After more than 40 years honing his craft, Jeff Halberstadt continues to spend his career under the radar, doing what he loves best: bringing men’s fashion to the markets he serves. Now working with his son Jaime, Jeff keeps on pushing the envelope to make sure South Dakota and surrounding states don’t take a back seat to major metropolitan cities.
It’s helpful that Jeff’s love of travel has allowed him to secure collections that set Halberstadt’s and J.H. & Sons apart. As he puts it, “Our clients are always sartorial standouts, no matter where their travels take them. Their peers are constantly in awe to learn that this impeccable clothing was purchased in South Dakota. We take great pride in providing this level of luxury goods in the Midwest.”
Halberstadt’s was founded in 1975 in St Cloud, Minnesota by Jeff’s father Jim. “My dad had worked for a 20-store Midwest chain called St Clairs before he ventured out on his own. With six young kids to support, he took a much bigger risk than anything I’ve ever done.” Today there are seven locations under the Halberstadt and J.H. & Sons branding in South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa.
Jeff had no intention of following his father into the family business. He was happily studying south of Paris at a college exchange program when his dad called saying he could use some help in the store. To say Jeff loves France is an understatement so, begrudgingly, he moved back to St. Cloud. At the age of 19, he started his buying career, hoping to bring the European influences he’d grown to love back home with him. He began venturing to NYC, knocking on doors to check out warehouses around the garment district, heading over to the 1290 building and staring at the directory, hoping something French would pop out. He recalls Guy Laroche as his first stop. The rest is history.
He remembers that early on, people thought he was a bit crazy to focus on designer goods. “‘Who is this kid from St. Cloud trying to bring fashion from New York, Paris and Milan to Minnesota and South Dakota? Could he be right? Is it even possible to do that?’ And 40 years ago, they might have been right. But today, affluent shoppers reside everywhere; they travel, stay in the finest hotels, and dine in great restaurants. They know what’s happening in fashion and if we don’t give it to them, they can easily buy it somewhere else.”
After many years working side by side with his dad, Jeff and his brother Tim bought him out in 1999. “I’m proud to have made menswear retailing my life’s work and delighted to have my son Jaime currently in the business with me. Hopefully, my grandson Julian will eventually carry the torch.” (Editor’s note: Julian is two years old.)
While most independent menswear retailers were struggling to survive the pandemic, shutting stores according to state mandates, Jeff was plotting his next acquisition. Although managing seven stores in four states during a pandemic can’t be easy, he takes no credit. “We were lucky,” he explains, with his trademark humility. “We’re no smarter than anyone else in the business but the pandemic presented a perfect storm: business came back strong in 2021 based on customers’ pent-up demand and weight changes plus the return of social events and travel. What’s more, there were simply fewer stores to shop. We were likely gaining market share by default.”
Halberstadt’s newest concept, J.H. & Sons, recently opened its second location in Omaha. “We combined the best of J.H. & Sons in Sioux Falls with the best of Halberstadt’s Galleria and somehow nailed the right mix. With a definite slant toward tailored clothing, key brands include Canali, Isaia and Ring Jacket.” Just back from the Grand Opening Party in Omaha, Jeff describes his grandiose notion to bring in the piano player from Bemelmans Bar in NYC’s famed Carlyle Hotel. “Securing a Steinway, Rob Mosci entertained about 200 guests with fabulous bites and cocktails, celebrating J.H. & Sons’ entry into a new market.”
Looking ahead, Jeff plans to grow sales via regular infusions of fresh fashion. That said, he admits that his stores are unlikely to sustain the current 30-40 percent increases they’re now experiencing. Asked what’s selling best this season, Jeff notes that it’s hard to list best-sellers because everything seems to be working. “In other words, nothing is not selling.” (Editor’s note: which is, of course, the sign of a good buyer…) Always on the hunt for exclusive luxury sportswear, Jeff is on his way to Pitti Uomo to secure new Italian collections. “We’re not great at super casual or athleisure wear; dressy sportswear is where we shine, especially where we can offer color, as in Waterville quilted vests and everything from Mark Calder. Same with golfwear: we’re selling unique items from Greyson in awesome colors that really stand out on the course, and sit well next to Peter Millar, a strong backbone resource for us.”
What else is needed for independent menswear stores to excel in these precarious times? Jeff responds without hesitation. “In addition to the right product mix, you need the right venue in a compelling location, preferably where you can build out to create some cool shops. Most importantly, you need a motivated team: if your people truly believe in your vision, if they eat, sleep, and breathe the vision, then they can sell it.” Jeff also points out that, unlike dress codes at many stores, his sellers wear suits and ties to work, clothing that reflects the latest trends and reinforces how empowering wearing tailored clothing can be.
So with business so strong at the moment, what keeps him up at night? Jeff replies it’s currently about securing enough wedding suits. “This past weekend, one of our stores booked 20 large wedding parties, all to happen by September. With lingering supply chain issues and guys waiting until the last minute to get measured, it can be hard to keep up with it.” He also talks about the timing of deliveries. “We’ve always tried to land goods closer to season; customers today are buying today and wearing tonight. And as much as I wish my inventory were like a Chateau Margaux…it just isn’t so. If the industry could figure out how to create four deliveries annually instead of two, I think our customers would shop more often and buy more. Whenever a new box comes in, our guys get right on the phone…”
Also on Jeff’s wish list: more fashion-focused in-stock programs. “Most of the existing programs are too basic for our customers who already own blue, grey and black suits. On the other hand, I understand the vendor’s point of view. For retailers to be healthy, our manufacturers must be healthy. If they invest in too much fashion and get stuck with it, it’s a problem for all of us. Occasionally, a calculated risk pays off, like years ago when Peerless created a stock book with 15 colors of a double-breasted gabardine suit. But that doesn’t happen often…” Another wish: that the dollar and the euro stay close in value. “Some wholesalers have raised prices considerably, but I believe this will eventually self-correct. Fortunately, at least so far, customers have not pushed back on higher tickets; they seem to be taking it in stride.”
Asked if a change in model wouldn’t jumpstart sales in tailored clothing, Jeff doesn’t think so. “There are too few men wearing suits on a daily basis to make a difference. So were we to go from side vents to non-vented or from two-button to three, I don’t think it would move the needle, or that anyone would even notice. I just returned from Paris and Italy: whereas 30 years ago, the windows of European clothing shops looked completely different from what’s here in the States, today there’s very little difference. The only place I still see truly unique fashion is at the Kentucky Derby…”
Nor does he think that adding online shopping would be right for his business at this point in time. “I haven’t seen any websites that reflect what I’d like to do. We’re not big enough yet to devote enough resources to it, and I don’t want to dabble. We’ll do it right or not at all.”
Among his mentors, Jeff puts his dad on top of the list. “He pushed me to focus on the fashion part of the business, which is the main reason we’re still around.” Ron Wurtzburger from Peerless has been another source of inspiration. “He was always there to lend an ear, always encouraging and complimentary, making me feel important, which I don’t think I am… I’ll never forget a dinner I once had with Ronny at the Café Boulud. After dinner, walking down Madison Avenue to his car, he stopped at every single store window, commenting on the product and presentation, noticing every detail. He is one of the all-time great talents in our industry!”
A few little-known facts about Jeff Halberstadt: He was a trumpet player back in the day. A barefoot water skier too. He speaks fluent French. He loves France and Italy and travels there often. On any given morning, whatever store he’s visiting, you’ll find him vacuuming. He personally trims all his store mannequins and windows. He personally curates the stores’ unrivaled playlist. He oversees every garment selected every season. He has a passion for customizing automobiles and boats. (If you ask him about his vintage 1947 Hunter classic wood boat, he’ll proudly show you a video of his masterpiece.) He recently customized a Vespa with the J.H. & Sons logo and had it flown direct from Italy for a store prop. He is obsessed with details. His motto has served him, his team and his clients well: “We’re on stage everyday so we must unfailingly deliver an outstanding performance.”
On a final note: Jeff claims to be extremely shy. “I do my best in the back of the bus,” he tells us. Not that we believe him.
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.