The morning we met with the DLS team to prepare for this story, we talked about everything: from the financial markets (invest in I-bonds!) to the supply chain (place orders early!), to staffing shortages (should stores be sponsoring Ukrainian tailors to move here?) to marketing (the power of online flipbooks). And that was before we even got into the meat of the interview!
The principals of DLS — Fred Derring, Lee Leonard, and Virginia Sandquist-Wenzel — are known throughout the menswear industry for their acute understanding of the market, their savvy deal-making skills, and their willingness to go above and beyond for their clients. Each of them grew up in the business as retailers and consultants, with resumes that read like a “who’s who” of legendary department and specialty stores where each of them honed their craft. Today, more than 100 DLS member stores now rely on their expertise on fashion, retail, and business trends, not to mention coordinating incentive pricing and exclusive programs, the production of a seasonal magazine, and coordinated marketing support.
AN EARLY START
Fred credits his father’s personal panache with stirring his interest in fashion. For Virginia (who has a keen interest in interior design and studied it at The New School), it was growing up with a very stylish mom and aunt who both appreciated pretty things. Lee talks about his ardent love of shopping. All three credit their early jobs at stores including Britches, Garfinckel’s, Alexander-Beegle, and H. Oritzky.
Lee was working at Farnsworth Reed, a Washington, D.C., haberdasher that dressed many of the prominent politicians of the time. When the Jaeger Corporation consultancy was brought in to increase profitability, they brought in all new management, including Fred. (To put things in perspective, this was an era of bell bottoms and flares worn with platform shoes and body-hugging printed knit shirts. It really does come around again, doesn’t it?) The two shared a townhouse in Foggy Bottom for a while before Fred moved to Chicago, and Lee, eventually, to Phoenix.
The two friends stayed in touch, always kicking around the idea of bringing independent men’s specialty stores together to command the extra margins that large department and chain stores took for granted. Fred eventually settled in New York City and met Virginia. In 1980, the three formed the company we now know as the DLS Apparel Group.
“We launched with a small group of retailers who we knew from our consultant days, and built the business from there,” says Lee. “We started working with manufacturers to block out product that the stores could tap into for extra margin. We were the new kids on the block. There was Doneger, Kreiss Gordon, and a huge number of women’s buying offices. But we were young, fresh, and humble.”
Lee maintains that their early success secret was staying adaptable to changing times, rather than following a rigid roadmap. “We went with the flow, trading up along the way. It was definitely hard work and long hours.”
At one point they even hosted their own version of a trade show. Says Fred, “We’d take a space and host our own show about 10 days after the other events in New York.” Lee recalls carefully making his way down the stairs at Arno’s — the notorious garment center restaurant — to set up in its downstairs banquet room. The space had no elevator, so he schlepped everything from suits to coats to rolling racks down the steps by hand. “We’d set up the product and allow stores to shop through the samples themselves, without the hard sell — or help — from the brands’ salespeople. It was an incredible presentation. The whole market was in one room and every client would come. Without the presence of salesmen, they could comfortably talk among themselves, and they all became friends.”
“It was exciting,” says Virginia. “We also hosted a big party the first night. We’d come back to our office on West 56th Street for drinks, food, and music.”
Through all this time, they’ve kept their offices in the uptown part of midtown, a bit apart from the Garment Center. The cozy space they now occupy is a welcoming home base for DLS members when they’re in town.
They now gather their members at the trade shows during major markets in the U.S. and Italy. During this July’s New York market week, they’ll have visited all five shows, hosting meetings with their retailer members at the show venues. There, retailers compare notes on key items, collections, and emerging brands. As always, the DLS team shares the latest advertising and marketing trends, facilitates private label programs, helps retailers acquire margin-building inventory, and highlights in-season opportunities.
HOW DO THEY DO IT?
Fred says, “We’re all open to finding new ideas and promoting the ones that work.” Yet each of them has their niche: Fred and Lee shop the men’s market while Virginia is more administrative, also focusing on accessories and other gift categories.
“It works because all three of us are shoppers,” says Virginia. Fred concurs, “I’m always out shopping, finding places with interesting products that might have nothing to do with clothing! I love walking from Christopher Street, all the way down to Houston and Canal. There are so many great shops.”
One of Fred’s favorites is John Derien, a shop in Manhattan’s Lower East Side that retails a potpourri of products from decoupage to objets d’art, home furnishings, and antiques, providing a wellspring of inspiration. Ditto for Il Buco Vita, next door, an Italian restaurant and market that also sells rustic tableware, linens, kitchen tools, and decorative objects.
“We also go to the gift and food shows when we can,” says Virginia, “great chocolates, cookies, candles, and wellness products: These are wonderful impulse items.”
In addition to discovering great product, DLS helps its clients with in-store events. “We’ve recently helped the stores focus on pop-ups,” Lee explains. “They didn’t understand it at first, so we educated them on the topic, and also educated the vendors. It’s been especially good for items like accessories or jewelry that they don’t normally carry in the store.”
“We also have strong connections with the Canadian government and the Italian Trade Agency,” Fred points out, “so we encourage them to sponsor lifestyle events in the stores: cheese, charcuterie, good wine, fancy cars: all this puts customers in the mood to shop Italian.”
But these days, learning to negotiate is just as important as special events. Says Fred, “During the pandemic, we talked to the stores about working with their vendors on payment terms and talking to their landlords to get rent reductions. Don’t be afraid to have those conversations.
The vendors are going to work with you and either give you a discounted bill or let you pay over time. That’s a lesson we learned during the recession back in 2008.”
“We also had to push our stores to start carrying athleisure or loungewear, which was the only thing selling during COVID,” said Lee. “Most of our stores weren’t even in that category,” Fred points out. “We had to convince them to add it.”
“The market is always evolving, becoming, and presenting something new. It matches the zeitgeist of the moment, as does any work of art,” says Virginia.
Fred agrees. “The market works best when it matches the current culture. It’s happening now with sustainability: Young people are demanding it, so brands are incorporating sustainable properties into their collections.”
“Now is a very exciting time at retail,” concludes Lee. “Business is booming, supply seems to be catching up with demand, and stores are doing more business in fewer hours with less help. Unfortunately, they’re unlikely to keep up this momentum, and getting the help they need is difficult.”
Just as unlikely: That three very different personalities can get along so well, 12 hours a day, five+ days a week, for 42+ years? (Lee is a professionally trained actor, Virginia a triathlon athlete, and Fred, a foodie and weekend beach bum.)
Asked to describe the worst fight the three of them ever engaged in, Fred doesn’t hesitate. “We disagree all the time,” he confides without shame. “So it’s tough to single out any one argument. But it’s my belief that our differences of opinion are what make the whole much stronger than the sum of its parts. If we all thought alike, we wouldn’t need three of us.”
Clients agree. Says New Jersey retailer Michael Duru, “I joined DLS so I could learn to be a better merchant. Their advice and guidance on navigating the market have been tremendously helpful over the years.”
Says Craig Delongy of John Craig in Winter Park, Florida, “I joined DLS in late 1995. I arrived in NYC in November to begin the process of buying for my new store. I’d never been to NYC to speak of and didn’t know 55th street from Madison Avenue. Not only had Fred set up multiple appointments over a two-day period, but on a sheet of paper he drew the streets and exactly where my appointments were located. (One issue: they were 30 minutes apart!) Fred, Lee, and Virginia have been a huge part of our success. Their kind words of encouragement and their perspective on the market and how it changes by season are insights we’ve used to grow our business. I could not imagine anyone more deserving of the Hall of Fame award than DLS Apparel for their contributions to the men’s industry.”
Beyond the programs, the intelligence, and sage advice that DLS provides its clients, member stores most appreciate the lasting friendships.
Says Lee, “We make sure to allow time at our meetings for conversation, comparing notes, and bonding. I’ve learned to really listen to the stores, which helps us serve them better.”
Concludes Fred, “The friendships that we’ve nurtured over the years with both retailers and vendors are truly priceless. That’s clearly the best part of what we do.”
The MR Awards is the largest and most prestigious event on the better menswear calendar, attended by the industry’s leading retailers, brands, and menswear insiders. In addition to new honorees, more than 50 Lifetime Achievement and Hall of Fame members are invited to return each year. The awards will be held at the Edison Ballroom on Sunday, July 17th, 2022, during New York menswear market week.