A Chicago luxury icon updates the power suit for today's executives
By Wendy Donahue
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
January 29, 2006
CHICAGO - With impish smile and long black tendrils that tickle the top of his lapel, Mike Cohen isn't cut from the same cloth as the prototypical CEO in a $4,000 made-to-measure suit.
But Cohen, who turned 40 this month, just might be a new prototype--both for CEO and for power suit.
At the helm of Chicago-based Oxxford Clothes for the past three years, Cohen has preserved Oxxford's nearly century-old tradition of the handstitched suit in its Near West Side factory. At the same time, he has injected elements of the iPod era--sleeker silhouettes, but with a sense of ease.
"Oxxford really is the best American clothing. There are little ladies in the factory who sew the sleeves onto the body," said Stan Gellers, who as a senior editor of the New York-based menswear bible DNR has followed Oxxford for years. "But Mike Cohen is a young guy with fresh ideas who wants to know the customer. The new thing happening today is the Echo Boomers, age 25 to 40, roughly--a growth area that people are beginning to pay attention to. He likes the good life, he wears fine clothes and finds the money to spend on them.
"He's tomorrow's Oxxford customer."
Which is one reason Oxxford added the slimmer-cut Radcliff jacket and flat-front pants to its collection this fall. Reception was nothing short of "fantastic," Cohen said.
Rocco Giovannangelo, director of quality and design, originally created the Radcliff just for Oxxford Vice President Scott Ruerup, 36.
"But we got so much reaction, now it's in the collection," said Cohen, who wore the Radcliff to a fall dinner that Neiman Marcus hosted inside Oxxford's West Loop factory. "We have a young team; we want to make clothes we want to wear also."
A key word is "also."
Oxxford's classic cuts--including pleated pants and roomier jackets--remain staples.
But even customers who climbed the highest ranks of corporate America wearing them, such as retired McDonald's chairman Jack Greenberg, are boldly branching out. That helps explain why Oxxford's business now breaks down to about 85 percent modern silhouettes to 15 percent traditional. Oxxford's sales have been up about 14 percent each of the last two years.
"He's doing both now--pleated and flat," said Donna Greenberg of her husband, who had just slipped away for an Oxxford suit fitting during the Neiman Marcus dinner. "Now that he lost all this weight--the two of us went on Weight Watchers--he looks great in everything."
Jerry Vainisi, general manager of the Chicago Bears from 1983 to 1986 and now president of Forest Park National Bank, prefers Oxxford's traditional suits partly because of his large, 6-foot-1 frame.
"They just fit very comfortably," Vainisi said at the Neiman Marcus event. "I used to wear a lot of Brioni, but there's something about these being made in Chicago."
Old World craftsmanship on Near West Side
Yet the suits retain the Old World workmanship that Giovannangelo, who was lured to Oxxford from Ralph Lauren about a decade ago, began learning at age 5 in Italy.
During the Neiman Marcus event, one of his workers, Maria Fina, who has been with Oxxford 21 years, demonstrated how she hand-stitches the canvas lining into the suit lapel, which gives it a soft roll, rather than the flat lapel of lesser suits. Machines are used only for long, straight seams, such as trouser inseams.
"When I came here," said Cohen, who followed Giovannangelo from Ralph Lauren, "Rocco would walk by in the factory and he'd be saying, 'One. One. One.' I said, 'What are you doing?' He said that when he started, he'd see [a sewer] making three, four stitches [quickly] and then pulling them because one was tight, the middle loose. So, he said, 'Every day, I say, I want one stitch. One stitch,' " with each one of perfect tension.
An Oxxford suit off the rack starts at about $2,600 at Neiman Marcus. Next up the hierarchy is made-to-measure, with a pattern and suit made according to a customer's measurements, about 20 percent higher in price.
For top-of-the-line custom suits, Oxxford makes a pattern for the customer, with two or three fittings during the creation of the suit to allow for meticulous adjustments. Choosing a super-fine woolen from Scotland or Italy, such as a Super 250, can drive the price as high as $25,000.
All bear subtle hallmarks of quality, such as 100 percent silk thread. Almost all have functioning buttonholes on the jacket sleeves.
The pants are crafted with what is known as a Hollywood waistband, so it conforms to the contour of the back.
"You notice a man from behind, sometimes there will be a roll where the belt and small of the back are," said Neiman Marcus Oakbrook personal shopper Jeff Bergenbine. "Not so with Oxx-ford. It's like a second skin."
Silhouettes may change slightly, but the fine fabrics from European mills help the suits--and the investment--stand the test of time for John Walter, former head of AT&T and R.R. Donnelley & Sons. At the Neiman Marcus dinner, he was wearing the same navy Oxxford style that President Bush wore during his first inauguration.
"I'm not even going to tell you how old the oldest Oxxford suit is that I still wear," Walter said. "But if you think about it, classic looks never go out of style."