A new day is about to dawn at Hickey Freeman.
Since being acquired last fall by Grano Retail Holdings, the parent company of the Montreal-based Samuelsohn brand, the entire tailored clothing collection has been redesigned and Grano is investing millions into revamping the branding and marketing of the long-standing label. The spring collection, which will be unveiled at an event at the company’s new penthouse showroom on 57th Street on Sunday, is the first under the Grano umbrella and the brand’s official debut.
“We think we can double this business within five years,” Arnold Brant Silverstone, president and chief creative officer of Hickey Freeman Tailored Clothing and Samuelsohn, told WWD during an exclusive preview. Hickey currently does about $100 million at retail. Silverstone said he believes a doubling is more than attainable, pointing out that since his first collection for Samuelsohn hit the market in fall of 2011, that business has doubled and the collection has expanded its distribution into key department and specialty stores across Canada and the U.S.
“It is our goal to be the dominant North American company of luxury men’s manufacturing and brands,” Silverstone declared. “We believe strongly in men’s, luxury and North American manufacturing.”
He said Grano recently formed a new corporate entity called LMAG, or Luxury Men’s Apparel Group, comprising Samuelsohn and Hickey Freeman, and this company is “currently in serious discussions for another possible acquisition of a better-end North American furnishings manufacturer, which would fit perfectly within our group and complement our Samuelsohn and Hickey Freeman businesses.”
Last October, Grano bought all the tangible assets of the Hickey Freeman brand — including its factory in Rochester from W Diamond Group, and signed a 40-year license with Authentic Brands Group, which purchased the Hickey Freeman label as part of its acquisition of HMX Group last year, to produce the brand.
Since that time, Hickey has staffed up, hiring Negi Darsses as vice president of marketing and communications; found and built the new showroom, and brought Toth + Co. on board to spearhead the re-branding.
Over the past few years, the brand has lost some luster, due in large part to the well-publicized financial difficulties of its former management. A sizable percentage of the business is off-price and Silverstone said the goal is to reduce it to 10 percent or less. Grano pulled “millions of dollars” worth of product out of the market to clean up the distribution, he said; improved the product offering, and took margins down in the double-digits.
Hickey now is using high-end Italian or English fabrics, hand-turned collars, a higher arm hole, working cuffs, horn buttons and scallop facing. Iridescent Bemberg linings and softer shoulder pads are also part of the new collection. Two of the company’s fits were tweaked and carried forward, but the rest of the collection is new as Grano works to create “a global luxury brand,” Silverstone said. “We believe we have the recipe,” he said, adding that there’s “an opening in the market for an alternative to the Italians.”
Pricing will also be a distinguishing factor. While a Zegna suit traditionally retails for close to $3,000, a full-canvas Hickey suit will sell for $1,700. Sport coats will retail for $1,000 to $1,500.
“We’ll never outspend Zegna in terms of marketing,” he said, “but we can win in this space by giving the absolute best value, pairing full-canvas craftsmanship and a century of tailoring heritage and knowledge with the most special, innovative, unique and luxurious of fabrics, interior ingredients and details.”
The collection is now segmented into six “chapters,” starting with the Traveler, which will sell for $1,495 and offer wrinkle-free fabrics and a “weightless construction.” Next is the Tasmanian, a super 150s offering, followed by the Super Merino, Silk Dreams and Summer Blends. The top of the line is the hand-tailored Bespoke collection, which will open with super 180s and retail for $2,500.”
Silverstone said that although the brand has undergone “a total redo,” it wasn’t without a lot of forethought. “We didn’t go in and change anything until we did our homework and studied the customer, the target market and the competition,” he said. “We did the same thing with Samuelsohn.” So, from October through February, he merely “observed” the business to “study what was working and what wasn’t. The first eight months were an education. Then we started working on the new product in January. I looked at it as a blank canvas.”
He said Grano hosted focus groups of customers aged 45 and over as well as those under 45 and found that “virtually everybody knew Hickey Freeman even if they didn’t wear it. So it was a great base to work with.”
“There’s a real warm and fuzzy feeling about Hickey,” said Darsses, “but the perception was that it was boxy, heavy and not relevant.”
Enter Mike Toth of Toth + Co.
The Boston-based lifestyle branding firm has worked with such industry heavyweights as Brooks Brothers, Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica and J. Crew, among others, and has a deep appreciation for American heritage. “He’s so passionate about great American brands,” Darsses said, adding that the company visited the Hickey Freeman archives, pulled up its old iconography and illustrations, pored over the fonts and lettering that had been used over the years and “developed a visual landscape.”
Working closely with the Hickey team, Toth created an updated label, replacing the former burgundy background with a gold color scheme, inspired by a tailor’s tape. The logo has also been tweaked to make it more contemporary without abandoning Hickey’s long-standing history. The brand was established in 1899 and that date is used on some of the marketing materials. Hickey Freeman New York is also used in some instances, touting its Empire State roots.
“Hickey is the authentic American luxury product,” Silverstone said. “They dressed presidents and the Rat Pack. So it’s still familiar, but fresher.”
That translated into the new showroom as well, which is designed to look like a luxury men’s library where customers and retailers will be welcome to read a book, sip an artisanal gin and relax. Every season, a new artist, author or liquor will be showcased. The furniture and fixtures are wood and metal and were made in America.
The centerpiece of the new space is a large copper crest from the Hickey factory that has been refinished by a metal artist to look new again. “It’s like what we’re doing to Hickey,” Silverstone said. “We’re restoring its luster.”
The showroom is intended to “illustrate that the Hickey man is a more relevant man,” Darsses said. “He’s urban, he’s plugged in and culturally savvy.”
He’s also younger. In the past, Hickey’s primary customer was over 50 years old, but the target, while “still a gentleman,” is now 10 years younger, he said.
The new ad campaign for spring will feature black-and-white images with a shot of the new signature gold color.
But this is not the first time Hickey’s been down this road. After Hartmarx went bankrupt in 2009, Mumbai-based S. Kumars Nationwide Ltd., or SKNL, emerged as a white knight to rescue the brands, forming HMX Group, acquiring a 90 percent stake. It brought Doug Williams in to run the company, hired Joseph Abboud to head design, shifted its headquarters to New York City from Chicago and revamped the product offering. But, despite its grand plans for the brand, SKNL ran into its own financial bumps due to market conditions in India and couldn’t provide the level of investment it initially planned for HMX.
The first rumbling of liquidity issues at HMX began in spring 2012 and by that October, HMX was in bankruptcy proceedings. In December of that year, Authentic Brands Group acquired the intellectual property assets of HMX. So what makes Silverstone think he can succeed when others have tried and failed? “Previous management hadn’t done this [a turnaround] before,” he bristled, noting that his family has been in the apparel trade in Canada for three generations. “At Samuelsohn, we doubled the size of the company in three years. We have the formula and we know how to take a North American luxury company, dust it off and improve it.”
Looking ahead, Silverstone hinted that Grano is preparing to get more involved with its furnishings and sportswear offerings. In addition, he’s planning to offer a younger-skewed collection for next year.