Like most things in life, timing is everything. And no one seems to know this better than Trey Gonzales and Kip Helverson, the new co-owners of Smith’s Men’s Store in Lake Forest.
“The Chamber [of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff] announced that we were reopening Smith’s Men’s Store just as stories were circulating about other businesses in town closing,” Gonzales says. “I think our news gave people hope that local retail is viable.”
Gonzales and Helverson have always loved Lake Forest and decided to relocate from the city in 2017. “The feel of Lake Forest is much more pastoral than some other communities,” Helverson says. “It’s almost resort-like where parts of it seem rural with all of its land and natural beauty.”
Just as the pair was settling into life in the Stanley Anderson home they purchased, a friend—knowing the duo was interested in taking on an entrepreneurial project—suggested they take a look at a listing about Smith’s Men’s Store being for sale—a historic business opened originally in Lake Forest’s Market Square in 1937.
“Trey and I are tapped into a number of local Facebook pages and saw how much the community wanted Smith’s to continue,” Helverson explains. “We talked about whether running Smith’s was something we could do and we decided it was.”
As Gonzales and Helverson were in discussions to purchase the store with John Tadel, who had owned Smith’s since 1987, Tadel posted “store closing” signs in the windows.
“Our plan was to keep the store open as we transitioned in,” says Gonzales. “But it was John who encouraged us to close it temporarily, just as he had done after Brooks Smith closed the store briefly in 1987.”
Once the sale was final, Gonzales and Helverson got to work, beginning with a total restoration of the store itself. “Our design inspiration for the space was a classic navy-blue blazer and khakis,” says Gonzales, who left his job managing a custom-lighting showroom at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago to oversee Smith’s. (Helverson, who is a regular contributor to the store, continues to work full-time in software technology.) “We wanted the store to feel fresh but familiar. We’ve hung pictures around our space as reminders of the store’s rich history and we’ve kept John close to us as an advisor. He’s been an amazing mentor, sharing his vendors and introducing us to his long-standing clients. We’ve learned so much from him operationally.”
Gonzales and Helverson, who were attracted to Lake Forest because of the importance the city places on historic preservation, also made the deliberate decision not to rename the store. “We moved to Lake Forest because we were attracted to it. We didn’t move here to change it,” Helverson adds. “When a customer buys something at Smith’s, it means something special because it came from ‘Smith’s Men’s Store.’ It means something to Lake Forest and Lake Bluff.”
Smith’s continues to offer brands customers have come to expect, while introducing new men’s accessories, gift items, and apothecary products. Featured brands include Vineyard Vines, Barbour, Southern Tide, johnnie-O, Peter Millar, as well as a line of denim and workout wear designed specifically for men. The store will also continue to offer formal-wear rentals and a plentiful supply of black bow ties for special events.
“Most of our fashion inspiration comes from classic movies,” explains Gonzales. “My years in the interior design industry have trained my eye to appreciate texture, color, fit, and quality. The biggest compliment we can get is when customers tell us the store has a Lake Forest style. That’s what we want to promote.
“We want every customer to feel like we have been waiting all day for them to walk through our doors,” he adds. “It’s all the little things that we do—our service—that will set us apart from shopping on the internet.”
Gonzales has timed regular merchandise deliveries to the store with the hope that customers will find something new every time they visit. “I never knew I could love working in retail as much as I have loved working here,” he says, pointing out that an exclusive Lake Forest Vineyard Vines tee shirt made especially for Smith’s sold out in the first three weeks the store was open. “I love projects and this store is a never-ending project. It’s creative and service oriented. I really feel like I’m in my element.”
Located in its longtime storefront on Western Avenue in downtown Lake Forest, Smith’s offers customers many reasons to shop in town rather than online. They offer custom suiting and special ordering with a quick turnaround time when an item is not in stock. “We hope these changes will help us deliver a good experience for the community and continue to promote Lake Forest as a destination,” Gonzales says. Additionally, they plan to host events benefitting local nonprofit organizations.
Gonzales and Helverson are members of the Church of the Holy Spirit and Gonzales is on the Lake Forest Preservation Foundation board of directors and Gorton Community Center’s Arts & Culture Council. “We’re so grateful to the community for welcoming us so warmly,” Helverson says. “When a customer comes in, we always thank them for visiting the store, but we have been so surprised at how many people have stopped by to thank us for keeping Smith’s open. We feel fortunate to have this opportunity to preserve this part of Lake Forest’s legacy.”
Smith’s is located at 770 North Western Avenue, Lake Forest, 847-234-5866, smithsmensstore.com.