Fashion, maybe more than most businesses, requires those of us who work in it to be a little bit psychic. Fortunes rise and fall because designers and merchants either have that prophetic ability to tell what is going to sell six months to a year down the road, or they don’t. For the foreseeable future, we are going to listen very carefully to Gary Williams. In late 2019, frustrated with Manhattan’s soaring rents and the economics of running a business in the city, Gary began planning to decamp from a showroom in the Garment Center to his home in Westchester County, New York: He completed his move just one week before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down businesses around the world and taught us all about the realities of working from home.
MAKING THE MOVE
“I would have shifted out of New York regardless of COVID,” says Gary. “I was on that trajectory already. I decided to move, mostly based on the economics and metrics of it. Add my stubborn insistence on wanting to be a small shop: When you deal with my business you deal with me. There are bigger guys who are around, but I never wanted to have that very large footprint. I had people wag their fingers in my face and tell me that I’d live to regret that position because there’s this overwhelming urge in American business to go big or go home. My business philosophy has to do with dealing with people directly. I get the most enjoyment — both on the vendor and the retail sides — from relationships. They are what has enabled me to be as small as I am and still prosper.”
Gary is now a quick 38-minute train ride from Grand Central Station and often comes in to meet with customers in their offices. He also has a few friends who have been kind enough to lend him space when he needs it (including his friend Daiki Suzuki of Engineered Garments and fellow MR Award winner Fred Derring). He’s had people come to his home in White Plains to meet with him there and, like all of us, Zoom has become his best friend. Of course, you’ll also see him at the trade shows.
“The New York trade shows have always been a centerpiece of my business, so the last two years have been a major inconvenience. But I was still able to participate in regional shows, particularly the smaller market shows in Boston and Philadelphia. Getting into the car and visiting retailers in person is always extremely helpful.”
IN THE BEGINNING
Gary grew up on Long Island’s South Shore in a family of 12 siblings. His mother was kept busy raising the large family, while his father ran his own business. Gary needed a certain kind of attention that neither had time to give, so he managed to get himself into some typical teenage boy trouble.
“I had an older brother who took me under his wing when I was in my early teens. He was a retailer and started taking me both to his place of business and into the marketplace, so I more or less grew up around fashion,” Gary explains. “I started meeting with guys like Sal Cesarani and Bert Pulitzer, then later on Jeffrey Banks, Alexander Julian, and Ralph Lauren, all the guys who were the who’s who from that time period.” Gary worked at his brother’s store and lived with him on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. After high school, he went to college in the Midwest, where he pursued his interest in music, becoming the station director of the college radio station.
Asked about the road not traveled, Gary relates that he attended Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio, and has a graduate degree in education, with a United States History minor focused on African American studies. An experience with student teaching left him feeling indifferent about a career in education, so higher learning’s loss was the fashion industry’s gain.
He returned to New York, and, as a 23-year-old, was trying to figure out his next steps when he was approached by a gentleman who wanted to open a store but didn’t want to run its day-to-day operations. The two opened Sils Mara on 72nd and Lexington where he worked for four and a half years before he was recruited by British Khaki by Robert Leighton to be the sales rep for the entire United States. That experience introduced him to some of the nation’s finest retailers: Fred Segal, Louis Boston, and Billy Neville’s The Rogue.
“This was a time when MAGIC was still in Los Angeles, and Elyse Kroll’s Designer Collective was just taking off. I went to Bidermann Industries, where I worked with Bill Robinson, Allan Ellinger, and on the women’s side with Nancy Heller and David Rosenzweig. I then became the sales manager of Gene Pressman’s line, BASCO. By January 1997, I decided it was time to hang my own shingle.”
ON WITH THE SHOW(ROOM)
Gary got his start borrowing space in a corner of a friend’s office, with his first client, New Republic. Three years into it, Schirley Zisman of Golden Bear Sportswear was looking for a New York showroom, and they now have a relationship that’s lasted more than 20 years.
“Pollacks of Nantucket was my first customer,” Gary recalls, “as were Dan Maxwell of Falmouth, Mass., and Sid Mashburn in D.C.” Gary emphasizes that the most important part of running a showroom and managing the size is that “You get me. I’m a difference maker. I know product as well as anyone, and I’m a hard worker. You get more than just a salesman. I know the marketplace, and my customers know that they can call me for just about anything. I’m a resource person.”
Gary’s long-term relationships extend beyond the showroom, too. “One of the reasons I made the move to work from home was because I always want to have work/life balance. I’ve been married to Denise for 37 years, and our daughter Chloe was born 31 years ago. Being present has been important in that regard.”
ON THE MENSWEAR BUSINESS
Gary muses that he sees how the menswear industry is shifting and notes how much technology has affected the marketplace: “The younger customer is just different,” he points out. “They integrate fashion into their lives differently, so we see competition for fashion coming from other things, not just other brands. Then of course it’s how they purchase: It used to be that a consumer would stop by a store two to three times a season to stock up on what they needed. Now a person can easily buy online anytime (not to mention go to a discount store). There are so many avenues to shop. For the consumer, a phone is now a handheld store! A physical store becomes more of a reference point, so there are a lot more pressures on traditional retail. It’s important to be sharper, more curious than ever.”
Gary also emphasizes the importance of theater and engagement in retailing. “I used to love to go to the grand Louis Boston store on Newbury Street, but that era has passed. Now it’s more about a customer being able to walk into a store and be engaged for his entire lifestyle. Todd Snyder is a great example. They address a whole host of things in the store, so you can spend a whole Saturday morning there. Of course, the longer you’re in the store, the more money you’re likely to spend…”
Gary thinks we all have to be ready to try new things, beyond fashion, to captivate the customer, and for him, “I like the challenge! I like to help my retailers look for the next big thing. We’ve got to capture that 20-something customer, then bring him into his 30s and 40s.”
Based on Gary’s track record and experience, we’ll all be paying attention to how he thinks we might accomplish that.
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.