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Suit maker finds a good fit in U.S.

Bakshi Ram checks a Hickey Freeman sports-jacket sleeve in the company factory.

PHOTO GALLERY: Hickey Freeman

 

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Well-heeled American businessmen have been dressing themselves in suits by Hickey Freeman for more than a century. The company's one of the only truly American suit makers still in business. It's refused to outsource production like most of its competitors have done, and employees still do much of the by hand.

Hickey Freeman's good relations with its workers and its home town have helped it survive. But the company's still had to make some unconventional adjustments.

From New York, Daniel Weiss reports on how an American classic has managed to stay in style.


Daniel Weiss: It's the time of year when you could fry an egg on the sidewalk in New York's financial district. But lucky for Hickey Freeman, people are still buying suits.

Phil Kornblatt: Shoulders fit nice here . . .

In the air-conditioned calm of Hickey Freeman's Wall Street store, Phil Kornblatt, resplendent in a tan vest and French cuffs, is helping a customer into a pinstriped jacket.

Kornblatt: When it's altered, it'll button like that . . .

Kornblatt's customer, Mark Bailey, is outfitting himself for a new banking job. In all, Bailey drops just under $3,000 for two suits, two ties, four shirts and a belt. Not bad for a Brit who'd never even heard of Hickey Freeman the day before.

Mark Bailey: Well, we actually came by yesterday — didn't know the store existed, came in, the quality looks good, the prices look good and the service has been excellent. And to be honest, I was a little bit taken by the fact that they're made in the state. So that has sort of piqued my interest in coming back today.

Hickey Freeman suits have been made in the same Rochester, New York factory since 1912. The company's 640 employees transform bolts of fine fabric and lining into hand-finished jackets and trousers.

Duffy Hickey is chairman of Hickey Freeman. He's also the grandson of one of the founders. He says Hickey Freeman has outlasted hundreds of other local clothing companies by refusing to compromise on luxury.

Duffy Hickey: We were the only ones that through the 30s and the 40s and the 50s stuck to producing a quality garment. All the rest kind of fluctuated with the marketplace, and they're no longer here.

Hickey Freeman had a near miss a few years ago. Its factory was in such bad shape it almost had to move to Chicago, home base of its parent company, Hartmarx.

But Rochester and New York State were horrified at the thought of losing such a good, longstanding employer. They ponied up $5 million toward a sprinkler system and new wiring. Unite Here, the employees' union, kicked in another half million for air conditioning.

Mike Roberts is the union's upstate chief of staff:

Mike Roberts: Our obligations to our members entail obligations to their employers. In this kind of industry, in manufacturing in general, you've got to be able to work creatively and cooperatively with these employers or we'll all lose — we won't be able to keep these jobs in the United States.

Hickey Freeman has cemented its foundation in Rochester. But constant threats, like business casual and overseas competition, have forced the company to be nimble. It recently rolled out a new line called "Little Hickey" to appeal to a younger, hipper clientele.

Along with an array of fashion-forward suits, Little Hickey features ties, shirts and pants embroidered with marijuana leaves and silhouettes of naked women — you know, the kind you see on truck mudflaps.

Duffy Hickey says he doesn't quite get it. The first time he saw one of the marijuana-leaf motifs, he mistook it for a maple leaf.

Hickey: I couldn't understand why we were trying to promote Canada by putting this maple leaf on the front of a sweater. And they looked at me and said, "Are you sure you understand what that is?" And I said, "Well, isn't that a maple leaf?" And they said, "No, it's not."

Hickey may be 70 years old, but he was quick to adjust his business to accommodate the taste of downtown hipsters, as well as the titans of Wall Street.

Stephen Bibel works at Scoop Men's in Manhattan's trendy meatpacking district. He says the Little Hickey designs sell well, and not just to the younger crowd.

Stephen Bibel: I've seen all kinds of guys just come in here and be like, "Oh, I like this with the hemp leaf," or "I like this naked girl thing, I want this shirt." And sometimes, it's surprising who will come in and pick those shirts up.

The Little Hickey line has helped boost Hickey Freeman's numbers. The company's performance has been so good that parent company Hartmarx has begun to favor it over the lower-priced brands in the Hartmarx stable.

A new Hickey Freeman store will open in San Francisco in the fall, and Little Hickey will get a shop of its own in New York's Soho.

In New York, I'm Daniel Weiss for Marketplace.

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