Founded as a better menswear store in 1974 by the late Morris “Sonny” Penner, M Penner was probably the first specialty shop to bring better and high-end designer and European brands to Houston, Texas. Today the store is still family owned and run by the founder’s son, Murry, and his wife, Karen. He does the men’s buying while she handles the women’s. While their brand assortment is still dominated by sartorial and more traditionally European offerings the couple says sportswear and more casual looks are becoming increasingly more important for them. Here, Karen discusses the store’s evolution, its buying choices and why M Penner still has a solid reputation as a retail gem. Interview by Christopher Blomquist.

Your store is considered one of the best in the state of Texas, if not the country, correct?
We have been listed by Esquire magazine as “Gold Standard,” which is a group of maybe 30 specialty stores around the country so we have a very good reputation, yes.

In your eyes, what is it about the store that makes it so special?
It’s a family-owned business and we treat our customers like they are our friends. We moved the store five years ago and built a new store. We built it with the concept that this is our home and we are inviting people to our home. So everything here is comfortable. Just like we would for our friends we will do anything for our customers. We’ll open for them, we’ll deliver things for them, we’ll go out and measure them. This summer a good customer in Louisiana needed something and we had somebody drive to Louisiana and deliver it for him because he needed it that day. We’ll pretty much do whatever it takes to make our customers happy. We want them to be happy.

How do you pick the brands that you stock?
We search out the best product that we can with a lot of consideration for our city, our climate and our clientele, which really differentiates a store like ours from department stores. We’re not getting the Nordstrom look, the Neiman Marcus look or even the Ermenegildo Zegna look. We’re getting M Penner’s take on what we feel and like from the best of the best.

What else sets the store apart?
M Penner exterior
M Penner exterior
I bake brownies every Saturday morning here at the store. When we built the store we built a kitchen because we have a family-generation recipe and I make brownies every Saturday. We moved into a really great center that has an Italian feel and the shops here are mostly locally owned by Houston merchants. In many shopping centers and malls you go into these days there are just chain stores that just drop their formula into the mall. That’s something that is very special and unique about the lifestyle center that we are in. We also have an onsite tailor shop with three full-time tailors. We do everything: all typical tailoring. And we are one of the few specialty stores that has a buttonhole machine so that when you buy a suit for example, it actually has working buttonholes.

You buy for the women’s section. What do you look for there?
Our women’s area is very different than most women’s boutiques. For a very small amount of space we carry a number of brands. Our store in general is very European in its focus. On our women’s side we have a lot of that as opposed to other types of merchandise. When something is really popular we don’t tend to have it here. Our customers say they love to shop here because they don’t see themselves coming and going. It’s very unique with different types of things and focused on fabrics and the way it’s made. It’s really important for us for the quality and the value to be there. Our customers generally are not afraid of price but they want to get value for it.

How does the women’s business compare to your men’s business?
We just went into the women’s business about five years ago when we moved to this location. Now women’s is about 15% of our business. The biggest change is that sportswear on the men’s side is increasing every month. That’s where the real growth is. But our women’s business is more on the casual side. Men’s clothing and suits still is a very important part of our business. In women’s we have basically a suit that we carry all of the time and then we bring in a seasonal suit. So the suiting business in the women’s side really is not important.

You are also adding more accessories, though, right?
We are doing a big expansion of our accessories business in women’s. We’re bringing in handbags and jewelry. For women’s handbags we do a lot of business with a company called George Gina and Lucy, which is fun and not too pricy and we just brought in some of their gym bags for the men. And there’s a French company called Jamin Puech that has really amazing bags. We also sell a lot of socks. We sell socks from Paul Smith that are just so fun and a sock company called Per Pedes and the third player is a company called V.K. Nagrani.

What are some of the store’s bestselling casual or denim brands?
On the designer side we do things like Etro, Paul Smith and Luciano Barbera, which is sportswear but it is very sartorial. We also have a very strong Zegna sportswear business. We do very well with John Varvatos. Denim we do from Citizens and Agave and AG and on the women’s side, a brand called Yoga Jeans. It’s a fantastic jean that fits and wears a lot better than some of the other brands. It’s actually called Second Denim but people know them as Yoga. Not because you do yoga in them but because when they test them to make sure they don’t gap in the wrong places they have the fit models stand in yoga positions.

What were some of your favorite finds at the trade shows in Las Vegas last week?
We’re bringing in a brand called Borgo and we’re going to put in a very casual—and this is even a break for us— polo shirt company called Southern Tide. It is fun and they sent us a sample that went to my middle son who is in his twenties and works in the business with us and he said, “This is by far the best polo shirt I have ever worn.” He wears it once a week and every time he washes it, it is the first thing he puts on. We are also bringing in [the new swimsuit line] T Christopher.

Has M Penner launched any social media initiatives?
We have a very active Facebook page. We introduce new product on it and do our “Mannequin Mondays” [shots of a mannequin wearing a new outfit every Monday] and we send out an e-mail about once a week. We have a pretty strong e-mail customer base. We also produce our own magazine twice a year.

What about special events?
In our industry in-store events are becoming more and more important as ways to bring customers into the store.  We’ve done scotch tastings and wine tastings and we are getting ready to do a big charity event in October. Twice a year on our women’s side we do a Sunday brunch for the ladies where we introduce the new season.

What is your biggest challenge today as specialty-store owners?
The specialty retail business is a wonderful business. Every day is a new experience; it’s impossible to be bored. One day we may get 20 or 30 boxes filled with the most beautiful, luxurious clothes in the world.  Another day, the mayor will stop in for a new suit and get wrapped up in conversation in the fitting room with one of Houston’s high profile attorneys or maybe the head of a major oil company, followed by a day preparing for a season brunch and fashion show in the store for 40 or 50 customers.  We get to work with the most interesting, most successful people around and it’s a blast. We also get to work alongside fun, energetic, talented people. The challenge? Getting young people to understand the great opportunities in this industry.