In 1985, a fashion writer for The New York Times weighed the positives and negatives of a smoking jacket from the legendary haberdasher Amos Sulka & Co. On the one hand, the retail price was $1500. On the other hand, Anne-Marie Schiro wrote, “nothing from Sulka ever goes out of style.”
At once a by-word for classic conservative styling and wardrobe furnishings made to the highest standards of quality, A. Sulka & Co. became the preeminent clothier for the affluent from New York to London to Paris. The company’s loyal customers included such notables as the Duke of Windsor, Henry Ford, Winston Churchill, Clark Gable, Rudolf Valentino, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gary Cooper, and various members of the Kennedy and Rockefeller clans.
The company was founded under more humble circumstances in 1895 when Amos Sulka, a traveling salesman and retailer from Johnston, Pa., entered into a partnership with Leon Wormser, a custom shirt-maker from Alsace-Lorraine. That same year, A. Sulka & Co. opened its first storefront on lower Broadway in Manhattan. The business initially catered to stocky police officers and firefighters who found it difficult to find proper-fitting shirts. The partners then sought to expand their business by cultivating a wealthier clientele; ingeniously, they did so by first accommodating their butlers. The business flourished and, within a decade, the Paris shop opened at 2 Rue de Castiglione.
A few years later, the company began operating a laundry service to shrink and wash the cotton in the shirts. By 1917, the store was also taking in clothing from customers to prevent their shirts from being damaged at ordinary laundries – a service which enabled the company to survive the Great Depression. It was in the 1920s and 1930s that the Sulka dressing gown-robe came to prominence. The company offered several styles of robes, from the heavy silk brocade or jacquard fabric with abstract or representational designs, to lightweight French flannels with broad horizontal stripes and a heavily fringed belt or sash. Most dressing gowns featured large notched lapels with cord trimming along the edges, pockets, and cuffs, while other styles included motifs that depicted everything from bullfights to dances to Asian dragons. Fabric choices also included vicuna, velveteen, and wool, and ranged in price from $2.00 for a basic model to $90.00 for the luxurious vicuna. The more expensive models were referred to as “lounging robes,” while the inexpensive offerings in heavier cottons were simply called “bath robes”.
For aspiring social-climbers, the haberdasher represented the finest in all things sartorial. When he wasn’t schooling his protégés in the finer points of organized crime, Arnold Rothstein attempted to impress upon his charges the importance of dressing in a less flamboyant, more conservative manner. Decades later, Charles “Lucky” Luciano would fondly recall, “Arnold gimme a dozen French ties made by some guy by the name of Charvet. They was supposed to be the best and Arnold bought a hundred ties whenever he went to Paris. He also used to buy silk for his shirts by the bolt at a place in France called Sulka, and he always would give me some as a present . . .”
After Amos Sulka’s death in April 1946, the company remained a well-regarded institution among the international elite. Its continued financial success led the company to expand beyond the initial New York and Paris locations, and in this market saturation lay the eventual seeds of the company’s demise. Ultimately, the renowned haberdasher would add retail shops in London at 27 Old Bond Street, in addition to locations in New York City on Park, Madison, and Fifth Avenues, as well as a boutique in the Waldorf-Astoria. Shops were also opened in Chicago, San Francisco and Beverly Hills. It was more than the market could bear.
Perhaps the company’s difficulties may have been overcome by a sound business plan that redirected Sulka’s marketing efforts towards the development of a younger customer base. But with the business geared to an older generation whose numbers were rapidly dwindling by the turn of the century, the company was not situated to effectively withstand the steady customer attrition. That lack of foresight, coupled with a perfect storm of circumstances that included the rise of corporate “business casual” attire and the new entrepreneur class’ utter disdain for “dressing up,” spelled the end for the legendary haberdashery.
While there may have been other issues at play, it is interesting to note that some of the reasons cited a decade ago as the underlying causes behind the fall of the house of Sulka are now being hailed as factors that have spurred the recent resurgence in classic men’s style. 10 years ago, retail experts and fashionistas cited Sulka’s refusal to genuflect at the altar of the cult of celebrity - that failure to associate the brand with a famous personality was said to have sounded a death knell. Yet recently, a movement away from that mentality toward more artisan-driven, craftsmanship-oriented luxury goods has taken hold, highlighted by the craze for all things bespoke.
While the nostalgic will gloomily declare that the end of Sulka marked a sad turning point in the history of men’s style, the more optimistic among us will look to Sulka’s demise as both the end of an age and hopefully the beginning of a promising new era. Today, the remaining old guard of men’s houses have evolved and re-introduced themselves to a younger generation of dandies and sartorial sophisticates. Most notably, Paul Stuart and Brooks Brothers took to heart the perils of maintaining the status quo in the face of a changing marketplace – the former company responded by introducing its Phineas Cole line to appeal to a younger demographic, and, more recently, invited prominent style-bloggers to design some of its Madison Avenue window displays; while the latter introduced its Black Fleece line designed by Thom Browne.
Alongside the old standard bearers, a new wave of men’s shops have cropped up around the world – from The Armoury in Hong Kong, to the new Drake’s shop in London, to Sid Mashburn in Atlanta, and the list goes on and on - to meet the rising demand for purveyors of goods and services that appeal to those who appreciate classic men’s style. For that, at least, we can only hope Amos Sulka is smiling somewhere.
Words by Dan Flores
Photos by A.R.E. Design Awards
Photos by A.R.E. Design Awards