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Top Hat is Always in Style

Top Hat Imagewear designs and manufactures custom attire for employees in the hospitality industry including hotels, restaurants, spas, resorts, clubs and casinos. Because its clients are generally regarded as four- and five-star properties, Top Hats owners like to refer to ourselves as the Mercedes Benz of the uniform business, says Lauren Steinger.

That label truly fits because Top Hats customer list reads like a whos who of the hospitality industry. Top Hat clothes the employees of such leading hotels as the Waldorf-Astoria, The Carlyle, The Drake, and Hotel Del Coronado. Among the companys hotel group clients are the Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Grand Hyatt, Hyatt Regency, Fairmont and InterContinental Hotels. Resort and spa clients include Canyon Ranch, Caneel Bay, French Lick Resort & Spa, Boca Raton Resort & Spa, Regent Palms Turks and Caicos, and the Atlantis Resort & Casino.

Hotel/casino employees who work for Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and the Borgata in Atlantic City, NJ, wear uniforms designed by Top Hat. So do the employees of MGM Grand, Caesars Palace, Mandalay Bay and the Bellagio, all in Las Vegas.

Well-dressed servers add to the atmosphere at a top restaurant. A number of legendary restaurants and chefs have chosen Top Hat Imagewear to design the uniforms their employees wear. Among them are Alain Duccasse Group, Bobby Flay Steak, Wolfgang Puck American Grille and Cut, Charlie Trotter C, Gramercy Tavern and Cielo by Angela Hartnett. Employees attire is especially noticeable in the dining rooms of private clubs because the members dine there so often. Top Hats impeccable designs are worn at numerous private clubs, such as Colony, Metropolitan, Cornell, Friars, Knickerbocker, Yale and New York Yacht.

While most of Top Hats clients are in the hospitality and entertainment businesses, the company does not limit itself to these fields. Staff members at Calvin Klein, Cartier, Christies Auction House and other firms wear Top Hat-designed uniforms. In addition, Top Hat occasionally has some specialized clients such as the casts of the Metropolitan Opera House, Broadway shows, and movies and television.

Whats remarkable about Top Hats distinguished and loyal list of clients is that the company doesnt have dozens of designers and numerous locations. It has always been a family business. The same family still owns and operates it in the same town where it began.

That beginning was in 1923, when Saul and Ann Steinger opened a mom-and-pop shop in Hempstead, NY. The Steingers specialized in renting tuxedos and making custom suits. Their son Alan enjoyed waiting on customers. Even when he was 13 or 14, the customers asked for him by name.

Alan discovered that he was very comfortable dealing with people. If you genuinely care about them being happy with the service or product you provide, you do the right thing. You always provide what the customer thought he was getting. The deal is the deal, and I want to keep my word.

Alan thought about going into hotel management and says, I always had a passion for clothing, even as a teenager. His two interests would meet in designing and supplying work attire for employees at the most prestigious hotels in New York.

When Saul Steinger died in 1973, Alan, then 19, took over the company. Under his direction, Top Hat grew into the much larger company that it is today. Alan started with only a few uniform samples, going door to door to call on the most prestigious hotels in New York. Top Hat was competing against much larger manufacturers. Gradually, the quality and innovative style of its work apparel brought the company recognition and repeat orders. Today Alan Steinger is president, CEO and creative designer of Top Hat.

Ann Steinger retired, a bit reluctantly, in 2007 at the age of 92. In recent years, she had worked full time in the accounting department, managing the books and authorizing checks. Alans wife, Marion Steinger, is Top Hats top salesperson. Their daughter Lauren began working full time for the company in September 2006. Like many children whose parents own a business, Lauren worked there during school vacations. She did filing and answered the phones. Over the years, she learned the practical and creative sides of the uniform business.

Lauren says her mom is very good at what she does and shes one tough cookie to beat, and her father is the most dedicated, hard-working person I have ever met. Hes very passionate about what he does, and he always tries to work current fashion trends into our uniform line.

Laurens job title is design coordinator/account executive. I do everything from design new uniforms, manage the website, sell, produce fashion shows for high-profile clients, coordinate our photo shoots and Im even our fit model, she explains.

Having the Steinger name means that your job entails a lot more than your title describes, Lauren says. And as the youngest and newest family member to join the company full time, I have a small hand in everything here at Top Hat.

Laurens two cousins, brothers Jason and Garrett Steinger, also work in the family business. They started working in the shipping department when they were 16. Jason is now in sales but also works in other departments. Garrett works in the customer service department and manages the tailor and the drivers schedules.

Many of Top Hats employees have worked for the company for years. Most of them are people that I have known my whole life; theyre people that have watched me grow up and will probably be there one day when I get married, Lauren says. She characterized Top Hat as a wonderful and comfortable work environment.

Alan does most of the uniform designing, but, as his daughter explains, everyone with a new idea has the chance to produce a sample of their garment and present it to him.

Top Hat has about 100 employees. Most of them work at the 30,000-square-foot Hempstead location. The rest work at the companys smaller factory in Queens.

Clients, especially the busiest, high-profile ones, appreciate the convenience of Top Hats location and proximity to New York City. As Lauren says, Clients can visit the Top Hat showroom, meet the staff, see where everything is made and put together an entire uniform program for their staff in one afternoon.

Top Hats uniforms are custom-designed, made to the clients order. Colors, fabrics, sleeve lengths and the addition of monograms, logos, emblems and other details can be almost anything the client specifies. The uniforms shown on the companys website are limited to samples of past orders to show potential customers. Customers can bring in a design to be copied as is or with some changes. They can also bring a few ideas and Alan and his staff will create a new uniform from scratch for them.

Alan attributes Top Hats success not only to hard work, but because we focus on five-star hotel clientele, alone or with celebrity chef restaurants, and now spas. Our goal is to create a product that is of Neiman Marcus-type quality. He discovered that there was a demand for such high-end, specialized work attire. We do it faster than anyone in the U.S. We are able to be nimble and also supply quality products. Thats a good combination.

Top Hats clientele could not be served by just any uniform company. High-profile clients demand hands-on service, Alan says. They demand providers that can turn on a dime.

He explained that hotel and casino owners are so focused on the exterior and interior design and construction of their new facilities that they often wait until close to opening dates to think about what their employees will wear. Then they want fabulous, innovative designs that enhance their image for every employee in a very short time. Working from drawings of what the new facility will look like, the staff designs three options, each employee position that is high profile.

Making their presentation to the client, they use specialized software to drop the image of the employee in each distinctive outfit into a replica of the exact location where he or she will be working. The client can see how the imagewear looks, compared to the colors and styles of the employees surroundings. The entire process of securing an order can involve several rounds of interviews, consultations and preparing samples. Then the order, sometimes for thousands of individual garments, has to be finished and delivered on time.

We make it faster than our competition can, Alan says. We are the most expensive too. In spite of that, the work is there for us. 2007 was a record sales year for Top Hat, as was 2006.

Alans guiding principle is thinking like a high-end retail clothing designer. Weve tried to bring fashion into the uniform business, he says. Everything we make is retail quality. Were trying to be the last exit before the client goes to Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus.

With that concept underlying his business, Alan prefers to use the term imagewear rather than uniforms. Uniform waters down the concept. Imagewear spices it up, he explains, noting that what front-area employees (doormen, front desk clerks, bellhops, hostesses, etc.) wear is the first opportunity for clients to project their five-star image.

Alan says the best part of his career is just to see something go from a concept to the finished line, then to deliver the product and hear people say they love it. Having a clients employee say This is so nice, I would have paid for it with my own money is great.

Top Hat has few real competitors. We hear, every day, that there are very few companies who are doing what were doing. We can design and make everything from a bustier for a woman employee in a casino to a hotel doormans overcoat, and whatever the hundreds of other employees need, Alan says.

Even with years of repeat orders from loyal clients, Alan does not take Top Hats success for granted. You cant rest on your laurels. Every chance at the plate youve got to go for a grand slam, he says.

With Lauren, Garrett and Jason Steinger working to continue the high standards of Top Hat Imagewear, the future looks bright. Alan says he will be involved for many more years in all phases of the company. He sees lots of opportunities for Top Hat. I still feel, even after 30 years, that were a new business. Im very motivated, very excited, he says.

Top Hat Imagewear
49 N. Franklin St.
Hempstead, NY 11550
(800) 452-3331
www.tophatimagewear.com

Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Spring & Summer 2008 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.
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