When you have been in the menswear game as long as Paul Stiller has, it’s almost impossible not to have experienced your share of sartorial ups and downs through the years.
After all, polyester leisure suits? Really?
Stiller is the co-owner of upscale haberdashery Hanford Drewitt, founded in downtown Winnipeg in 1948 by original partners Ken Hanford and Ralph Drewitt. The store specializes in men’s tailored suits, shirts, pants and accessories, and was one of the first stores in Canada to carry such exclusive European lines as Hugo Boss.
All Stiller can do is shake his head when asked if he can recall anything during his 50-year tenure with the venerable shop that compares with what’s gone on during the last eight months as it pertains to COVID-19.
"Not even close," says Stiller, who along with his associate Peter Henry shut things down completely in April and May, but has been offering curbside pickup to customers since the latest provincially mandated closure of non-essential businesses went into effect Nov. 12. (Online order in the court: For decades, Hanford Drewitt has also been the city’s go-to locale for legal robes, the type of garments worn by Canadian lawyers and magistrates. Jurists currently in need of new apparel can still get properly outfitted, through the store’s website.)
Stiller started as a salesperson at Hanford Drewitt in 1970 at the age of 23 and says if there is a silver lining to be found, it’s the fact the store, located at 354 Broadway, calls Winnipeg home.
"Here we’ve always just kind of cruised along, never too high, never too low," he says, noting while their bottom line has definitely been affected by the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, the situation there hasn’t been as dire as what he’s heard or read about at retail outlets similar to theirs, in other parts of the country. "I have friends in the business who used to kind of like to rub it in when their (annual) sales jumped 30 or 40 per cent, while ours only went up two or three (per cent). Except now they’re seeing 30, 40... even 50 per cent drops while here it’s been nowhere close to that.
"We have a very loyal clientele, many of whom have been shopping here for what seems like forever and have become more like friends than customers. When something like COVID happens — and here’s praying it never happens again — that’s the sort of base you need to see you through."
If ever there was a person well-equipped to size a customer up while adhering to social distancing protocols, it’s Stiller. One of the first jobs he ever had, back when he was a teenager growing up in Melville, Sask., was to eye carnival-goers up and down at the annual summer fair in an attempt to correctly guess their weight.
"It was one of those booths where they’d pay you a dollar to give it your best shot, and if you were wrong, they’d walk away with a prize worth maybe 20 cents, thinking they’d really gotten the better of you," he says, chuckling at the memory.
Stiller, born in Tisdale, approximately 200 km northeast of Saskatoon, moved with his family to Winnipeg when he was 18. He’d always been interested in men’s fashion, he says, and soon after arriving here, he landed a job at the Adam Shop, located on the main floor of Eaton’s, the Portage Avenue department store that was razed in 2002 to make way for what is now Bell MTS Place.
He obviously knew what he was doing; one afternoon while folding clothes he was approached by a person associated with Hanford Drewitt, which at the time occupied two levels of the Curry Building, 233 Portage Ave. The fellow told Stiller he’d heard nothing but good things about him and asked if he’d be interested in coming to work for them, instead.
"I ended up running an in-store shop called the Gentry, which later moved over to Smith Street, right across from the Marlborough Hotel," he says, noting neither Hanford nor Drewitt were involved with the operation by the time he came on board; he’s part of Hanford Drewitt’s third set of owners.
"Those were the days," he goes on, describing Portage Avenue on a Saturday afternoon in the early ’70s as teeming with pedestrians, the sidewalks so crowded with downtown shoppers that it was nearly impossible to move. Also, almost everybody who worked downtown back then dressed to the nines, day in and day out.
"I’m in the clothing business so obviously I’m a little biased, but it’s my sincere belief people will always respect a person more who looks like they’re put together and takes care of themselves, be it a man or woman," he says, sporting a dark wool suit, white shirt and obligatory facemask. "I know that society as a whole has gone very casual — us included, it’s not like we don’t stock jeans and T-shirts — but I can assure you, a lot of people still believe in first impressions and if you’re walking into a professional’s office, you should expect him or her to look professional."
In the late 1970s, by which time Stiller had joined the ownership group, talk turned to relocating the store from its long-held spot on Portage Avenue. That old adage about men having a distaste for shopping carries some truth to it, he says, and he and his partners wanted to make things as easy as possible for their clientele, some of whom would simply drive off if they had to circle the block more than once while searching for a parking spot.
"This building used to be a grocery store. When we renovated, we had to take it right down to the foundation, pretty much, but one of the big pluses was it came with its own parking lot in the back," says Stiller of their present home, winner of a 1982 architectural award for its sleek, forward-looking design: the exterior clad all around with dark, slate tiles paired with a lone show window.
"That was Ron Keenberg’s — the lead architect’s — style; he’s very industrial in his look," Stiller replies when asked if anybody thought it was counter-intuitive for a clothing store not to offer passers-by more of a glimpse inside, or to have zilch in the way of exterior signage to indicate what sort of business Hanford Drewitt is, exactly. "To be honest, we kind of like that little air of mystery, and having people who’ve never been here before try to guess whether we are a law firm or accounting office or whatever."
Oh, you know how time-tested burger joints like VJ’s and Dairi-Wip cater to generations of loyal customers, and how heading to those spots for a bite with mom or dad is almost a rite of passage? It’s the same thing at Hanford Drewitt. Stiller says it’s commonplace for a person whose father or grandfather shopped there to show up with a relative in tow, looking to purchase their first bespoke suit or pair of leather wing tips, too.
"I would say our business is 80 per cent referral and to me that’s the best kind of business. When a guy walks through the door he’s here to shop because his dad shops here, or his friends shop here, and have already told him, ‘Hey, they’ll take good care of you,’" he says.
It’s true clothiers don’t take a Hippocratic Oath the way medical professionals do, but Stiller says there has always been a bit of an unwritten code at Hanford Drewitt not to openly boast about famous faces who’ve dropped by there through the years. With a little coaxing he does admit Robin Williams, the late actor and comedian, came in one Saturday afternoon while he was in the city shooting a movie, and left with a bag under his arm, cracking jokes the whole way.
He adds that in addition to unnamed prime ministers and provincial premiers, the store has also welcomed a fair number of professional athletes, including one hockey legend whom he’ll only describe as having been singularly "great" during his playing days.
"He used to come in here quite often when his team was in town to play the Jets and one time he asked if it was possible to have what he’d bought dropped off at his hotel, as he had to skip off to practice or something," Stiller says. "I said sure, I’d be happy to do that myself and despite the fact I’d never talked hockey with him before, I did let it slip that one of my two sons worshipped him. When I dropped his clothes off at the hotel a while later, a signed hockey card with my kid’s name on it was waiting for me. Let’s just say I made a few points that night when I got home."
Finally, if you think a person who has been a dedicated follower of fashion his entire adult life would eschew slipping into a pair of sweatpants every now and again, think again.
"I’m a big sports nut — I miss watching the Jets and the NHL big-time — and absolutely, you would not like to see how I’m dressed, Sunday afternoons on the couch," Stiller says with a laugh.
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.