Doug Williams, Joseph Abboud and the executives running Hickey Freeman, Hart Schaffner Marx and the rest of the former Hartmarx Corp. properties are looking to turn the page on a dark period for those brands by revitalizing the company’s image and overhauling the way it does business.
Just don’t call it “Hartmarx.”
“That’s not our name. We are a new company,” said Williams, chief executive officer at HMX Group, the corporation that now manages the brands purchased from the bankrupt Hartmarx last year. “We are starting a new culture. I get militant when anybody says ‘Hartmarx.’ We are not Hartmarx. We don’t want that legacy.”
The distinction is more than a legal one. Yes, HMX Group is the company that now houses the brands once operated by Hartmarx. But Williams is more keen on drawing a line between the culture of the old company and the one he is working to establish at HMX.
“We’re changing from a manufacturing company that pushed products out to people to a brand-driven company pulling customers in to see our amazing products,” he said. “It’s a totally different mentality.”
Such sensitivity is understood. For all its 100-year-plus heritage, Hartmarx bore a reputation as a parochial and backward-looking company even before its closely watched bankruptcy last year, when the company just escaped liquidation thanks to Indian textile giant SKNL, which, along with private investment firm Emerisque Brands, purchased most of the company’s assets for $128.4 million.
So aside from distancing the past, Williams, a veteran with 25 years in apparel, is building the new HMX with a new brain trust, which includes most notably designer Joseph Abboud, who joined the company as president and chief creative officer last month. Williams also corralled well-respected men’s wear vets like Marty Weinberg, recently named chief operating officer and chief financial officer; Mike Cohen, who is heading Hickey Freeman, and John Kirwan, who is president of Bobby Jones.
That three of those are Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. alums — Abboud, Cohen and Kirwan — is no mistake, said Williams, who spent 17 years at RL university himself, rising to group president. “It’s no coincidence. Ralph taught all of us passion for product and believing in what you stand for and level of execution that is uncompromising. That’s the culture we want to build into this company. It’s a big job to reinvigorate brands and I need the best of the best to do it.”
Those RL-honed skills in tow, the new management is confronting the task of making the brands in the HMX portfolio both relevant and profitable again. Despite the challenges they will undoubtedly face, the team feels the company has a great advantage: venerable names. “I got involved because we had these amazing brands,” said Williams. “Hart Schaffner is 125 years old; Hickey is 110. We are stewards in time. It’s our responsibility to make them better than they were.”
While they plan to revitalize all of the properties — including Bobby Jones, Exclusively Misook, Palm Beach Christopher Blue, hickey, Christopher Blue, Worn and Palm Beach — their top priorities, in the first year at least, are the heritage tailored plays, Hickey Freeman and Hart Schaffner Marx — businesses that account for the company’s emotional and operational core, and likely house the greatest potential.
Both brands, until the Hartmarx bankruptcy, generated more than $100 million in sales, according to court documents.
“Working on these great American brands is an unbelievable opportunity as a designer,” said Abboud, who will oversee all creative direction at the company, including merchandise and marketing. “You have to be respectful of them, but we also have to make them more modern, while keeping their DNA.”
To do that HMX is going back to the drawing board, tapping brand guru David Lipman to create a new identity and advertising campaign for Hickey Freeman — its first in recent memory.
Highlighting the importance of Hickey’s rebranding and underscoring the new management’s focus on company image, Williams, Abboud and Lipman met with WWD at the Lipman offices in the Meatpacking District to discuss the new HMX and its immediate and long-term goals in an exclusive interview.
There, the men detailed how the company planned to leverage its lengthy history to connect to consumers increasingly attracted to heritage and authenticity. Lipman presented Hickey Freeman’s new corporate identity that plays off the Germanic typeface the company used 100 years ago and a brand book, which relies heavily on black-and-white photos of masculine Americana and the historical footnotes of the Hickey Freeman brand, including its Rochester factory, its griffin crest, and its reputation for making classic unpretentious clothing.
“I’m the cleaning man,” said Lipman, whose shop has delivered campaigns for the likes of David Yurman, Lord & Taylor and Burberry. “The jewel is already here. It just needs to be dusted off to discover an amazing company.”
Abboud, who expressed his desire to work on the Hartmarx brands when the company was in bankruptcy, shares that belief for Hickey Freeman’s merchandise, which he said will not abandon its tailored roots but will evolve to meet the needs of contemporary men. “The old company didn’t move forward with the consumer. We can. We can turn this brand into products that present a particular, relevant way of living for guys. And yes, that includes great sportswear and accessories and fragrance, but tailored is the backbone.”
While tailored clothing contributed to Hartmarx’s decline, Lipman said the tide that originally led to the category’s troubles — the rise of casual dress — is turning, a trend that will broaden the brand’s appeal and drive its cachet. “The provenance of the Hickey Freeman brand has an untold appeal to young men who are discovering the pleasures of dressing-up. It is youthful and cool to wear a suit again. They want tailored clothing. We don’t have to run away from that.”
Abboud seconded that rationale. “In the Seventies, all the guys in the bar were in suits and the guy in the leather jacket got the girl. Now all the guys are in jeans and the guy in the suit gets the girl,” he said. “It’s not corporate to dress-up; it’s chic. And that will help us stay in touch with our existing customers and reach new, younger ones as well.”
While a focus on tailored clothing may sound like mantra from the old company, Abboud was quick to point out that the plan is to develop each brand into a full lifestyle collection, anchored by tailored. “This is a lifestyle world. We have the bones and the structure of tailored but we very quickly want to sharpen out focus on sportswear, furnishings and accessories.”
The company’s footprint in the tailored clothing world is much smaller than it was under Hartmarx, Williams added. HMX is not pursuing the extensive clothing licensing program, which made suits for the margin-pressured moderate tier, which saddled Hartmarx for years, nor is it operating factories that produced those suits. “We purchased only the best assets from Hartmarx and we are not interested in becoming a licensee,” he said. “We want to develop our brands.”
The first collections under the new company’s control won’t hit stores until next spring but ad campaigns for Hickey Freeman and Hart Schaffner Marx, which is undergoing a similar rebranding by Quaker City, will drop in the fall. It’s a noticeable change from old Hartmarx, which advertised little and eschewed publicity, allotting one person to run the promotional activities for all of Hickey Freeman, Hart Schaffner Marx and Bobby Jones. The publicity those brands did receive — including President Obama’s well-documented preference for Hart Schaffner Marx suits — stemmed more from the brands’ reputations as makers of quality, American clothing than a company-executed strategy.
“We want people to know there’s a new sheriff in town,” Lipman said, who noted the campaign will feature real life, powerful, stylish men.
The company declined to detail its media spend but said it was “significant.”
The market should notice a change before then, Williams pointed out. Most visibly at HMX’s new 56,000-square-foot headquarters in New York, which the firm’s rank and file will occupy in five weeks. The company has already closed its long-time headquarters on North Wacker Drive in Chicago.
“We want our space to show our commitment to the industry and our passion for these brands,” said Williams, noting that the space will house 9,000 square feet of showroom space alone.
Since SKNL and Emerisque purchased the assets in August, speculation has been rife about the new owners’ next steps — speculation the management was eager to address.
The new owners, according to Williams, are not interested in flipping the company or taking it to the mass market. “They want to become a global apparel and textile maker. This is not a strip and flip operation. We’re building the future of these brands.”
Williams’ experience in licensing prompted some to assume the company would follow an Iconix Brand Group Inc. model and ship the product to licenses overseas. The ceo said the business is committed to its manufacturing base and wants to grow the brands by controlling as much product as it can.
Abboud’s appointment shortly after a court partially reversed an earlier decision that barred him from using his name in commerce caused some to wonder if the designer would become the face of HMX. While Abboud brings some needed profile to the company’s brands, he said he is not attaching his name to the product. “This is not Hickey Freeman by Joseph Abboud. This is about Hickey Freeman,” Abboud said.
Additionally, the future of Hartmarx factory workers was a flash point during the bankruptcy, and so far HMX has made good on its promise to keep those jobs here. It currently operates three factories — for Hickey Freeman, Hart Schaffner Marx and Coppley — which together employ 1,800 workers. Hartmarx at its height employed some 3,000 workers, including those at factories not purchased by SKNL.
That said, those factories, like the rest of the company, have come under Williams’ operational scrutiny. “Our Coppley factory can turn a made-to-measure suit in five days, but it takes Hickey 12. Why can’t we share best practices here? Before, each factory acted as if they belonged to each brand. I see them all as assets of HMX.”
In his first four months, Williams has spent much of his time dismantling a corporation that, under the hood, was inefficient: brands operated as individual companies complete with their own designated back ends, and factories produced supplies that far outstripped demand. To get a sense of the company’s Byzantine structure, consider that Hartmarx operated eight discrete electronic databasing systems when Williams took over. Now they are down to three.
“[Hartmarx] was more of a holding company with all these fiefdoms. That’s changed. We need a strong backbone with brands revolving around it,” Williams said.
The company has worked to eliminate waste by consolidating finance, distribution and customer service. Williams has also had to manage a glut of inventory, some of which was 10 years old. At the Hickey Freeman distribution center, 65 percent of inventory was at least two years old.
Those goods are still working their way out of their market — three Men’s Wearhouse stores in New York City alone are selling Hickey Freeman suits for under $700.
“That inventory was out within my first six weeks and will be long gone before we relaunch the brands,” Williams said. “Excess inventory is not like fine wine: It does not get better with age.”
Abboud is also working to establish a new corporate mentality on the design end. He’s hiring teams for each brand and installing best practices, including a religious observance of the design calendar. “You have to be on time in this business, but there is no magic wand for this thing. Changing the culture is a day-to-day process.”
The housecleaning is central to both Abboud and Williams’ long-term and short-term goals. They want to provide a solid foundation for the brands’ future growth and, more immediately, convince wary retailers and suppliers that HMX is a worthy vendor again. “My first priority,” said Williams, “is to let retailers know that we will deliver on the promises we make to them.”
Despite a rough few years, HMX’s better brands are still well-respected and the men’s wear community is closely watching the company’s relaunch. “We all would love to have a reborn brand that can be something new and different and inspiring,” said Bob Mitchell, co-president of the Mitchell family retail group, which has stocked Hickey Freeman for 30 years at Mitchells. “If they can stay true to their heritage yet make it updated and appealing to a younger guy, there’s a place for it.”
As HMX plots the relaunch of its flagship brands, it is also stoking its smaller women’s businesses like Exclusively Misook and Christopher Blue. Longer term, it’s planning to expand a fledgling retail network and take some brands overseas.
For now, it’s focusing on how gilded-but-tarnished brands will relate to a contemporary marketplace and how to win back the market’s faith. For the latter, Williams mantra is: “Execute, execute, execute. It starts with product and ends with product.”