Cover Story » Vol. 3

Worcester’s Most Established Clothing Retailers

Part of Our Closets, Part of Our History

Volume 3 Cover

Volume 3 Cover

Those of us who have lived and shopped in Worcester County for the majority of our lives have learned to count on a handful of clothing stores and their respective proprietors who have remained constant throughout the years, unwavering in their quality and service. It is these businesses that we remember patronizing as teens, newlyweds, parents ~ and that we still turn to today, thankful for an oasis of personal attention and unique merchandise in a world of internet shopping and impersonal malls. Walk through the welcoming doors of Ike’s Den, Shack’s, Armando’s, Lujon, and James Hogan Designs and not only will you find exceptional clothing and accessories, you’ll also enjoy a “where everybody knows you name” feeling that makes the shopping experience a pleasant, relaxed one. In the following pages, we’ll talk with Eileen, Jeff, Armando, Andre, and James and hear how they first got into retail, how the business has changed over the years, what their fondest memories are, what they foresee for the future, and more. Get to know them and you’ll understand why they inspired us to produce this year’s Vitality Fashion Show that we invite you to attend on April 30 at the Beechwood Hotel.

Eileen Grosse

Eileen Grosse of Ike’s Den
By Christine Walsh

Eileen Grosse, 22, felt a familiar lump form in the back of her throat when she heard the stinging words of the banker sitting across from her.

“You mean to tell me,” he spat out, “that you have no experience in retail, no idea of how to run a business and you want me to approve a $5000 loan so you can open a dress boutique? The answer is no.”

Grosse stood up from her chair, determined to hold back the tears. “You will regret not giving me this loan,” she said quietly. As she walked away, she heard the banker call after her, “Do yourself a favor and get an accountant.”

The year was 1973. Across the nation, gas was being rationed and money was tight. Grosse, a home economics and early childhood education major, had $25 to her name. But she contacted a family friend who walked her through the process of preparing a financial statement, which she then presented to the same banker who had rejected her.

“His teeth nearly fell out of his head,” recalled Grosse, who is now the owner of Ike’s Den. “I walked out of that bank 15 minutes later with that money. And that banker ~ his wife still shops at my store.”

Breaking into retail was very difficult for Grosse. Within the first three years of being in business, she was forced to move three times due to untrustworthy landlords who drastically raised rents or falsely promised her leases. Although she was desperate to stay in the downtown Worcester area, which was a booming market in the 70s, she was met with many hardships. Her second location, for example, was without heat due to an especially unkind landlord.

“By the end of the day, you could see your breath, it got so cold,” recalled Grosse. “How are you going to tell a customer to go try something on when it is so cold?”

Finally, Grosse found her current location on Route 9. There, she works at her dream ~ to seek out beautiful clothes and sell them ~ each day.

“It was really rough,” she said. “But I did something right. I treated people the way I wanted to be treated and I have a great staff.”

Women from all walks of life can go into Ike’s Den and find something that will perfect the ultimate evening out or special occasion. The store specializes in formal wear, with gorgeous dresses and outfits for prom-goers, mothers of the brides and fashionable ladies simply looking to wow. Ike’s Den also has unique sportswear and carries great lines such as “Not Your Daughter’s Jeans,” which were featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

“Everything we carry is unique,” said Grosse. “When you walk down the street, you won’t see yourself coming and going. And everything I wear is from my store. I am my own ad because I have to be.”

Grosse agrees that shopping has changed over the years, largely because of the malls. The little favorite boutique has been neglected, in her opinion.

“Now you have all these people who are just mall shoppers. They don’t remember the little stores. And you have these discount stores too and it’s hard to compete with them,” she said.

There have been times when Grosse has received items from a clothing line only to see the exact same items being sold at a large discount chain a day later. In these situations, she has called the fashion line, complained and had the items taken out of the discount store. But it remains a constant struggle to stay unique in the fashion business.

Despite the changes in the world of retail, Grosse still brings in customers from all over New England and serves longtime clients and their children. Apart from the victory of owning her own store, Grosse is a four time cancer survivor.

“Sometimes I would be trying to run the store, even if I was at home for a year at a time,” she remembers. “But my staff is wonderful.”

Grosse remembers and respects how downtown Worcester once boomed with business and life, but she more than most understands that when life hands you lemons, you make lemonade ~ and this vivacious store owner looks forward to many more years of helping women find the best and most stylish fashion fit.

James Hogan

James Hogan

Designer James Hogan
By Annette Cinelli

James Hogan, an upscale Worcester-based designer, is the owner of and delightful talent behind an elegant boutique on Worcester’s Pleasant Street that offers “…Custom couture collections handcrafted from the finest fabrics.” It is to James that women of discerning taste turn for both couture and ready to wear designs, and over the years he has gained a loyal following as one of the area’s only sources for truly high-end, original clothing.

After graduating from NY’s Fashion Institute of Technology, James’s design career hit the ground running: during his first season, his label was picked up by Barney’s, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue. The tradition of James’ clothing appearing in top stores and exclusive boutiques continued, and his designs have been shown in ~ to name but a few ~ Women’s Wear Daily, W, Vogue, and Town & Country. This local treasure was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to be part of Vitality’s Style issue.

What is your preferred title? Designer? Couturier?

Honestly, I don’t take myself too seriously. Designer is what most people call me.

Were you born in Worcester?

I was, actually. I’ve lived all over the place and came back in 1985.

Have you always been at this location?

I’ve had several locations in Worcester ~ downtown, Chandler Street, and June Street. I’ve been here [on Pleasant Street] for 11 years. I also have a boutique in Georgia I’ve been at for 4 years.

What is the most difficult part of starting out as a designer?

It’s all very difficult! Design is a business you have to do because you really love it. Almost anything is probably easier! You do it because you love it, you love making people feel and look good.

Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?

I love clothing. By the time I was in high school I knew I wanted to be a designer. I went to college to be a designer; it’s what I’ve always wanted to do.

Do you remember the first design you sold?

Yes…It was actually a suede shirt I sold to Henri Bendel in 1979 or 1980 and then Barney’s ended up buying it. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s Bendels was the store.
Which designers were your inspirations when you started out? Which are your favorites now?

I really like John Galliano now. Some of my earlier favorites and inspirations were Claude Montana, Yves Saint-Laurent, and Halston. Alexander McQueen is also great right now.

Do you design and create right at the store?

Yes we do. We have a workroom with our mannequins and assistant and seamstress. We make our patterns and original samples here. Some of the custom clothing we even make right here in Worcester! When we get orders for a lot of a particular design we have in factory in New York; the same factories that produce clothes for other designers like Oscar de la Renta.

Where did you shop in Worcester?

I used to shop at Alan Bilzerian, but now mostly I shop in New York.

Has technology at all changed how you work?

It has really changed mass production but it hasn’t so much changed the way we work; all of our things are made by hand. Our designs are made much more in the European method. Nothing we create is mass produced. Even the materials we sent out to New York are sewn by hand. Even our button holes are made by hand, we don’t do machine button holes, which is unheard is this field! But I’m a perfectionist and I like the way they look when made by hand.

Did you ever entertain the idea of designing menswear, too?

I’ve entertained the idea. I did it in the past for other companies years ago when I lived in New York, sold sketches and did designs freelance. I don’t have any plans to make it part of my permanent collection though.

Has the flood of reality-based design/model shows had any effect on your business?
It hasn’t had a huge effect on the business, though it has made it much more popular. When I was in high school and wanted to be a designer no one could even tell me where to go to school, but now being a designer is a big thing. When I graduated no one else wanted to be a designer. It wasn’t the popular career it’s become. Designers today can be stars. When I started you did it for love, not to be a celebrity.

Is there a particular fashion look that you wish had never happened?

Leisure suits for men! It happened in the ‘70s and was very bad.

How about one that you wish would become popular again?

I would love for the style of 40s glam to come back. It would be great to see people dressing up and wearing beautiful clothes.

Are you aware of any up and coming designers in the area whom you might like to work with/take under your professional wing? And do or did you take on apprentices?

To be honest I don’t know of any young designers in the area. But we have a lot of people who have done internships over the years. We take on interns but we haven’t really had apprentices. They usually come through a school and to be honest I travel more than half the time it’s not that good to have interns because I’m not really there to work with them.

Do you now see the children of your original clients coming in to the boutique?

Surprisingly I do! I’m actually seeing grandkids of my clients as well. I’ve been in the business 24 years. So in some cases we definitely have three generations that come into the boutique.

Is there a difference between fashion and style?

Very much so! Style is something that somebody has. You can have great style and that’s your way of putting together anything. Fashion changes and is continuously new. But when people talk about the best dressed woman of the century, Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy, they are talking about women who had style. Fashion is the newest and hottest thing, it’s not even always good, just new.

Can you describe the look or overall feel of the ‘08 Spring/Summer season in one sentence? And maybe give us a hint about what you have planned for Fall/Winter?

I think clothes look better this Spring/Summer season. They are more feminine and more colorful then they’ve been in a while. We’ve working on our Fall/Winter collection right now and you’ll see some beautifully cut jackets with great detail.

Any one memory that stands out in your career?

I had a woman who was in the end stages of cancer. She had a mastectomy and they had cut something that made her arm hurt so bad that had to have it in a sling. So I built into the foundation of the dress something that would support her arm so she wouldn’t have to wear the sling. It just looked like the dress draped her arm; it didn’t look like a sling at all. She looked amazing and received tons of compliments. It’s great to see the effect a stunning outfit has on people. We make someone’s life a little better for a while and that’s truly a gift.

What about your business brings you the most satisfaction?

Making people look their best, better then they thought they would be able to. We do that by custom-making the clothes so that they fit better. We can make the things they are self-conscious about less obvious and highlight the things they feel best about. We show them off to the best advantage. When people feel good, everything about an occasion or event is better! And that’s the best thing. We make people look better and feel better about themselves. There were times when I thought about not doing this, but I have this gift and have to do it.

Jeffrey Shack

Jeffrey Shack of Shack’s Fine Clothing
By Christine R. Walsh

Jeffrey Shack, owner of Shack’s Fine Clothing, has seen a number of changes in Worcester’s retail market in his thirty plus years as the knowledgeable face behind the Shack’s counter. But he feels that the biggest fashion movement occurred in the early nineties and that it changed his business forever.

“It was Dockers,” Shack, 58, recalled, referring to the popular pants line. “They came out with the idea of Casual Fridays. Suddenly people started dressing more casually and not dressing up.”

Shack paused for a moment before adding with a good natured laugh, “Some of them look like bums, but that is off the subject.”

As a proprietor of fine men’s clothing and a family business man, Shack knows the meaning of quality suits and quality service. He decided on the retail world as a career choice at an early age, partly because of his grandfather who had opened the fine men’s clothing store in 1928. The store did very well in Worcester and eventually opened another location in Fitchburg. The second location provided shoppers with a section for women, along with the excellent men’s and boys’ clothing they had come to love.

After attending American University in Washington, DC, Shack was eager to get into the challenging field of retail, but was held back.

“It was the Vietnam War,” he recalled, “and I was waiting to be drafted. I couldn’t really do anything other than wait so I went home and started helping out at the store.”

Shack was eventually reclassified, but even without the impending draft, he decided that he had found his true calling right here in Worcester. Shack has made it his mission to always be adaptable and to understand the changing needs of his customers.

“You always have to see the changes,” he noted. “Looks change, income levels have changed, people’s demographics have changed. So you have to change too.

“I remember Wednesday and Saturday nights, shopping in Downtown Worcester. It was in the 60s and 70s. It was so crowded and so busy,” Shack reminisced. “Sometimes there were so many people on the sidewalk that you had to walk right out in the street!”

Today, the sidewalks are not that crowded, according to Shack. It has nothing to do with the wonderful clothes ~ he has a great line from Alex Canon that he is very happy with, among many others. Shack feels that the malls may be the reason.

“We will never have those Wednesday or Saturday nights again,” Shack predicted. “The malls have changed everything. People just go there now.”

But malls will not deter Shack from his original goal.

“Over the years, I would not have done anything differently,” he said. “We have and will always provide our customers with value for everything that they buy and excellent customer service.”

Armando Sodano

Armando Sodano of Armando’s on Grafton Street
By Cristal Perriello

Born in Italy, Armando Sodano grew up wearing the designers most of us dream about ~ Armani, Versace, and Dolce and Gabbana. His mother worked for a retail store in Naples, Italy, so when most boys were wearing overalls and t-shirts; he was wearing cashmere sweaters and designer jeans. Growing up in an era where everyone seemed to dress, Armando fell in love with fashion as a child.

“If you went to a restaurant or a night club, you couldn’t get in without a sports coat,” Armando remembers.

A graduate of North High School, Armando’s favorite store was the “The Last Exit,” located on Pleasant Street. He shopped there every Saturday until it went out of business. When they closed, he had a hard time finding a place to shop, until his “Pretty Woman moment.” He walked into an up-scale store (that will remain nameless) in his shorts and t-shirt and they would not wait on him. He pulled a wad of cash out pocket and the sales people were all over him, but Armando left without spending a cent.

“That’s when I knew, I needed to open my own store, because everyone should be treated with respect no matter what they are wearing.”

On April 11, 1981, the 26 year-old opened Armando’s, a 350 square-foot shop on Grafton Street in Worcester. He offered men’s and women’s clothes, just the basics, including baggy pants and Jordache jeans.

“The hardest thing about starting out was finding a location and deciding what to sell,” explains Armando.

A couple years later he opened an 11,000 square-foot store across the street and with a much bigger selection ~ and that’s when he decided to sell just men’s clothing, everything from designer suits and sports coats to shoes and accessories.

“Women are distracting! Honestly, women like to shop around, when a man finds something he likes, he buys it.”
Having more of a male clientele, Armando imported much of his clothing from Italy. He used to get his apparel manufactured at the same factories as Armani and Versace.

“I would be able to sell my customers clothes from the top designers, just without the label. I could sell the same silk shirt for $69 opposed to $450.”

One trend he does not want to see make a return? “The Michael Jackson jacket with all the zippers, although I did sell a lot of them at the time.”

Armando shared that his most satisfying moments are “…when I put something together for a customer that makes them feel amazing One client told me he was at wedding with 300 people and 299 of them asked where he got his suit. That’s what makes it all worth it.”

Andre Thibeault

Andre Thibeault of Lujon Men’s Clothes Inc
By Christine R. Walsh

Andre Thibeault, president and treasurer of Lujon Men’s Clothes on Pleasant Street in Worcester, hasn’t always been the man selling the clothes ~ for a few years he was the handsome face and physique modeling the clothes.

“I was a general’s aide in the service in Germany,” recalled Thibeault. “I ended up going to London and it was there that I got into professional modeling. I modeled suits.”

When Thibeault returned home after his service in Vietnam, he was open to seeing where life would take him. A Help Wanted sign at a retail store caught his eye and he was hired for a part time position just for the holiday season. His charm and excellent work ethic earned him a permanent position and soon he worked his way up to manager.

“John Israelian was the original owner of Lujon,” said Thibeault, “and his son helped him with the business. They opened in 1951. They brought me in in 1979 because John wanted to retire.”

Lujon carries a variety of excellent clothing lines for men from all over the world: Zegna, Zanella, Jack Victor and St. Croix are just some of the lines customers can find on their shelves.
But Thibeault says that secret retail weapon is the hand tailoring. “Our tailor is probably the best in New England,” he declared. “His name is Fred Hanna and he is originally from Syria but he has been in the US for twenty years. Not only is he a tailor for us, but he works on Newbury Street in Boston and is the personal tailor of Manny Ramirez. We have the best tailor money can buy.”

Now 60, Thibeault has seen many changes happen in downtown Worcester over the years.

“It used to be so busy, so very busy!” he recalled. “Those days are gone. Let me put it this way, back in the 70s, we had one hundred stores in Worcester Center. Now, I think Lujon is one of two. All the other stores have closed down.”

Thibeault does not believe that the downtown area will see a re-growth in retail opportunities during his lifetime, but he always holds hope for the city in which he was born. To adapt to the ever changing economy, Lujon has turned to the internet.

“Fifty percent of my business comes from out of town,” Thibeault reported. “Florida, Connecticut, California, New York. They find me on the web, or they are old customers who used to live here in Worcester but relocated.”

Despite the obvious changes in technology, there are some things about Lujon’s and its owner that have not changed. Thibeault always wears clothing from his own store and believes in looking professional at all times.

“When you dress casual, your work gets casual or just sloppy,” he believes. “How would you feel if you go to see a stock broker with all of your money and he is dressed like he is going to wash your car? You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.”

Excellent customer service is also something that hasn’t changed, according to Thibeault.

“We spoil our customers,” Thibeault said. “Once you shop at Lujon, you don’t shop anywhere else.”

Pics: 1. Sculpture: Yuan Dynasty (13th-14th c.), Head of Guanyin, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA, museum purchase.
2. Painting: Alexander Ross, Untitled, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA

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