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Still dressing for success; Men's clothing stores have survived tough times with a loyal following that spans generations

Napoli's has moved twice since opening in 1972 but still sells high-end men's clothing, with a European flair, from its current store in East Amherst.

O'Connell's Clothing, known for its collegiate American styles, has been a mainstay of the University Heights neighborhood since 1959.

Those men's clothing stores are newcomers compared to the New York Store, which has operated on the same block in the Village of Lancaster since 1929.

And the granddaddy of them all, of course, is the Riverside Men's Shop, which closed its namesake store in 2005 but carried over its traditions and longtime employees to Amherst's Northtown Plaza.

"It's such an icon of Buffalo," said Natalie Neumann, co-owner of the store that was established in 1918. "Our tagline is 'Empowering the men of yesterday, today and tomorrow.' "

These stores, and a few others like Get Dressed, seemingly defy the march of time, standing firm as purveyors of service and quality that they say will never go out of style. They have managed to stay open even as many of the Buffalo area's well-known men's clothing stores have closed -- Leib's Men Shop, Charlie Baker Clothier, Peller & Mure and Kleinhans Co., to name a few.

Those retail victims folded in the face of "casual Fridays," the growth of the shopping mall and the deep-discount clothing store, population shifts and the rise of online commerce.

The survivors say they've adapted to changing tastes in fashion, adding more sportswear and casual wear, for example, or replacing a full line of boys' dress clothes with women's clothing.

They say they provide top-level service and high-quality suits and dress clothes to a customer base that includes the sons and grandsons of previous shoppers.

"I think Buffalonians are exceedingly loyal," said Tom Barnett, owner of Tom Barnett Custom Tailored Clothing in Snyder and New York City.

These stores are selling men's suits that can cost $800, $1,000 or much more, in a blue-collar community that has a reputation for appreciating coupons more than cutting-edge fashion.

But store employees say people are willing to pay a little -- or a lot -- more to get the best quality and a personal touch, along with free alterations.

"We're not faddish. Our best customer is a guy who can appreciate workmanship, who can appreciate value, who appreciates longevity of style," said John Huber of O'Connell's.

Napoli's, O'Connell's and the like serve a clientele that doesn't want to shop at the mall, that cares about clothes or that works in a field where dressing well still matters.

Their customers are mostly professionals -- doctors, lawyers, judges and business owners -- but also laborers and people who need a suit for a wedding, a graduation ceremony or another special occasion.

"The most important thing about this store is the service," Anthony Napoli said. "The product speaks for itself -- we have to supply the service."

Napoli's sells suits from Ermenegildo Zegna and Canali that typically have a slimmer cut and can start at $650 off the rack.

The store's custom-made suits start at $1,050 and can cost up to $5,000. Employees offer espresso to customers while they shop, and they maintain a shopping history for each customer.

Joseph Napoli opened the company's first store in 1972 at the corner of Bailey Avenue and East Lovejoy Street. He moved the store five years later to Delaware and Kenmore avenues, where Napoli's remained until closing that location in 2005.

Napoli's already had opened a second store on Transit Road in East Amherst three years earlier, said Anthony Napoli, Joseph's brother, who joined the company in 1980.

"We were following the money, basically," he said, noting the growth in Clarence, East Amherst and Williamsville.

He said business is going well at the new location, but Napoli's recently asked the Clarence Zoning Board of Appeals for permission to put up a 14-square-foot LED sign to boost sales and make the store more visible to passing motorists.

"We're trying to get more exposure," said Anthony Napoli.

O'Connell's, on Main Street near the University at Buffalo South Campus, was started by three Buffalo Bills players in the late 1950s.

Employee Bernie Huber bought them out a short time later, and the store has remained in the Huber family ever since.

The store draws customers from Western and Central New York, Pennsylvania and Ontario with its classic American suits and sport coats -- such as an H. Freeman & Son sack suit with a natural shoulder -- made from seersucker, madras and other fabrics. "We're American-style, through and through," said Bernie's son, John. "What we sold in the '50s is very similar to what we sell today."

Wool suits start at $495 -- with custom suits costing $2,000 or $3,000 -- and their sizes have expanded as the American male has expanded over the years.

>Deep roots

Riverside Men's Shop served generations of customers, beginning with its first store at Ontario and Tonawanda streets.

After a fire destroyed that building in 1940, the replacement shop was the first in the city to boast air-conditioning and fluorescent lighting.

In response to changing population and shopping patterns, Riverside Men's Shop moved to the suburbs -- first to Williamsville, in 1987, before losing the lease in 2003, and then to the Northtown Plaza, in 2004.

Riverside Men's Shop closed its Tonawanda Street store in 2005, and James and Natalie Neumann bought the Northtown Plaza store in 2007.

They offer suits, blazers, sport jackets and dress slacks, with suit prices off the rack ranging from $280 to $800. Custom Hart Schaffner Marx suits start at $1,000.

"We can sell a cheaper suit, but it's going to fall apart in a few years," said Tom Lanighan, the store's sales manager.

The New York Store isn't high-end, with suits starting at $199 and topping out at $575.

Alan Kurtzman's grandfather, Henry Kahn, started the company in 1929, around the corner from its current location on Central Avenue. His father, Shelly Kurtzman, is retired but stays involved in the business.

"We're the type of store that used to be in every neighborhood 20 years ago, 50 years ago," Alan Kurtzman said.

Like the others, the New York Store tries to strike a balance of remaining current on fashion trends while still offering the classics -- blue blazers and charcoal gray dress pants, for example -- that customers expect to find.

"We get to know our customers. We know their families," Kurtzman said. "Sometimes people stop in just to say hello."

Tom Barnett has stores on Main Street in Snyder and on Park Avenue in Manhattan. He modeled the stores, which are open by appointment, after the shops on London's Savile Row.

He produces custom-made suits, after a lengthy fitting session with his clients, of high-quality materials that start at $800 and can reach $30,000 for the best suits made from the most expensive fabrics and threads. "They're Old World, artisanal garments," Barnett said.

His customers include professional athletes, elected officials and high-powered business executives, and Barnett also flies to meet customers -- often Buffalo expatriates -- in Boston, Chicago and other cities.

"I didn't know these guys existed, until I started my business," Barnett said.

>Just enough change

These men's clothing stores vary by price and selection, but they all strive to build close, long-term relationships with their customers.

They face myriad challenges, starting with the economy. Even someone willing to pay $4,000 for a suit may worry during a recession.

"When the stock market suffers -- that's our customer," Riverside's Natalie Neumann said. "We're a luxury item."

Another threat comes from casual Fridays, an informal fashion concept that has spread to every day of the week in some offices and that makes Natalie Neumann cringe.

The stores have adjusted by offering clothing that reflects less-formal modern tastes.

Riverside Men's Shop has had success in selling Buffalo-themed belts, flip-flops and polo shirts, along with T-shirts featuring Sattler's and other long-gone local companies.

At Napoli's, the store has added a line of Nike Golf clothes -- the shop isn't far from Transit Valley and Brookfield country clubs -- and has boosted its offerings of colorful, lightweight shirts and other vacation-wear. The Nike shirts start at $50.

The New York Store replaced its line of boys' formal clothing with women's clothes and began pushing into big and tall sizes. Tom Barnett Custom Tailored Clothing has started making slightly less-expensive suits for high school students, college students and young adults.

These stores also have fought back a challenge from mall and big-box men's clothing stores, including the shops that offer buy-one, get-one-free sales on suits and dress clothes.

The Internet has helped and hurt the stores. Sites such as thetiebar.com and cufflinks.com, for example, offer accessories at discounted prices, while upscale clothiers from Vineyard Vines to Brooks Brothers offer convenient online shopping.

Huber said some of O'Connell's suppliers have started selling online, directly to consumers, and the store has stopped doing business with those companies.

But, for the most part, people don't want to buy something without having the chance to try it on and interact with a sales associate.

And most of the stores have started selling their own clothes online. Several have set up Facebook pages and have made other efforts to reach prospective customers on the Internet.

"We're only a click, or a phone call, away," Huber said.

email: swatson@buffnews.com