CUTTING A FINE FIGURE

To mark our landmark anniversary, Menswear is chatting to some of the country’s leading retailers who have endured the test of time such as Tony Fitzgerald, owner of Fitzgerald Menswear – a clothing emporium peppered across the south of the country

It’s hard to meet someone in the menswear retail sector as well-known as Tony Fitzgerald, the owner of Fitzgerald Menswear. Originally founded by his late father in 1962, today, the portfolio has impressively grown. In addition to the main chandelier-adorned store in the centre of Waterford, the family-run business also has a strong presence in other towns such as Wexford, Clonmel and Dungarvan. Aside from Fitzgerald Menswear, the names over these doors include Heroes and Evolution.

Despite decades kitting out the men of Munster and Leinster, Fitzgerald shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. He humbly describes himself as a “simple suit-and-tie man”, and when Menswear telephones for a chat, he is in the middle of a buying session with an agent and promises to call us back as soon as he is finished. However, before hanging up, the businessman can’t resist discussing his views about the need for a proper men’s trade show in Dublin – possibly inspired by his current task of selecting new collections for the upcoming seasons.

“There are huge costs involved in transferring from Birmingham to London,” he says. “Surely Dublin should be the venue, considering that people travel from all ends of Europe to Florence in January – a show that you really cannot purchase at. I have received positive vibes from agents and companies in the UK on this as an international show.”

As he speaks, his voice is full of youthful enthusiasm, easily mistaken for someone starting out in the industry. When it comes to Fitzgerald, that old cliché about age being just a number certainly has merit.

Not wanting to get on the wrong side of the fashion agent, we promise to continue the conversation when Fitzgerald’s schedule is less hectic – although, by the sound of things, free time is certainly not something you’d associate with this tireless fellow, who, to this day, continues to be active in many aspects of the day-to-day running of the business.

“My father originally opened the store in 1962 and it has continued to be a success ever since,” he proudly reveals. “I first joined the business when I was 16.”

Over the course of more than half a century, Fitzgerald feels that the retail industry in Ireland is drastically different from earlier decades – particularly from the nineties when Menswear In Ireland was first published.

“So much has changed since the 60S, and even since the 90S,” he continues. “There was an amazing ability to make a profit pre-Celtic Tiger but, today, the mark-up is precarious, and I attribute that to excessive sale times and special offers, which cuts out the opportunity to make a profit. I’ve seen the best of quality menswear that is not seasonal being sold off – barely making cost and VAT.”

With defiance clearly evident in his voice, he adds: “We don’t do special offers throughout the year, and we are moving away from seasonal sales – we didn’t go into sale this summer, for example. To put it bluntly, we aren’t going to fight for that particular market – there’s simply no point. There’s also the other extreme – the upper-end suit market, which is more niche. That’s not us either.”

A fertile source of employment for the south of the country, Fitzgerald Menswear caters not just for the casual market but has also carved out an award-winning reputation thanks to their formalwear offering, including the all-important wedding market.

Elsewhere, in terms of stock, a glance at their impressive website and social media pages reveals a catalogue of well-known labels including Ted Baker, Lacoste, CasaModa, Venti, Barbour, Magee, Herbie Frogg, Gant, Michael Kors and Fynch Hatton, as well as footwear brands such as Goodwin Smith, Magnanni and Lloyd & Pryce. With additional services such as suit hire and tailoring, it’s safe to say there’s a little something for everyone.

“Location is always key,” Fitzgerald asserts. “We have always positioned ourselves close to stores like Pennys, which has increased our foot-fall.”

While his animated tone suggests that he is content with the current performances of his business, it soon becomes apparent that Fitzgerald continues to have as much interest in growing and strengthening his business today as he did when he was a youngster. Now, however, he is ably supported by the next generation of the family thanks to his daughter, Aoife, who gave up a career in aviation to join him.

“She is keen to continue the business with a very supportive staff in the stores, Heroes and Evolution,” he mentions.

A second daughter, Heather, looks after the merchandising and the window displays which, according to Fitzgerald, are high-street standard and have received international awards. The proud and loving father also remembers his son, Bryan, who sadly passed away at a young age.

Commenting on the industry, Fitzgerald uses the word “precarious”- particularly in today’s ever-evolving landscape.

“You have to live it, love it and dream it. You always have to be watching, seeing, studying and paying attention to every single detail – not just the clothes on the railings but the store itself. The décor, the layout, the staff. Service is something that all retailers discuss but it’s now a given as customers are more demanding.

“[Now that we’re competing with fast-fashion and internet shopping], service is more important than ever. It’s just something that you can’t take for granted. Just because someone has been coming into your store for 20 years doesn’t mean that they are going to keep coming back. You need to be constantly giving them new reasons to return.”

A word that crops up time and time again in interviews with retailers is ‘trust’ – and over the course of our conversation with Fitzgerald, it is used more than once.

“When men are dressing for a big occasion or are preparing to spend a lot of money, they need to be able to trust you.”

Looking ahead at the future, Fitzgerald is preparing to tread carefully – not only on account of Brexit, which he feels isn’t properly understood by the British government yet but, also, because of the rise in online shopping.

“I do have concerns for all our futures with online trading,” he reveals. “I see the young fashion trade being hit enormously. This showed itself in the snow storm earlier in the year. [We lost] seven days trading [but] the young people purchased online – this put manners on our ability to get a mark-up.”

Having celebrated numerous expansions, milestones and, like Menswear, landmark anniversaries, Fitzgerald ends our exchange with some unexpected advice.

“Groucho Marx, the comedian once said: the secret of successful business is honesty and integrity and if you can convince the customer opposite you that you’ve got that going for you – you have it.”