Mr. Charlie Pivnick flanked by our friend Giuseppe from Borsalino of Italy (left) and his grandson, Jonathan Levin (right), after the trio had lunch this past Wednesday
This past Wednesday, I had the opportunity to sit down with our company's founder, Mr. Charlie Pivnick, and have a Q&A with him about the founding of our company, his experiences in menswear and his insight into what it takes to be successful in our industry.
Rodney Parker: Mr. Pivnick, thanks for taking to the time chat with me. How are you feeling today?
Charlie Pivnick: Well, I feel fortunate...I've lived a long life...hopefully, I'll have a few more years and it's interesting to bare witness to changes happening in our city (and in) the world with regard to science, cultural and societal changes and technology...
RP: The Earth has gone around the sun many times since you opened your first store over seven decades ago, sir. I was reading an article the other day in the paper about the changing face of San Francisco and how there's been a recent backlash to the so-called "techies" who've began to move into the City en masse...but hasn't there always been some type of contingent that moves into the City that locals have a tough time initially accepting?
CP: This City is one of the most beautiful in the world with one of the best climates and a number of great views and things to do.
So it's understandable for certain people to get possessive of those things. But we're all here and we all have an opportunity to be happy here with one another and co-exist...and be successful
RP: I couldn't agree more. Now, what got you into this business?
CP: I had just gotten out of the military (after the Second World War) and...well, the government didn't give us too much money when we were in combat but they gave us a very good opportunity after the War: each G.I. that was honorably discharged was given $10,000 in credit interest free to use as they saw fit. Of course, the catch was that we had to repay the balance in 60-days.
But that golden opportunity coupled with a pent up civilian demand for goods allowed me to get my start in this business. We opened our first store at 1324 Fillmore Street.
RP: So, my understanding is that your initial store was an army surplus store...is that correct?
CP: Yes, there was a high demand for all that stuff after the War and the government had a lot of goods to sell. Most of our customers were hungry for the shirts and shoes that we offered, but the government was selling off Jeeps, heavy trucks and other goods. The civilian population wasn't really allowed to consume during the War years, but the flood gates opened after the War.
RP: So when did you transition from selling army surplus goods to fine menswear?
CP: The government simply ceased selling the surplus goods to civilian retailers and the demand shrank significantly as we entered the 1950s. The nation's fashion mood changed too as men transitioned from olive green, military attire and what not, to the traditional greys, navies, and what have you. We had that tiny shop on 1324 Fillmore, but we made it work.
RP: The store has had several locations...at times, multiple locations, in the past. Among them, which was your favorite?
CP: I'd have to say the Union Square area, the Post and Kearny location in particular because of the traffic...the foot traffic you'd get in those days.
RP: There were certainly more stores for men near the Square at that time..."independent" stores. You had Roos Atkins, Grodins, J. Magnin, among others...so was competition fierce at that time?
CP: Well, there was that aspect of it coupled with the very aggressive advertising by the stores, especially Macy's, that brought people downtown and made them anxious to shop. The store you mentioned, Magnin, they disappeared. I don't know if it was because they weren't doing any business, I doubt it was, but Macy's acquired a number of stores around the late 60s. They had the foresight and capital to do so and it's one of the reasons they're as big as they are today...I think.
RP: The question I get a lot from friends working in high-end menswear is about the celebrities I've waited on. Having been in the business for so long, Mr. Pivnick, were there any celebrities that you waited on (whose experience you had while waiting on them) stood out?
CP: My favorite local celebrity that we had in the store was Mayor Willie Brown...
RP: He still comes in from time to time, sir.
CP: Even before he was mayor, Willie was a celebrity in his own right. He's always been a class act and it was always a joy having his energy in the store. He always loved clothing. I was able to meet Willie's family, delightful people. Mayor Frank Jordan came in a few times. Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio...to name a few others. How old is Willie Brown these days?
RP: I would guess his early to mid 80s, sir.
CP: I know he has to be several years younger than me at this point.
RP: Not many young people are getting into this field for lifelong avocations anymore. For those like myself that are, what would your advice be to young people that are passionate about our business?
CP: First of all, my advice is to get a good education so that you can be your own master, so to speak. That goes for any one entering any industry. I adamantly believe that your education is something that no one can ever take from you. If you have that foundation, you’re on the path to success. Secondly, use that education and develop a thirst for knowledge. Remain informed about the world around you. Interpret what you learn about the world for yourself. Don’t allow anyone else to put their spin on things. And then, of course, get into something you like. I happened to really like this business. There were those I worked with over the years who enjoyed this trade and I fed off their passion. So do something you enjoy. And use your attributes to help you succeed. Like you…I can tell you’re a kind fellow and you want to do the right thing. Those qualities are crucial in a business like ours where (customers) seek out those that are gentle and honest.
RP: Well, thank you Mr. Pivnick. And people still come in the shop looking for you, sir...to this day!
To be continued...