Last Friday night, March 2, Rothmans, an independently owned menswear boutique in New York that dates back to 1926, unveiled its new two-level Manhattan location at 18th Street and Park Avenue South, just one block north of where it formerly stood for nearly a quarter of a century. Considered a retail institution on Union Square, the store was founded by Harry Rothman from a Lower East Side pushcart and enjoyed a nearly 60-year run as an apparel discounter until his death in 1985. In 1986 his grandson, Ken Giddon, reopened his grandfather’s recently shuttered business in a 650sqm space on Union Square North. Ken’s brother Jim came aboard as co-owner soon thereafter. Over time, the shop changed from discounter to a full-price operation and developed a reputation as one of the best suit suppliers in the city. Today, suiting still accounts for the majority of sales but sportswear and casualwear from the likes of John Varvatos, Joe’s Jeans, Ted Baker, Hugo Boss and Converse are also in the mix. Minutes before the start of the big launch party, Ken Giddon discussed Rothmans’ evolution, why it moved up the street and what he hopes to achieve with its swanky new 1,022sqm digs. Interview by Christopher Blomquist

Tell us about the new store.
This was an industrial space. It dates back to 1910. If you look up front there are a couple of medallions from something called Exchange Buffet. It was a buffet that originally started on Wall Street and I just found out it was men only. You would walk in, eat and then tell them how much you ate. The logo you’ll see is EB - and it became known as “Eat ’em and Beat ’em.” It was the buffet and then it was a camera store. All of the windows were closed up. There was literally bricked up windows for 40 or 50 years. But we knew that the base of this was a cool industrial space so our thinking was back to that and my grandfather’s store. Everyone does heritage but we have heritage. This is a family business that goes back to 1926 and we wanted to convey that in the store.

New interior and light: "We hired guys with great taste and a great eye."
New interior and light: "We hired guys with great taste and a great eye."

How did you achieve that?
We did a lot of stuff with old and reclaimed materials. One of the tables on the sales floor is the old fire door from here that we put on a base that we found over on 14th Street. So there is a lot of industrial basis here and we went out and found artisans in Brooklyn—three different groups of them—to make fixtures for us. I think one of the reasons that we are still in business is that I am a business guy who is in fashion rather than a fashion guy who is in business and I know what my shortcomings are. That’s not my strength, finding that stuff. I think I’m a pretty good clothing buyer and we’ve been doing that for a while but I found some really great people and put together what I call The Dream Team.

How long did the process take?
Nine months from the day of the lease signing to the time we got here, which is pretty incredible. We hired great guys. We hired retail architects Lalire March. That was a really good move. I interviewed a lot of architects and I learned quickly that retail architects are the way to go. Then in addition to those guys we hired a guy named Brian Ware who has worked on things like the Nick Wooster area at Project [trade show]. We hired guys with great taste and a great eye.

What is the history of Rothmans and why did you decide to move now?
We are like an undervalued asset in a sense in that we always have had a pretty good selection of clothing. We carry all the brands we want to carry and if you look around the store you’ll see that the brands that are the mainstream brands here are all good. We add two or three lines each year but we are ahead of the curve when we need to be. We are a better sportswear and clothing store than I think the market understands because frankly we weren’t great merchandisers. We were in a space that was 25 years old and we needed an update. The economics was that we had five years left on that corner on Union Square. That is not a corner where independent stores belong anymore; that is going to be a national chain. It’s one of the best corners in the city. We signed a lease 25 years ago. It was time to go; we had five years left and this was our opportunity. We got some money to leave and that money paid to come here. It was a case of “Go bigger or go home.” So we built a bigger store.

How much bigger is this space?
We went from 7,000 to 11,000 square feet (650-1,022sqm). It’s big. It’s probably one of the biggest independent men’s stores to be built in New York since… well, we can’t think of one in the last 25 years.

Rothmans' new store exterior: "Even the change from the outside is amazing!"
Rothmans' new store exterior: "Even the change from the outside is amazing!"
Are you looking to attract a new customer with the new space?

Just in watching today it’s amazing the difference because you get so set in your ways. Even the change from the outside is amazing, and we are doing it the right way. It’s like finally we are displaying stuff and communicating well about what we’ve been selling all along. And then we’ve added some things like we are business partners with the Duckie Brown guys on [the capsule collection] Mr. Brown by Duckie Brown. Duckie Brown is a phenomenal line but it is definitely a higher-end, very high-end, audience. So in talking to Daniel [Silver] and Steven [Cox] we said, “Maybe there’s a way to get a more accessible price point for you guys.” We’re a pretty big company so we have sourcing ability and we know where to go for things. So we put together a good group of suppliers and we’re just thrilled with it.

Have you added more casual- and sportswear to the new location?
We’ve had it; we’ve just never displayed it well. We just added Will Leather Goods bags. We’re doing Converse and we’ve added more shoes. We added Rosasen, which is a hip golf line. Scotch & Soda we’ve loved so we’re going to continue to push that. Our mainstays are still Hugo Boss, Canali and Zegna but you need some of the excitement to go with the mainstays.

What is the breakdown of dressier product versus more casual items?
One of the cool things about the store is that when you walk in there are three levels of suits. We make a statement: We are in the suit business. We always have been in the suit business, we believe in suits and we think that’s where it’s going and we think we’re really good at it. We think that if a man in New York wants to buy a suit that this is the place that he should come. We have reasonable prices, a great selection and we can fit a traditional guy from a Hickey Freeman guy to a Mr. Brown guy. As far as our sales, it is 65% tailored clothing, which is unusual.

"We make a statement: We are in the suit business."
"We make a statement: We are in the suit business."

What are your younger, hipper customers looking for today?
My theory on the way men dress these days is that all these guys who are 25 saw their dads switch from suits to crumpled khakis and blue button-down shirts and I think that turns them off now. So dressing up is cool. You see it on so many levels. The influencers are dressing up.

Where do you find new brands and merchandise?
We are known as the people that are just all over the trade shows. I am the guy who goes to Vegas and literally walks for four days.

What is the biggest challenge of being an independent retailer today, especially in New York City?
You are competing with every one of your suppliers that has a store. But we think that we can do a better job of editing it. If you walk into somebody’s store you have all their stuff. I think in most cases there is 20% good and 80% that maybe you don’t want. Our job is to find the 20% and put it here so that a man’s shopping experience is efficient and rewarding. Guys in New York are all about efficiency. They want to get in and get out!

Rothmans, 222 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003, USA, +1 212 777 7400
Rothmans, 222 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003, USA, +1 212 777 7400