By  on January 2, 2008

NEW YORK — For 63 years, the Sewell family’s two clothing companies competed with each other for space in specialty retailers and bragging rights at family gatherings, but come February, the Sewell Clothing Co. and Warren Sewell—which have operated for decades within 100 yards of each other in the small town of Bremen, Ga.—will merge.

The Sewell Clothing Co. was founded by Roy Sewell in 1918, but, in 1945, Roy’s brother Warren left to start his own company, Warren Sewell, setting up shop just across the railroad tracks and entering into what family members call long-term friendly competition with his brother. Both made better suits and sport coats for independent retailers, and family legend has it that, ever since, retailers have been hopelessly confused about exactly which Sewell sold what.

“I can’t blame the retailers,” said Robin Sewell Worley, grandson of Warren Sewell and soon-to-be CEO of the merged businesses, to be called The Sewell Cos. “Our family is so big we can barely keep each other straight at reunions.”

Under terms of the deal, Warren Sewell will acquire only the tailored clothing division of Sewell Clothing. The latter’s factory and military business—it makes officers’ uniforms for the U.S. armed forces—will continue under the ownership of Rick Loftin, who purchased Sewell Clothing from the founding family five years ago. Worley said The Sewell Cos.’ suits and sport coats will still be made at the Sewell factory under contract.

Financial terms were not released.

Sentiment aside, Worley, the last Sewell in the family business, said the realities of the apparel industry are motivating the acquisition. “In my granddaddy’s day there was enough business for everyone—even two businesses down the street from each other.” At one point, Roy Sewell’s factory employed 1,500 workers, but today, retail consolidation and price pressure from foreign manufacturers have put the squeeze on the traditional men’s stores and the vendors that sell them. “Either you get smaller and go out of business or match up strengths and survive,” he said.

Worley said Sewell Clothing and Warren Sewell’s brands are complementary. Sewell, which markets the Christian Brooks and South Hampton brands, is made in America and retails between $300 and $500 per suit. Warren Sewell, which owns the Zino, Lacrosse and Cotton Brothers brands, is made overseas and sells between $250 and $400 per suit. “When we looked at the accounts, we were surprised to see how little overlap there was.” The companies sell upward of 1,000 doors between them.

According to Worley, the Warren Sewell staff will cross the railroad tracks and move into the building that houses the Sewell Cos. in January, though they will operate on different floors. “Bringing it under the family name is a romantic notion,” Worley said, “but it’s really about the business. You should see the overhead we removed.”

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