by Karen Alberg Grossman

“Study the past if you would define the future.” — Confucius

 It was a spontaneous thought that entered my head recently when Peter Schwadel, over a lunch at Arno’s, mentioned a group of retired men’s clothing execs who meet socially every few months. This group (called The Primola Club, named for a favorite Upper East Side Italian restaurant where they often dine) now includes Norman Fryman (whose impressive resume is too long to list), Bernie Feinberg from Tiger Button, Chuck Krieger (Augustus), Frank Wolf (Wearwolf Clothing), Jim Ammeen (Neema Clothing) and Peter Schwadel (Sansabelt; consultant to Samsung). I asked if I could possibly join a gathering, to learn how tailored clothing’s past impacts current (and future) suit business.

Photo, above: Hanging with the Primola guys—Karen (center) with Bernie Feinberg, Norman Fryman, Chuck Krieger and Peter Schwadel. Not in photo: Frank Wolf, Jim Ammeen.

What I learned: The 1960s/70s was an era of domestic factories controlled by the unions. As Chuck puts it, “We spent a lot of time together in union negotiations, often stuck in a hotel all night long… We realized we had to stick together to negotiate contracts. We were competitors who grew to be good friends; to this day, we help each other out.” In fact, Norman lists “negotiating with the union to permit a percentage of off-shore sourcing” as one of his greatest professional challenges.

Apparently, back in the day, any company that had a contract with Amalgamated was forbidden to import; you were held personally libel if you did. As Peter relates, “My family had a domestic manufacturing business making suits in NYC. I worked there for 4- 5 years learning the business but ultimately, doubting that domestic manufacturing would survive, I started importing from Korea. Of course, the union tried to stop me in a major way. I was 24 years old and had to hire bodyguards for more than a year. MAGIC (a California-based corporation at the time) wouldn’t let me show there, so I sued them. These were turbulent times…”

Frank Wolf was right there with him re: imports. “A delegation from Poland walked into our office one day and showed us some nice product. The goods came in looking great, JCPenney bought the entire container, and we had a great run for more than 30 years. Then Poland became part of the EU and adopted EU pricing, so we turned to Vietnam, with (we learned too late) a less than scrupulous agent. These factories lacked the quality and integrity we’d had in Poland; we soon learned that success in clothing is not about being the cheapest.”

Chuck took over his family’s clothing business in 1982. (Augustus was founded in 1887: the factory was built in Manhattan in the late 1950s, Chuck moved it to Brooklyn in the 1980s). “I had studied patternmaking and engineering at FIT and was so proud to run a state-of-the-art, computerized factory in Brooklyn. We sold to every better department store, to other designers and manufacturers, and to celebrities. Then along came NAFTA, giving a big tax advantage (no duty on wool) to Canada; it was signed in 1992 and was the beginning of the end for U.S. manufacturing. Then the doors opened in China and it was all about price.” (Editor’s note: Consider the added onslaught of online sales, Big Box stores, retailer chargebacks and return privileges, and it’s clear what domestic makers were up against…)

Bernie opened Tiger Buttons with his brother in 1968, offering all types of fashion buttons to large and small clothing manufacturers across the country. After a 40+ year run, he turned the business over to his two sons, Michael and Adam, in 2010. “It’s a different world today so I refrain from giving them advice,” he confides. “On their own, they’ve become pretty good street fighters…”

Norman started out as a salesman at After Six formals, rising to SVP Marketing. He then became president of YSL Mens (division of Bidermann), then Genesco as president (soon CEO) of Greif, maker of suits for Ralph, Perry Ellis, Lanvin, and others. In 1993, he rejoined Bidermann as EVP/Vice Chairman. Other prestigious positions followed, as did numerous industry boards, associations, honors and awards. But even with all the accolades, Norman is most proud of his teaching and mentoring efforts, which continue to this day. His best advice to those starting out: “Make friends.”

More advice from these seasoned industry veterans: Establish relationships that mean something. Treat people the way you want to be treated, regardless of how they treat you. Price alone is not the answer: someone will always make it for less. Nothing lasts forever. Watch your inventory. Be more aggressive in sales and marketing. Talk to your customers: adjust your mix to what customers want. Create something unique. Be realistic: stay on top of trends and watch your overhead. And remember, whether it’s tailored suits or casual field jackets, men will always need clothes. (Thank you, Fred Pressman.)

So how likely is it these days to elevate office dress codes and get guys back in suits? Frank sums up the consensus: “Not likely. First, we’ve got to get them back into the office…”