Steve Potter, owner of Hinsdale Clothiers, Ltd., had his eyes and mind firmly set on 50 years in business, but his heart had other ideas.
Steve, who has spent 45 years in the men’s clothing business, underwent heart surgery in April and then suffered a stroke. He spent 52 days in the hospital, coping with post-surgery complications and missing his business all the while. While he hoped to work another five years to reach the 50-year milestone, he recognized it’s time to slow down and close the store he purchased with a business partner in 1989—stepping back from the
full-time, daily demands of owning and operating a specialty men’s clothing business.
That’s why he made the decision to begin selling the entire inventory at his store located at 777 N. York Road in Gateway Square, beginning with a private sale for preferred customers on October 1 and opening up the sale to the general public the following day.
“It’s certainly not what I’d hoped for or expected, but I know that life takes some unexpected turns that you have to be prepared to handle—and this has been one of those turns,” Steve says.
Steve’s career has taken more than a few impressive turns since he graduated from Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. Drawn to Chicago to interview for one job, he found himself being offered employment at renown clothier Henry C. Lytton’s on State Street. He transferred to New York City after three years, returned to Chicago, and then honed his custom-clothing skills at Gaede’s, a Wheaton men’s and women’s clothier. He ultimately purchased Hinsdale Clothiers, Ltd., in 1989 with a business partner who died in 2003.
His specialty throughout his career has been meeting the wardrobe needs of hard-to-fit clients. “People think of ‘hard to fit’ as the big-and-tall men, but it’s much more than that. In order to really look their best, men need to work with someone who takes the time to properly fit suits, jackets, and trousers,” Steve says. “That’s not something the big-box stores have offered or probably ever will because you have to have someone who’s been around a while. Our master tailor has more than 40 years of experience. Over the years, we’ve actually had quite a few referrals from a number of stores in Oak Brook who know we specialize in those things.”
While running his own business, Steve enjoyed the three big elements of owning a successful men’s clothing store—working with clients, standing out from mass-marketing competitors, and leading employees.
“You have to like working with people and I do,” Steve says. “When you work with someone and they see the improvement in their wardrobe, they’re more comfortable and confident. It changes their lives and that’s very rewarding.
“Specialty clothiers face a lot of competition and I’ve enjoyed providing a different product than the mass merchants,” Steve adds. “You also have to like your employees, work with them to be better, and strive to be more. We’ve done that together very well over the years. I’m going to miss all of those things.”
Steve also enjoyed his past involvement with the Hinsdale Chamber of Commerce, Christmas Walk, and Hinsdale Economic Development Committee.
Some challenges, such as the eight sales downturns sparked by recessions and troubling world events in the past 25 years, won’t be missed as much. Neither will other pressures created by big-box stores, internet marketers, discount prices, and today’s dressed-down fashions that began with casual Fridays in the late 1990s.
“As an industry, we made an error in not fighting back,” he says. But, he offers, many clothiers adapted in the 2000s by upgrading their selections to differentiate themselves from larger stores. Those that didn’t, did not survive.
He laments that the retail profession doesn’t offer as many opportunities today for young people as it did in years past.
“One problem is that there aren’t many young people coming into the industry because it’s not perceived as being as prestigious as it once was and it’s difficult to make a living,” he says. “The truth is that it doesn’t pay a lot when you’re starting out, you have to work very hard to build a customer base by being very focused on customer service and satisfaction. It’s difficult to succeed.”
While Steve is closing Hinsdale Clothiers, he hopes to find a new, part-time retail niche as he moves forward.
“I enjoy taking care of customers and I expect I’ll be someplace where I can do that,” Steve says. “I haven’t made any final decisions yet but I will be working somewhere on a one-to two-day basis. We’ve built tremendous customer relationships over the years through a commitment to delivering quality products and service. It’s exciting to know that there are 600 to 800 customers who say they’re ready to return that loyalty and follow me on the next step of my professional journey.”
– Eric Woolson