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The story begins like many others: Russian immigrants — in this case, Alexander, Albert and Ben Gushner — leave their homeland in hopes of a better life in America. They open Boyds, a store in Center City, Philadelphia, selling cigars and sundries and eventually men’s shirts. Fast-forward 80 years and the fourth generation of the founding family — Kent Gushner — continues their legacy, operating one of the finest specialty stores in the country.

The sprawling five-level, 74,000-square-foot store on Chestnut Street is in the midst of a $10 million renovation project that Kent Gushner refers to as the creation of an entirely new store, one that will elevate the overall shopping experience and shine a spotlight on Boyds’ growing women’s business. While the entire project won’t be completed until the fall, the women’s department, which has been relocated to the front of the store on the main floor and mezzanine, opened last week.

Here, Gushner discusses the thinking behind the investment, how independent specialty stores can create experiences and his plan to take Boyds on the road in the next few years.

 

WWD: Tell me about the renovation.
Kent Gushner: The entire project won’t be completed until November, but the first customer-facing phase is the main floor and mezzanine, which was completed recently. When the whole thing is done, it’s going to be a new store, not only in how it was rebuilt, but also in how it’s merchandised. In our 80 years, we’ve never done something remotely on this scale. We took down walls and took down part of the marble staircase, which was the most iconic part of this building.

WWD: Why did you decide to take out the staircase?
K.G.: In coming up with the plans with the architects, they asked if we would consider getting rid of the staircase. It seemed outrageous but after thinking about it, I realized it would not only provide a lot more space, but it would also deliver a message to our customer that something is radically different. We’re making a statement that this is a new day. The first 15 to 20 feet should be the most productive in a store, but ours felt like a lobby.

WWD: This is an historic building in a city known for its history. What is its origin?
K.G.: The building was built in 1903 as a funeral home. It was where the blue blood WASPs of Philadelphia were laid to rest. And their friends and family actually stayed here — it was like a boarding house. How weird is that? Then it was sold to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. We moved here 27 years ago. The building gives us a unique advantage, it’s very special and gives us a head start on other people. It’s beautiful, but it’s also intimidating to younger people. So the decor will be contemporary while maintaining the classic architecture. It’s more modern, younger and inviting. We’re taking away the stuffiness.

WWD: To invest $10 million in a renovation, you obviously believe in the future of bricks-and-mortar.
K.G.: I definitely do, but it has to be the right kind of bricks-and-mortar. It’s not only product — the experience is also critical. I don’t think everybody just wants to click a button and have their merchandise delivered. Service is a big part of what we offer — we have free alterations, even in women’s, which is a huge competitive advantage. In fact, we built two workstations on the main floor where our seamstresses will work out in the open. It’s part of the show.

WWD: How else are you updating the women’s department?
K.G.: We put more contemporary women’s in front and the luxury and more dressy merchandise in the back. We built a department inside a department for eveningwear and other special collections, as well as luxury dressing rooms. We even put in new elevators. On the mezzanine will be women’s shoes, handbags, jewelry — which we’ll be carrying for the first time — and soft accessories. Three months ago, we hired Deborah Soss as our chief merchant for women’s wear, she’d been at Bergdorf’s before. This is a major push to become a player in the women’s market.

WWD: When did you get into the women’s business?
K.G.: For most of our years, we were exclusively in the men’s business. We started to carry women’s 12 years ago. We started small and it’s been growing quietly and nicely, but it still represents only 20 percent of our business. That is the motivating factor in the renovation. I firmly believe women’s is the lowest-hanging fruit for us, but to capture the business, we need to position it on the first two levels because there are too many women who still perceive us as a men’s store with a women’s department in it, rather than a destination for women with its own merits. That has proven to be the biggest obstacle for us in growing our women’s business. Now, women have the ease of just walking in this building and seeing what we have rather than traversing up to three through different men’s floors. It’s just going to be much less intimidating and much more appealing.

WWD: How big would you like women’s to be?
K.G.: Fifty-fifty, but of a much bigger gross number. We’re not on a mission to grow women’s at the expense of men’s — just the opposite. We want to position each to survive, flourish and grow. The overriding image of this store is that it’s a men’s store for better tailored clothing. That will remain at the core of what we are — it pays the bills — but we also see an opportunity to grow the sportswear business. There’s not another high-end store anywhere that is 80 percent men’s and 20 percent women’s, usually it’s the other way around. So this is an anomaly. We certainly have the opportunity to grow our women’s business but we have to make certain adjustments and investments to make that happen. There are not great alternatives for women in this city offering the assortment, the experience, the service, the tailoring, the parking that we can. There are little boutiques that are fine, but they’re small. And the big stores are out in King of Prussia — Neiman’s, Nordstrom, Saks. And they’re all having major problems today and I think those problems are just going to accelerate going forward.

WWD: Since men’s is still the cash cow for you, what are you doing to the men’s department?
K.G.: When we’re done, men’s will be on the second and third floors but will be remerchandised to a much more modern presentation. The second floor will be everything not tailored clothing, so footwear, two different sportswear departments and dress furnishings. One side will be dedicated to designer and contemporary sportswear and targeted to a younger audience, the other will be gentleman’s luxury sportswear, a Cucinelli shop and soft shops for Belstaff and Eleventy. The rotunda will introduce a men’s footwear department and will have a soft shop for Bontoni.

WWD: And on the third floor?
K.G.: We will have an unrivaled tailored clothing floor. We’ll be putting in Isaia and Zegna shops-in-shops, there will be different decor and music on the different sides of the floor since one will appeal to a younger audience and the other side will be classic luxury. In the center, we’ll have tailoring stations because that’s the heritage of our store. We’re building a made-to-measure room that we never had before and a special occasion room for tuxedos. On the contemporary side of the floor, we’ll have a Munro shops-in-shop. There will be a cool bar too. It will make the floor more experiential and make buying tailored clothing fun and memorable. The depth of inventory will be unparalleled — we’ll probably hang 3,500 or more garments.

WWD: What about the top two floors?
K.G.: We had a fire on the fifth floor that pushed the renovation back a year. We have 35 people in our tailoring department and four full-time pressers on one side of the floor and marketing, e-commerce, IT and an employee lunchroom on the other. The fourth floor is half offices and the other half we weren’t planning to touch, but because of the fire, we rebuilt the floor with a much more industrial feel. My son Alex was very involved in this. We hired a graffiti artist to give it a SoHo/Brooklyn vibe. We had this merchandise on the back of the main floor. We took a stab at it, but it didn’t resonate. This is much clearer. In November, these departments will move permanently to the second floor. Then we’ll either lease out this space or use it for a pop-up/event space. We’re talking to several people now in the beauty and restaurant worlds.

WWD: Who are some of your top vendors in men’s?
K.G.: The big tailored clothing luxury brands: Zegna, Brioni, Isaia, Canali and our own Trussini label, which we also wholesale. That’s a more accessible price point with suits selling for around $1,295 and jackets for $1,095. The sweet spot in clothing for us is $1,195 to $1,295, that where there’s a tremendous amount of volume and it represents the entry level to the luxury market. In sportswear, we carry Cucinelli, Moncler, Varvatos and a lot of contemporary denim brands.

WWD: And in women’s?
K.G.: Alexander McQueen, Proenza, Alexander Wang, Manolo Blahnik in shoes. But one of the obstacles we’ve encountered is brand acquisition in women’s, which is never anything we had to deal with in men’s. The store just doesn’t have the visibility or prestige in women’s that it enjoys in men’s. For instance, Gucci is very hot but if you want to buy it in Philadelphia, the fourth-largest city in the country, you can’t. We think this problem will go away when the new store opens and the women’s vendors realize we have the best credit in the business and are an institution in Philadelphia.

WWD: Do you have any investors?
K.G.: No. I’m the majority owner and I feel inspired and committed to lay a platform to continue the legacy that I inherited. I have a broad, long-term view and I saw this train coming four or five years ago and knew we had to make significant changes to survive. We have many of the same issues a lot of specialty stores face. We knew we had to either double down or get out. This is a significant investment for sure, but we’ve done a lot of planning and if we grow the way we believe we can, it will pay for itself many times over.

WWD: You mentioned your son, Alex. What is his position?
K.G: He’s clothing and sportswear buyer. Alex joined three years ago. He had worked for Zegna and wasn’t sure he wanted to come into the business. But it was his decision to join and he’s learning and contributing in a lot of ways. He brings passion and energy that is very different from mine and very welcome. And he does it in a respectful way. It’s fun as a father to watch your kids grow.

WWD: How do you handle e-commerce?
K.G.: We are light years behind where we should be but we just hired Frank Bellina, who had worked for Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch and others, and he got us on the road from fantasizing about it to action. He’s updated our web site, social media and online presence. But this is a very hard space for independents to compete in. You can’t just snap your fingers. You have to do it well or not do it. So we built a photo studio in our basement and we’re putting an infrastructure together to build out the business in other ways. But I’m cynical, I keep telling Frank that I don’t believe he’ll make money for me. So he needs to prove it to me.

WWD: But you do have to operate an e-commerce business.
K.G.: It’s incumbent upon us to be there. But we view e-commerce as an area of support, not a separate profit center. My concern is the effect it will have on our bricks-and-mortar sales. There are a lot of people who need to make a living here — we have 125 employees — and I don’t want them competing with a different division of our own company. So we’re trying to bring the best attributes of brick and mortar to e-commerce. We look at it as a tool to help the salespeople on the floor. If you buy something from us online, one of them gets the commission, but it’s then their responsibility to reach out, thank the customer and follow up with suggestions for other merchandise. We’re trying to bring a personal touch to the online transactions and by having the input of a brick and mortar salesperson, you get the best of both worlds. We’re not selling a ton online, but it’s just another tool to grow our business.

WWD: You’re investing a large sum of money in this one store. Are there plans to open additional units?
K.G.: We have a five-year plan. Once we get this store up and running and pay the bank back, we’ll have an infrastructure in place that will be scalable for other locations. That’s something we’ve never done. We will be able to roll out to a second location, maybe even a third. The second would be in suburban Philadelphia where we’re already known and then we’re also looking into the New York City/Princeton, N.J. area.

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