Many well-known figures have walked through Paul Stuart’s Madison Avenue flagship store doors but fifty years ago, a young man stepped in to enquire not about his wardrobe, but after a job… and he’s been there ever since!
Now, after five decades of service at the store, Paul Stuart is acknowledging Ravi Khanna’s contributions to the retailer. Admired for his sharp wit, energy, and class, Khanna recently sat down to talk about his career.
We’ve always been a family. “The shop holds so many memories, and it’s forever changing. Even where I’m standing now, I remember it stocked with entirely different types of garments fifty years ago.”
I’m always late. “Even on my first day at Paul Stuart, I showed up late. I began working here almost by accident, after walking past the store one cold day from a nearby coffee shop. It wasn’t long after I moved to New York. I thought, ‘why not?’ and stepped inside, and there I met Mr. Ralph Ostrove, who kindly invited me for an interview. I started the following Monday and have never looked back since.”
Work was different in those days. “There was more of a party, easy atmosphere. People used to smoke in the store back then, and sometimes bring cigars with them. And around 1 o’clock, customers would step inside after their martini lunches. It wasn’t strange if one of your customers had a couple of drinks – but somehow, no one was ever drunk…”
There was a man here whose job was to have no job. “I’ll never forget it. One day, I noticed a tall, very handsome man who was supposed to be working on the shop floor, but whenever you spoke to him he would get annoyed. I asked Mr. Aiken, “why does he spend the day doing nothing?” and Alfred replied that his job was to do nothing, except to embody the image of Paul Stuart for our customers. Presentation matters. It was funny, but also quite smart.”
We did the best alterations in New York. “For Americans in those days, visiting the Paul Stuart store used to be a family experience; a special occasion. We had a reputation for the best alterations in the city. Grandparents would come in to spoil their grandchildren, and wives would join their husbands in picking out new clothes. At the time, the salesman didn’t want the wife to go to the fitting room. It made no sense to me – usually, they decide what the man will want: they know him better than anyone. So, I became the first salesperson to encourage the wife to join her husband.”
Men would pick between three colors. “When I first began here, men would only shop the neutral tones, plus a blue or grey suit as an extra. People forget: winters were more severe in those days, so we would sell three-piece suits made using thicker fabrics, which then became two-piece in light Italian wools once buildings were equipped with proper heating. The style changes because the city changes. Today, what we offer is so much more diverse.”
Around fifteen years ago, the city went casual. “It was when Casual Fridays were introduced in the city firms, and I cannot tell you how popular our sports jackets became! Over these fifty years at Paul Stuart, I’ve helped customers discover what works for them, and I’ve seen all kinds of styles come and go. Ralph [Auriemma] is the one bringing us into the new era. He’s made the best shoulder I’ve ever seen on a jacket, no question.”
I have suggestions, not advice. “Sometimes people take advice badly. But if I had to give a suggestion to someone starting, it would be: know your stock, know your hardware, and if in doubt, always double-check. Salespeople should have confidence in what they sell, and always make the customer feel relaxed. A lot of people keep notes, but this stuff is all in my head – it’s common sense.”
Customers would write me plenty of letters. “One of them was a very popular writer. Like so many of the people who came into Paul Stuart, we shared many nice memories together. He had a special relationship with his father, a hardworking Pittsburgh man who passed away before his son found success. I remember David saying, “Ravi, I wish my father could see me now.” After his book was released, he came in and I immediately put a cashmere jacket on him as a joke. He laughed and then looked confused. “Here,” I said, “now you can afford it!”
Remember Paul Newman? “When I first started, I didn’t know who he was. So one day, he came into the store and I gave him the same respect – and spoke with him the same way – I would any other customer. It was only after he left that Ralph Ostrove, the owner of the store told me who he was. I thought I was going to lose my job, but Ralph was very forgiving! Frank Sinatra used to come in too. All those guys did. I still remember Paul Newman’s measurements: 39R.”
It feels like I started only yesterday. “People ask me how I do it, but it never felt like work to me; I’ve had so much fun. I love this business and still don’t want to give up. I feel like I’ve been a part of making Paul Stuart what it is, and every morning I get up excited for the new day. ‘Man is a student up to his deathbed, and the day he knows everything is when he dies’ – I really like that phrase. Even after fifty years, I learn something new each day.”