Sometimes, an entrepreneurial spirit tends to run in the familyâ€”just ask Henry-Lee and Company President Rob Mann. And while he may be cut from the same visionary cloth as his grandfather, Mann is crafting his own narrative courtesy of a new fabric: denim.
â€śThe consistent thread,â€ť says Mann, â€śwas the importance of really great fabrications.â€ť
Heâ€™s reflecting on Henry-Lee and Company, the dressmaker that his late grandfather, Henry Mann, founded 60 years ago, but itâ€™s a statement that holds equal merit under Mannâ€™s leadership.
It wasnâ€™t until 1990 when Mannâ€”who spent summers in high school and college working at Henry-Lee and Companyâ€”heard the siren call of his familyâ€™s business, joining his father, mother, and sister before him. â€śI wanted to modernize our business approach,â€ť says Mann, propping his feet against the desk in his West Loop office. Always interested in marketing (in a former life, he worked at Macyâ€™s management training in Atlanta and wrote radio ads in Indianapolis), he found success at Henry-Lee and Company by selling to specialty stores.
But by the late â€™90s, the business was beginning to fall prey to changing times. â€śWe were great at making something that not a lot of people wanted anymore,â€ť Mann says with a smile, referring to the companyâ€™s offering of dresses and suits. He helped Henry-Lee and Company launch a sportswear brand, 600 West (named in homage to the companyâ€™s former location at 600 West Van Buren Street), which he sold in 2008. Still eager to grow Henry-Lee and Company during the recession, he began helping premium denim lines with their production. â€śI couldnâ€™t understand,â€ť Mann says, â€śwhy they were charging so much for what it actually costâ€”the fabric wasnâ€™t good, the fit was terribleâ€”and yet they were selling it because they had really good branding.â€ť
Seeing an opportunity, Mann launched a denim label in 2010. â€śOur model was jeans you were going to wear: with good stretch, but really good recovery,â€ť he says. â€śItâ€™s about good holding of the shape, and feeling very comfortable. Thatâ€™s something that we donâ€™t joke around with.â€ť Branding, too, was of utmost importance. â€śWe were competing against L.A. brands that started up out of nowhere and had no background in the clothing business,â€ť Mann says of the label, which he named Henry & Belle in honor of his grandparents, â€śand we wanted to [compare] that with a heritage company that had been around a long time.â€ť Often comprised of a rich blend of cotton, polyester, rayon, and spandex, the moves-with-you denim has become a favorite of celebrities like Eva Longoria, Hilary Duff, Olivia Palermo, and Anne Hathaway as itâ€™s amassed a loyal following. Henry & Belle has proven particularly successful through online subscription-based retailer Stitch Fix, where Henry-Lee and Company sells additional lines like Lila Ryan and Lakeview Denim, and the forthcoming menswear label Henry & Sons.
Subscription-based services and online sales will continue to be a major company-wide initiative thanks to Inter-Brands, the joint-venture partnership Henry-Lee and Company launched earlier this year with LA-based production company B&Y Global Logistics. In short, Mann and team will continue to devote themselves to the hallmark of the company. â€śItâ€™s critical to have great fit,â€ť says Mann, whoâ€”like his grandfather before himâ€”holds meetings at least once a week to view garments on a model. â€śThat was baked into our DNA.â€ť
Mann lives in Highland Park, where he was born and raised. â€śIâ€™m happy that I have both worldsâ€”the excitement of the city, but the serenity of the North Shore,â€ť he observes. From a business standpoint, he considers the Midwest ideal, â€śbut thereâ€™s a sophistication to the North Shore that takes it up a level so you get a sense of, in real-time, whatâ€™s important on the coasts.â€ť Of course, the North Shore is simply home. â€śItâ€™s a wonderful place to have been raised and to raise a family.â€ť
A father of three, Mann notes that his children were able to establish a relationship with their great-grandfather before he passed in December 2001. â€śI was fortunate, and my children were fortunate, to get to know him,â€ť Mann says of Henry. â€śPart of why I wanted to come into the business after being in radio was, honestly, I just loved being around him,â€ť he says. â€śHe was larger than life.â€ť
He glides across his office, retrieving a piece of paper from his filing cabinet, which he unfolds. â€śHenry Mannâ€ť is printed across the top, with a message scribbled below in all caps: â€śThe greatest risk is not taking one.â€ť Mann looks at the note, written by his grandfather. â€śI remember having a conversation with him in 2000, not long before he stopped coming in, and I was talking about all the different things we were trying to do to keep the business moving forward,â€ť he says, smiling. â€śI think he really respected my willingness to take risks.â€ť