By Stacey Dresner
EAST LONGMEADOW – Next to the front door of White’s Clothing Store in East Longmeadow is a gold-colored “W” which used to be part of the A.O. White sign when that venerable men’s clothing store was located at Baystate West – now Tower Square — in downtown Springfield.
Lewis White took the letter and installed it on the front of his new store as a way of remaining connected to the store that his father Albert Oscar White founded more than 60 years ago.
As he sits in a comfy chair in a seating area of the store, jumping up occasionally to engage a customer about a piece of merchandise, he tells the story of how his father Albert got his start in business.
“After World War II, he was working for Regal Shoes, a shoe store in the north end of Springfield,” Lewis says. “One day, the guy who owned Florsheim Shoes stopped in Springfield to visit his daughter at Smith College. He had an hour to kill in Springfield and he wandered into Regal Shoes. He started talking to my father about shoes and by the time the hour was over, he told my father he was going to set him up with his own Florsheim store, which he did. That is how my dad came to be in business for himself.”
First operating his own Florsheim Shoe store in Springfield, Albert White went on to add men’s clothing to the mix and the business became A.O White, the premier men’s tailored clothing store in Springfield for many years.
Last July, when its lease was up, A.O. White closed its last store at East Longmeadow Center Village. In September, Lewis opened up White’s Clothing in a smaller space down the street.
“As time changed, we tried to adjust our model to fit what was going on,” he explained. “I moved out of the space in Longmeadow nine years ago to the space in East Longmeadow because it had more space. It was a new center and they wanted an anchor tenant to come and be a catalyst for retail. So we moved there with the plan to expand our product offerings and broaden our mix of merchandise. And after a great first year, along came 2008. One day I walked into the office and found out everyone’s home equity and everyone’s investments and many of their retirements had been pretty much wiped out. Since then it has been a slow progression trying to get back to pre-2008 levels.”
What Lewis was left with is what he calls a “a drastically changed retail landscape.”
“The store went from being the right size to too big…so we were looking for a new model. I looked around and said to myself, ‘Times have changed. The old retail models don’t work anymore. Having a large mini-department store that is open seven days a week paying a lot of rent and maintaining a high level of inventory is a tough way to go.’ So I looked around at other businesses and said to myself. ‘What is the food truck version of the clothing store?’”
In September, Lewis opened that version — White’s Clothing, a store selling upscale sportswear, mostly for women, but with some menswear as well, like pieces from Tommy Bahama.
Lewis and his wife Kathy own and operate the business, which offers everything from designer dresses and knit separates to cashmere sweaters, scarves and other accessories, and chic handbags. On any visit, the store could be featuring trunk show merchandise from some of White’s special vendors. The store is bright and airy, with clothing hung from sleek metal racks on wheels, much like the garment racks on display in designer showrooms in New York. Lewis and Kathy travel to New York and California to find just the right clothing to complement White’s evolving style.
The new store is a testament to White’s ability to adapt over the years to changes in retail and in customers’ tastes.
But back in its heyday, A.O White was the place to go for fine men’s clothing.
“It was a meeting place for everybody,” Lewis said. “We had a real cross-section of all the professionals in town and of course back in those days everyone wore suits.”
His family has long ties to the Springfield area and were active in the local Jewish community. “I grew up at Sinai Temple. My grandfather, Louis Gilgoff, was one of the founders. I was bar mitzvah at Sinai, as were my two daughters. And the picture of me in my confirmation class is still up on the wall there,” he laughs. His mother Barbara was very active in the Sinai Sisterhood, Hadassah, and the NCJW. “She was a real doer, organizer and participant in Jewish charities.”
Lewis joined his father’s business in 1978 — but he didn’t always plan to work at A.O. White. After graduating from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., he moved to California.
“I worked in various businesses in California. Then when my dad decided to expand his business here, taking a space in Baystate West — a much larger space — I decided to come back and go into the family business.”
Albert opened a women’s clothing store on the floor above A.O. White and Lewis ran that.
“At the time Springfield had a large population of working women, so my focus was on career,” he recalled. “We did suits, the floppy bow ties that were in style at the time. Downtown Springfield was vibrant in the 70s and ‘80s and we dressed everyone.”
In 1983, Lewis opened up his own store in Longmeadow, selling what he calls business casual.
“It was not a suit and tie store, it was a sportswear store. It was kind of my vision for what the next phase of the business would be. And we called it A.O. White Sport to differentiate from the clothing model we had.”
At his new store, White’s goal is to be flexible.
“You have to be able to turn on a dime with economic trends and fashion trends. It is a more casual world and you have to adjust to that model in your merchandise, but also in your store décor and the way you present your merchandise. Kathy and I went on a road trip in California and looked at stores there and also at show rooms in New York and saw basically flexible open spaces, with merchandise on wheels,” he said, pointing toward the clothing on wheels in his store. “So this store never looks the same month to month. We might feature shoes one month, then we might do mens’ heavily in the fall and winter. Right now we have a trunk show from one of our vendors. What we tried to do is get a store that is big enough for our needs. It is the equivalent — not quite of a pop-up store — but something like that.”
A resident of Enfield, Conn., White is a longtime member of Springfield JCC. Every year for the past 30 years, A.O. White, and now White’s Clothing, has been a sponsor of the JCC’s Father’s Day Road Race as well as its Chanukah Road Race. Also a supporter of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Lewis has run in its Pan Mass Challenge.
“I love this community. I grew up here, and I left for a while…but I am glad to be back here now and I really appreciate what this community has to offer,” he said. “I appreciate the personal relationships we have built up over the years and I think it is good for this community to have a place like this where people can come and meet and find nice things. We’re still having fun and as long as we are having fun and our customers are having fun, it’s all good.”
White’s Clothing is located at 41 Maple St. and is closed on Sunday and Monday. For more information, call (413) 525-1800.