which is part of the reason for opening the boys’ department. We get a lot of customers who want a suit for their child’s Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation. I have guys who remember being fitted for their Bar Mitzvah suit and now they’re bringing in their sons.”

About 95 percent of Syd Jerome’s brands are Italian, a decision Shapiro said was one of the best he ever made. “I have a love affair with Italy and we’ve established a following for all our labels. We’ve carried brands like Armani, Zegna, Corneliani, Brioni, Etro and Versace for close to 45 years.” Shapiro’s also famous for his trunk shows. “We have a trunk show with every vendor we carry. We’ve been known to do three to four in one week! We’ll invite 50 people for lunch or dinner and host it at a restaurant or have cocktail parties in the store. Trunk shows are constant throughout the whole month of February and part of March, and then again in September and part of October. Those times are important because special orders can take up to 6 or 8 weeks, so we hold the event before the season starts, to guarantee on-time delivery.”

Asked about current business, Shapiro says it’s been steady. “We sell a lot of suits. We’re pretty much all two-button now, flatfront pants. We do sell some pleats to the customer who wants them, but we have a full staff of tailors, so we can build in a single pleat for him free of charge.” He says their business is young with the core between the ages of 25 and 55 years old. “We stock some of the extreme slim-fit suits, but we don’t sell costumes. Our customers are buying suits for work.” Shapiro says the average customer buys four to five suits a season. However, they also have those special customers who buy 30 suits at a time (for example, a lawyer who needs to dress for an entire trial).

Shapiro’s been in the clothing business since he was 10 years old. “My parents passed away when I was very young and I had to make a living, so I started working as a stock boy for a couple who owned a men’s store and they sort of adopted me. I worked for them all the way through grammar school, high school and college. I graduated with a degree in marketing and accounting but I didn’t want to do that, so I enrolled in the Army. When I came back, I worked for them again for a short time while I figured out what I really wanted to do. They wanted me to stay with them but I wanted to open a store and be my own boss. When I started out, all the vendors who I met throughout the years backed me and gave me credit. And that doesn’t exist anymore: you used to do business with people and today you do business with factors. So it’s not as intimate as it used to be, which is probably why we don’t have many independent retailers left.”

Although Shapiro officially turned the business over to his middle son Scott, at 80 years old he still works six days a week. And while the store is officially closed on Sunday, he spends his day off coming up with ways to make the store tick a little better. “This is my baby. I really love what I do and my favorite part of my job is when I put that key in the door and unlock the store every morning. Scotty is doing a fabulous job. He’s been with me over 25 years. We do all of the merchandising together, but the day-to-day operations are his now. Fortunately we don’t have any conflicts: he’s an extension of me, so things run smoothly.”

Shapiro explains that he made all his sons work in the store so they could establish a strong work ethic. He never just gave them a weekly allowance; they had to earn it. He’s proud of all three of his kids: his oldest is an attorney and his youngest a restaurateur. He’s hoping that at least one of his seven grandkids will take over when Scott is ready to retire. And while none has yet shown a particular interest, they’re all still young (12 to 27), so he has hope!

Scott on Sid

“Making this my career wasn’t necessarily my decision. I graduated college in 1981 and worked for one of the top eight public accounting firms. My father had a partner and was in the process of buying him out at the time when he asked if I was interested in getting involved. (I was the viable candidate over my brothers because one was already a partner in a law firm and the other was still in college.) He made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse. He told me that if we worked together, he’d take a day off, I’d take a day off, and it all sounded great. But he lied to me because I haven’t had a day off since I started, and that was 1984!

“From working with my dad, I’ve learned about commitment and service. Nothing is achieved without hard work and as a result, I consider us two of the hardest working in the industry. Neither of us has training in the fashion industry, but I’d say the business is 90 percent hard work, 5 percent common sense and the other 5 percent fashion. The common sense part translates to knowing what people want and listening to the customer. And it’s the people that really make the job. This profession allows us to do things that we wouldn’t normally do. For example, it gives us the opportunity to meet, create and develop relationships with all sorts of people in an enjoyable environment. And whether it’s the super wealthy or someone who walks in and needs a button sewn on his jacket, you know you’ve done something that he appreciates. And of course, the fashion’s exciting. How many of us get to go to Italy and dine in the Ferragamos’ private residence? Or be invited to the American Consulate and meet with the Consul General? There are a lot of wonderful opportunities that come with this job, but working with my dad has been the best one.”

* Established in 1958
* Size: 4,000 sq. ft. selling space on the main floor with an additional office, tailor shop, stock rooms
* Classification breakdown: 75% clothing, 15% sportswear, 10% furnishings
* Number of employees: 20; 7 to 8 are on the floor at one time (most have worked there for over 20 years), 5 tailors and 3 seamstresses
* Location: La Salle Street, “the Wall Street of Chicago”
* Favorite saying: “I sell expensive overalls.”
* Hobbies: “I don’t have hobbies; I don’t play golf. My business is my baby.”
* Lucky charm: “I have a lucky pen that I always carry around with me. Although a lot of times I end up leaving it in different places all over the store and am constantly asking people where I left it!”

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