NEW YORK CITY – Suite 37A at the Waldorf Astoria isn’t where you expect to find Tom Barnett. He owns a men’s clothing shop on Main Street in Snyder. He’s known in Buffalo youth sports circles as the founder of a youth hockey organization.
But none of that would make you think he’s a Park Avenue guy, too.
If the private entrance and special key card you need to access to the “Towers” section of the famous hotel doesn’t warn you off, the plaque mounted on the cream-colored wall outside the suite will:
The Residence Of
His Royal Highness
Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz Bin Abdulrahman Al Saud
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
This is SO not Main Street in Snyder.
But for Barnett, a clothier who specializes in designing custom suits of fine fabric (the kind made of threads sheared from rare animals living in rugged mountains), the Waldorf is home.
So is Snyder, where he has a cozy, appointment-only second-floor shop in a brick and white-trimmed building that also includes Dalia’s Bridal, Frame & Save and the social media firm The Mac Groups.
These are the two settings of Tom Barnett’s business: Pure suburban Buffalo and purebred Park Avenue posh. Though Barnett, who is 56, grew up in Eggertsville and lives with his wife, Lisa, in Snyder, he’s equally at ease in both places.
Western New York? The Waldorf?
Doesn’t matter. You get the same guy – gregarious and Beau Brummelled to every detail – in both cities. And you get the same bespoke suits, too, which is a key detail to Barnett’s business model. For clients with an inclination to invest in custom clothing (and the bankroll to spend thousands on a suit), Barnett brings a slice of Savile Row to Buffalo. And for clients with Western New York roots and an inclination to keep them, he brings a bit of Buffalo to New York City.
Every month, Barnett leases space at the Waldorf, setting up a shop in a suite that likely was used before him by headliners and world leaders. The previous occupant of Suite 37A was Chinese President Xi Jinping, in town one week earlier for the United Nations General Assembly, and before him, Johnny Depp.
Now it’s Barnett’s turn.
It’s 8:30 a.m. on a luminous fall day in midtown Manhattan. Barnett is working with a young client, a man of maybe 30, with a mop of brown hair and suspenders holding up his slightly baggy pleated suit pants. They’re culling through clothing options, and there are many.
Barnett has transformed what would normally be the dining room of the expansive suite into a couture showroom. The dark wooden dining table is covered with swatch books of luxury fabric from companies like Loro Piana, Dormeuil and Esmeralda Zegna. A rainbow of colorful ties and scarves and patterned socks adorn the hutches and mantles. Nestled amongst the wool and cashmere are an array of cufflinks: Superman and Batman, Wall Street and electric guitars, bacon and eggs. Fabric for custom shirts, leather samples for handmade belts, upper body mannequins with snazzy jackets – it’s all here.
This is high-end, appointment-only shopping, with Barnett serving as your custom clothier. He takes your every measurement, from the reach of your arms (one may be longer) to the height of your chest (all men are not equal) to the rise of your rear. (Barnett ahbors extra room “in the can.”) Clients choose every detail, from the color of the buttonhole threads to the pattern of the silk lining of the jacket.
A jacket or suit can take six to 12 weeks to finish, with Barnett’s offsite tailors putting up to 65 hours into each garment.
His customers pay him well, usually between $2,900 and $4,000 a suit, but often well beyond that. A customer recently picked up an $8,000 tuxedo from Barnett’s Snyder shop. In New York, a client purchased a sports coat for nearly the same amount. The difference isn’t in the cut of the cloth, but rather the fabric itself. The more exclusive, the more expensive. At the high end: A suit custom made as a gift for a retiring CEO, with his favorite catchphrase subtly woven into the pinstripe of the fabric, was tagged at $29,000.
Barnett alternately refers to his products as “works of art” and “investment clothing.”
“Our clients view it that way,” he says, “the same way they invest in their homes, their families, their occupations, their futures.”
That’s what brought in the young-ish guy Barnett is servicing on this New York morning. He’s in the financial business, considers a sharp wardrobe to be part of his career ascension, and is building his closet piece by piece.
But he’s lost weight, and the suit he’s wearing is sagging.
Barnett doesn’t like it.
“If you’re going to wear these clothes, you should look great,” Barnett says, telling the man to bring the suit back to get re-cut when Barnett is next in town. He adds a caveat for the meantime: “Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still look better than almost every other guy out on the street.”
Barnett bleeds confidence. It’s in his words, which are eloquent and voluminous, with equal dashes of brashness and self-deprecation. (At one point during a lengthy story, he pauses to joke about his own “bloviating.”)
It’s in his dress, too: On this day at the Waldorf, he’s wearing a navy blue box plaid suit with a white shirt, white pocket square, yellow and blue patterned bow tie, navy blue and black socks and black buckled shoes. The circular glasses that perch on the tip of his nose give him a professorial flair.
Barnett has an air of that authority and, man, can it take him to some unexpected places.
‘A hidden treasure’
As a young man, Barnett learned style from his father, Donald, who was advertising manager for the Buffalo Courier-Express. Every night, Donald came home and carefully hung his jacket and pants on wooden hangers, inserted cedar wood trees into his dress shoes. “Everything had a place,” says his son, who as a young man parlayed that fashion sense into a career.
Tom Barnett became a partner in The Squire Shop, a men’s store in Snyder, until the place burned in a 1989 fire. Rather than reopen his old business or go to work for another, Barnett took a leap. He traveled to London, talked his way into helping at some Savile Row tailor shops, absorbed all he could about the nuances of high style, and back in Buffalo started his own company, Tom Barnett Custom Tailored Clothing.
“It’s a hidden little treasure here,” says Dennis Vacco, a former New York attorney general and now partner at the Buffalo law firm Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman LLP. Vacco purchased a blue suit from Barnett last November. The $2,200 he spent was about $700 more than the price tag for an off-the-rack blue pinstripe suit (“the go-to for lawyers, ” Vacco says) he had purchased from Brooks Brothers.
The difference is found in the fit: After it’s worn a bit, a custom suit contours to your body in the same way a baseball glove shapes to your hand. But to Vacco, it was also in the look. The first time he wore the suit, Vacco was in Manhattan, having coffee with a client in a park near the federal courthouse. A well-dressed woman in her 50s approached him, leaned over and said, “I love your suit. Where did you get that suit?”
Vacco laughed. “I got it in Buffalo,” he said.
A Waldorf waltz
Though Barnett’s business is now 25 years old, it was only a decade ago that he began setting up shop in the Waldorf at the behest of Buffalo expats living in New York.
“He’s not a one-word answer guy; he’s a talker,” says Joe Kennedy, an investment banker-turned-developer who grew up in Amherst and has lived in New York full-time since 1987. “So when we’d get together, it was always nice to connect and hear about Buffalo and what’s going on in the city.”
Barnett isn’t just a conversationalist with his clients; he’s a talker with everyone. When he wrapped his morning appointment at the Waldorf, he took a guest on a whirlwind tour of the hotel.
He takes the elevator up to the 42nd floor of the towers to show off the doorway of the official residence of the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
“How’s it going today?” he says to the uniformed diplomatic security officer, who nods and mumbles in return. Then it was down to the 35th floor, the location of the Waldorf’s presidential suite, where every commander in chief since 1931 has stayed. (No longer; since Chinese business interests purchased the Waldorf last year, President Obama has stayed elsewhere for security concerns.)
Next is the lobby, where a cadre of bellhops and Barnett greet each other by name. “He is built on relationships,” says Barnett’s wife, Lisa. “He knows everyone at the Waldorf. He stops and makes time for everybody.”
After pointing out a pair of display windows with his logo and clothing on 50th Street, and another set of glass display cases with “Tom Barnett” in gold-leaf lettering in the lobby, he walks up to the ballroom. Talking all the way, pointing out the intricacies of the famous space and recounting a time he met Elton John here, Barnett walks straight past a line of burly security guards and through the ballroom doors.
Inside the dimly lit room are a few rows of serious-looking executive types sitting in plush leather swivel chairs. They’re focused on a dais, where NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sits with some of his top aides. One football executive is standing at a podium, giving a presentation on the league’s international expansion.
Barnett quickly recognizes Goodell from the night before, when he ran into the commissioner in the private towers lobby and handed him a business card.
“This is the owners’ meetings,” Barnett says. “We’re not supposed to be in here.” But he looks unfazed, and keeps pointing out some of the design details of the ballroom. He’s not wearing a lanyard with an access pass, and security guards are eyeing him. They look suspicious, but not enough so to approach Barnett. With the expensive suit, natty bow tie, smart glasses and can-do demeanor, Barnett looks like he belongs.
But almost as quickly as he walked into the meeting of the billionaire’s club, he’s walking out and taking the elevator to 37A. Back inside the suite that long belonged to Saudi royals, Barnett finds his 23-year-old son, Oliver, has awakened. A graduate student at Georgetown who’s interning with the Washington Capitals’ video coach, Oliver took a late-night bus from D.C. the previous evening to visit his mom and dad in New York.
Oliver and his friend Chris McKernon are sitting on a blue- and red-striped couch in the living room. Oliver is huddled over his laptop, working on a paper for school.
“You guys want to take a schvitz?” Barnett asks the younger men.
Oliver, who has light blond hair that matches his mother’s, mockingly recoils. “Dad, I hate that word,” he says, smiling.
‘A short memory’
Barnett changes out of his suit and into a pink plaid shirt, white plants, dark blue slip-on shoes and a black fabric belt with candy-colored polka dots of pink, blue, yellow, orange and green. Moments later he’s back in the elevator, heading to the Waldorf’s private gym and spa. He grabs a few water bottles, heads into the men’s locker room, and neatly folds his clothes into a locker as he wraps himself in a towel. Barnett walks a few steps to a glass door, opens it and steps into a thick, foggy, steam bath.
The thermostat reads 160 degrees.
“I do a half hour every time I’m here,” Barnett says. The skin on his balding head is already glistening. “This makes you feel so good, so refreshed.”
In this locker-room setting, Barnett’s mind switches to another passion: hockey.
When both his sons (Oliver and Cloogie, who’s now a 20-year-old student at Elon University) were kids, Barnett wanted a youth hockey league that prized character development. He couldn’t find one to his liking, so 15 years ago, he started one. The Buffalo Shamrocks began with 30 players; today, the organization is capped at 300. Barnett, who won an award from National Hockey League Hall of Famer Mark Messier in 2009 for his service to youth hockey, still coaches learn-to-skate twice weekly.
The back of every Shamrocks jersey is emblazoned with the Latin phrase “Te Non Timeo” -- “Afraid of you I am not.” Barnett believes deeply in the lessons hockey teaches a kid. In his own childhood, Barnett says his years as a goalie taught him to control his emotions. “If someone scored on me, I thought of it as some super bad moment in time: A nuclear bomb just dropped on my dog, my puppy,” he says. “So I would react negatively. I would slam my stick.”
At the urging of his father, Barnett learned to ignore goals. When a puck slipped past him, he didn’t look back. He didn’t retrieve the puck. He wouldn’t even touch it. “I didn’t happen,” he says. “I moved on. I learned how to have a short memory and move beyond it.”
Nothing by halves
Barnett has a blindness to badness, an innate refusal to acknowledge the odds. His ideas are daunting – starting a high-fashion business in Buffalo in the early ’90s. They can be crazily large – opening in the Waldorf, where Brad and Angelina’s place is “just over there,” Barnett says, pointing out a window. And he’s about to do it again: Soon, Barnett will be opening in both Beverly Hills and Washington, D.C.
“Tom is a particular guy,” says Luke Mayes, who runs U.S. operations for the European fabric-maker Dormeuil. “He’s very specific about what he likes and he won’t stop at any roadblocks to get what he wants.”
On this afternoon at the Waldorf, Mayes set up his finest wares at a happy-hour party in Barnett’s suite. One of Barnett’s close friends and customers from Buffalo, Sean Insalaco, is in town with his business partner, Bobby Finan, to unveil Tommyrotter, their new line of gin and vodka.
The guest list includes Wall Street elite, developers, representatives of the consulates from Germany and Canada and anyone else with a connection to Barnett or his clients. Barnett is playing host, greeting everyone, gripping hands, giving hugs, posing for pictures. (Turns out there’s a certain rock-star element to having your name in gold-leaf lettering in the Waldorf.)
Mayes is showing off Dormeuil’s newest and most exclusive line of fabric, Extreme Vicuna, the fibers for which are sheared once every three years from the throat hairs of the endangered vicunas that live in the rugged Andes of Argentina. The resulting sports coats will cost upwards of $20,000 apiece – and Barnett fully expects to sell some.
“He doesn’t do anything by halves and he doesn’t cut corners,” Mayes said. He motions to the room, the same one that belongs alternately to Saudi royalty, red carpet royalty, and Tom Barnett.
“We’re here at the Waldorf Astoria,” he says. “We’re not here at some local hotel. He does things right.”