Even if giant machines weren’t busy sending dust everywhere, Wille Carswell would still be the brightest thing on H Street NE.
Radiant in a royal blue three-piece suit set off by blue and white Oxfords—plus a white pinch-front hat, which pulls the outfit together—Carswell stands on a nearly deserted stretch of sidewalk on a summer Saturday afternoon, in front of the Men’s Fashion Center, the shop he manages near 9th and H streets NE. Eventually, an acquaintance passes, and the two men catch up for a little while. Carswell has time to chat. Today, Father’s Day, is traditionally one of the store’s big days, but sales have been down for the past two or three years. Employees say business is the worst they’ve ever seen it.
Which means that the store’s interior seems even more like a historical museum of American fashion—or at least a certain part of it, the regalia of African-American men who, as Carswell puts it, “like to dress.”
Located on one of the few fully occupied blocks of the fast-changing thoroughfare, the Men’s Fashion Center has wood paneling and an old-school hammered tin ceiling. There’s a row of chairs where someone is usually shooting the breeze with the employees. Toward the back is a sewing station for alterations.
In between are the clothes: rack after rack of summer suits in white, purple, turquoise, peach, and lime; silky, short-sleeved patterned shirts from $8-$30; dress shirts with matching ties for $18; and a wide variety of hats, including panamas, derbies, stingy brims, and “go to hell” hats.
The shoes, some by designer Stacy Adams and selling for $50-100 in a rack up front, look more like an art exhibition than a sales display. Each pair is different: one is turquoise and white with a snakeskin pattern; another is red and black with pointy toes; still another comes in orange with a crocodile texture and square toes.
It’s not that there are no customers left. On cue, a man in sweats walks in, greeting Davidson with a fist bump. He’s L. Jamison (he declined to give his first name), a 3rd Street NE resident who’s been shopping at the store since 1986. Twenty-two years ago, Jamison bought his entire wedding ensemble at the store, and he’s still a clothes horse. “You want to be different,” he says, explaining why dressing well is important to him. “Your look means something—that’s a first impression, head to toe.”
Jamison wanders to the back to see how the alterations on a new suit are coming along as Daniel Pernell walks in. Pernell, a former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the area, has been shopping at the Men’s Fashion Center since the late ’70s. He claims to own 350 walking suits (the matching shirt-and-pants outfits that look a little like pajamas) as well as 1,000 pairs of shoes and six zoot suits—all from the store.
As he settles into a chair and prepares for a discussion on politics and life, Pernell considers the store’s existence for a moment. “If this wasn’t here, I’d be very depressed,” he says. Maybe he’d shop at K&G, the chain store with outlets in Virginia and Maryland, or maybe at Harold Pener, another chain store.
Once upon a time, selling to men like Jamison and Pernell was good business. Carswell, who just celebrated his 44th anniversary at the store, was taught the trade by the store’s owner, Murray Goldkind, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, who bought the building and opened the store in 1952. He hired Carswell and Steven Davidson, who remain the public face of the enterprise, even as ownership was handed to Goldkind’s son, Jerry. (Carswell now has a minority ownership share.)
“Before 1968, you could get anything you wanted on H Street,” says the younger Goldkind. “There was every kind of store you could imagine—shoes, appliance stores, Chuck Levin’s music store. Business traffic was really good.”
After the 1968 riots, the store stuck it out. The decade that followed, in fact, was something of a golden age. The front wall is a shrine to its clientele over the years: there’s a picture of Chuck Brown, the godfather of go-go, who used to buy his hats there; one of gospel singer Ranch Allen; and a ton of various local gospel groups wearing suits—pink striped, purple patterned, dark blue—that they special ordered at the store. “They’re all family,” Davidson says.
Those golden years ended some time ago. “I’m discouraged,” says Goldkind, who doesn’t want to think about what another year like this one would mean for the business.
It’s about the same story a block east, at Stan’s. “Business is doing significantly worse than in 2000,” says owner Leon Robbins. Robbins’ store aims at customers a bit lower on the economic ladder. Many of the clothes for sale—walking suits, silky patterned shirts, linen suits, a variety of hats, even Stacy Adams shoes—look like the ones Carswell sells, except they’re distinctly cheaper. All of the pants in the store, be they work pants, jeans, or slacks, are $20; shirts cost $15; and shoes are $29 or $39.
Robbins, a 51-year-old Jewish man who lives in Takoma Park, is also a second-generation owner. Stan, his father, started the business in 1947; after his store near 7th and M streets NW was torched in the 1968 riots, he moved to Chinatown. That’s when Leon came on the scene. In 1988, as Chinatown began to experience the first tiny bumps of new development, Robbins’ landlord of 21 years sold the building and gave him six months to find a new place. He’s been on H Street ever since.
Some of the culprits for the slow sales lately are obvious: The economy stinks. Streetcar construction has clogged on-street parking and made it tougher for customers to drive to the store. And the District—especially this stretch of H Street—is undergoing demographic changes that bite into the store in both predictable ways (the neighborhood is getting whiter) and less predictable ones (the African-American population has grown wealthier, according to census data).
“Customers are richer than before,” Robbins says. “My customers used to only own the shirt on their backs, that’s why they had to look so good.”
But where fashion is concerned, the laws of supply and demand, of customer base and retail positioning, also get mixed up with less tangible aspects of cultural change. In H Street’s surviving men’s stores, there’s also an unspoken question of whether the target audience—“the mature, church-going man,” as Goldkind puts it—is still around.
For a younger generation, fashion rules and expectations are different in ways that aren’t quite so explicitly connected to the size of one’s wallet—not to mention the color of one’s skin. Society is mixing, blurring the lines between different races’ styles, argues Robbins. And everyone’s dressing down.
“There’s no more black and white,” Robbins says. “We used to have community meetings here, and you’d have white people on one side, black on the other, no one mixing. But now, you can’t tell what side anyone’s on. Black culture is changing. I don’t think anyone is going to want these ‘urban’ styles in the future,” he adds, pointing to the young guys passing on the street, virtually all of whom are bare-headed and wearing jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers.
There’s not a fedora among them.
Even the street’s old timers admit styles have changed. “We used to dress up all the time—we wouldn’t just wear khakis and tennis shoes. I used to stay in the stores, looking at clothes, and I’d buy pants every week,” says Albert Hillman, owner of Hillman Barbershop and one of the corridor’s noted fashion figures. “But people don’t dress up like they used to; being around the young people makes you change your dress code. I dress a little more down now.”
Across the street from Stan’s, the Downtown Locker Room store markets mostly to young black men. But the clothes on the store’s racks are virtually indistinguishable from those on any guy wandering around Dupont Circle: cargo shorts, T-shirts, hoodies, hiking boots.
Which leaves the boutiques of H Street in a somewhat odd position as the thoroughfare’s streetcar-abetted reinvention approaches.
If neighborhood planners have their way, the new clubs and bars to the east will gradually lead to increased retail—the boutique variety, they hope—on the corridor’s central blocks. The H Street Connection, a low-rise shopping center between 8th and 10th streets, is slated to become a shiny eight-floor condo-slash-retail-and-restaurant complex sometime in the next few years. And of course, there’s the streetcar line that will connect Benning Road and H Street NE with Union Station, potentially making it a mixing ground for a wide variety of District residents.
“All of those blocks are going to do well,” says Bruce Baschuk, chairman of the J Street Companies, a commercial real estate firm that works in the area, of H Street’s middle section. “It’s just a function of getting people in there.”
But will these people, the ones who catch the streetcar at Union Station as well as the ones who get on in Deanwood, care to shell out for the walking suits that constitute Pernell’s classic look? Carswell says they’ll support a business, so long as the merchants get with the times. “It’s becoming something, shaping up,” he says of H Street. “It may not be what we wanted, but at least there’s people. Everybody’s got plastic in their pocket or a green dollar bill, and I want some of that. We just got to step it up a little bit.”
Robbins, though, doesn’t see himself as part of the mix if ever H Street starts drawing the likes of Banana Republic. Maybe the other clothing store owners will be able to transform their businesses and survive, but that’s not his plan. “If H Street does as well as I see it, I’ll be out in 10 years or less,” he says. “We’ll make less and less money each year, the taxes will go up, and eventually the deal [to sell] will be too good to turn down.”
It’s not such a bad thing, he insists: The downside for him and others on the street is an upside for the corridor, whose redevelopment has been a long, long time coming.
“I’m a dinosaur, all my neighbors are dinosaurs,” says Robbins. “This is becoming a really rich city. We’ve got to go.”