by George Brant
Don’s Group Attire of Seattle, Wash., sits on 7,000 square feet of property, spans two floors, operates four embroidery machines with a total of 21 heads, features a huge showroom and provides uniforms for restaurants, cruise lines and the coaching staffs of football teams. And it all started with one item of clothing: the blazer.
When Don Sidel returned from military service in 1946, he decided to join the cleaning and pressing business of his father, Archie. But Don was a born salesman, and it wasn’t too long before he persuaded his father to expand the family business into retail as well. The store was dubbed “Don’s Men’s Shop,” and it wasn’t long before the cleaning and pressing business was history.
Business was fine, but not spectacular, until Don Sidel had a brainstorm. “I came up with an idea for the University of Washington,” he recalls. “I went over and talked to the athletic director about outfitting their teams with blazers.” The suggestion stalled until the rowing team was invited to Russia. “We did blazers, slacks, ties and emblems for all of the crew, and Keith Jackson–ABC’s voice of college football–accompanied the team and we outfitted him too. So that really started it.”
In 1960, the Washington Huskies football team earned a trip to the Rose Bowl, and once again, Don’s was chosen to provide the athletes’ attire. After that trip, Don’s Men’s Store handled the travel clothes for all of the University of Washington’s athletic teams.
The rewards for his work were not strictly financial. “I’ll never ever forget, one of the boys on the basketball team–one of the kids–said to me, ‘Don, I want you to know that this is the best thing that ever happened to me.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘The only reason I got to go to the University of Washington was because I’m on a scholarship–my parents are not that wealthy. And when we would go away to play other teams on the weekends, I dreaded it.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He answered, ‘Well, everybody on the team would be wearing a new sports coat or a new shirt or tie, and I had to wear the same one I always had because I couldn’t afford a new one. But now when we go on the road and I look the same as the rest of my teammates, I really feel good.’ “
In 1962, when Seattle was selected to host the World’s Fair, Don Sidel sealed his reputation as the city’s blazer regent. “We were able to get the contract from the Fair to do the blazers for all of the display companies. We outfitted them in different colors, and that really put us on the map. From then on, anyone who wanted blazers, if they’d go to the department stores or any of those places, they’d tell ’em to go down and see Don, ’cause he’s the Blazer King!’ “
Local residents were not the only ones to patronize Don’s Men’s Shop; entertainers would visit Don’s as well. Sammy Davis Jr. himself was a frequent visitor to the shop. Sidel recalls, “When he’d come to town to perform, he’d always stop by the store, and he’d bring other entertainers in and sell ’em clothes and make ’em deals–we were lucky if we made any money!”
But in 1980, Don grew tired of the retail end of the business and decided to close his store. After he sold all of his existing inventory, Don accepted an offer from a childhood friend for a small office in his building, and it was there that “Don’s Group Attire” was born. Sidel worked out of the 400-square-foot converted cooler, focusing on the apparel he knew best–blazers and slacks. He outsourced his silk screening and embroidery orders, driving 40 miles roundtrip to an embroiderer in Tacoma (sometimes twice a day) when orders were placed.
Don’s new venture was growing steadily at about the same time the new Seahawks professional football franchise was gaining popularity with the Seattle fans. In a welcomed coincidence, the equipment man from the University of Washington went to work for the new NFL team, and Don soon received the call to outfit the entire coaching staff with slacks and shirts. Then, in 1982, the Seattle equipment manager spoke to the Buffalo Bills’ equipment manager, and before he knew it, Don’s Group Attire had an opening order of 400 shirts from the New York team. Twenty years later, the relationship is still intact, and the Bills are among Don’s most loyal customers.
Word of mouth wouldn’t allow Don to remain a one-man operation for long. His new business steadily grew, and when his elder son, Alan, mentioned he was tiring of the travel involved with his position at Motorola, Don suggested they team up. Alan says, “When I came into the business, Dad was about ready to retire, but I think I infused a little new blood into the company.” Indeed, soon after Alan signed on, Don’s Group Attire moved to bigger quarters, complete with its own one-head embroidery machine.
The Sidels relocated several times over the next few years until the father and son eventually decided they needed their own building. In 1999, Don’s Group Attire moved to its new, two-story facility at 5216 First Ave. South in Seattle. Occupying one floor and leasing out the second, the company’s relocation even came with a brand new partner: Don’s younger son, Art.
Art had spent 15 years working in the hotel industry, but like Alan, the travel was beginning to wear on him and his family. Art recalls, “It was either stop talking about coming back and working in the family business or do it.” Art explains that the brothers “have skills that are comp- limentary to each other. Coming out of the hotel business and having managed 250 people, dealing with employees is a no-brainer for me.”
Things have changed since Don’s sons joined the business. At their insistence, the store is now 100 percent computerized–both inventory and apparel design. The staff has grown from one to 11, and a total of 21 embroidery heads have replaced their old, one-head predecessor and are ensconced in the back room. The store’s catalog is posted online on the company Web site (www.donsgroupattire.com). This has been a very helpful marketing tool since Don’s supplies uniforms not only to local customers, but also to national restaurant chains, cleaners, parking garages and Holland America Cruise Lines as well.
But while some things have changed at Don’s Group Attire, the reason for their success has not. Don explains: “You know, in this business, if you only need eight or 10 shirts, most places won’t even talk to you; they want a minimum. In our promotional material, we always make sure to stress that no order is too small. I tell people one or more is an order; anything less than one I can’t do. You’d be surprised what these ‘one-sies and two-sies’ have built into. And if I sell you 25 or 30 shirts for your company, and then you get two more people and you need two more shirts, I can’t say to you, ‘I’m sorry, I need at least two dozen shirts to do an order for you.’ We don’t do that; that’s how we keep ’em–service.”
The Buffalo Bills’ account is a perfect example. The fact that the Bills play on the opposite coast from Don’s was, and still is, a frequent topic of conversation for the 77-year-old entrepreneur. “People say to me, ‘Why do they come way out here?’ Well, we treat ’em right, we give ’em service, and our prices are right–we go to bat for ’em, or in their case, go the extra yard. They don’t wear the clothes we furnish on game days because there are specific dress policies dictated by the NFL, but if they want something special, we do it.” Don turns around orders in two days or less for his New York customers, as well as provides them with any article of clothing they need, including special letterman-style retirement jackets that are displayed throughout Ralph Wilson Stadium.
And while the trend toward casual attire may result in more sweater or knit shirt sales at Don’s Group Attire, Don Sidel will still be happy to sell that blazer.
|Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Fall & Winter 2001 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.
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