Where Aficionados Shop for Clothing
Garmany, the men’s and women’s clothing store in Red Bank, N.J., is a revelation to first-time visitors. The place is luxurious and large—about 40,000 square feet—like a fine department store, but the feeling is intimate and clubby, like a collection of boutiques. In the apparel industry, this retail concept is known as “shop-in-shop”: There’s a dedicated room for Isaia menswear, a room for Canali, a room for men’s denim, and on and on.
Garmany has a knack for developing loyal customers, some of whom visit regularly from as far away as the West Coast and Bermuda. It doesn’t seem to matter that Red Bank, a Jersey Shore community with a vibrant retail, restaurant and arts scene, is off the beaten path. What’s the draw for these customers?
Owner Johnell Garmany explains: “Shopping here is an experience, and the foundation of that experience is the way we treat people. Garmany is a family-owned, family-operated store, and we treat everyone—customers, staff and suppliers—like family. We offer customers warmth and hospitality; expert, personalized style counsel; and world-class designer fashion, some of which isn’t available elsewhere on the East Coast—or the West Coast or Bermuda, for that matter.”
Another important part of the Garmany experience is the ambience of the store. Johnell and his late father, Larry Garmany, came up with a plan to engage all five senses of their customers. The experience begins with music, which is always playing not just inside the store, but also in the parking lot and on the sidewalk in front of the store. “We play upbeat tunes, so people come in happy,” says Johnell. “Sometimes they even come in dancing!”
The next sense engaged—again, before the customer even crosses the threshold—is the sense of smell, with a unique scent called Laurentino. “We conceived it as a men’s cologne, and it’s become very popular with women too,” explains Johnell. “One day we spritzed Laurentino in the vestibule to get rid of a musty smell outdoors. Customers walked in asking, ‘What is that wonderful smell?!’ From then on, we made it a signature scent that people associate with entering the store. Now we have customers using Laurentino as we do, both as a personal scent and an ambient scent. Some customers buy Laurentino to spray in their clothes closets at home.”
Once inside the store, and already feeling happier and more relaxed, the customer encounters a visual feast. The bright, airy, well-lighted architectural space is full of well-dressed mannequins. “That’s so we can show complete looks, and no one will have any trouble visualizing combinations,” says Johnell. There are also racks of shoes, stacks of sweaters, rows of display cases filled with jewelry, sunglasses and other accessories—all artfully arranged and kept meticulously clean.
The staff is welcoming and never comes on too strong. “We treat customers not like they’re coming to shop, but like they’re visiting our home,” says Johnell. “What’s the first thing you offer to guests? Something to drink. We offer water, cappuccino, wine, beer, single malt Scotch. … On Saturday we offer bagels with fixings. And we’ll happily order customers lunch in the store.”
That leaves one more sense—the sense of touch. “Some stores give off a do-not-touch vibe,” notes Johnell. “Not us. We want customers to touch the merchandise. After all, dressing is a sensual experience, in that you’re laying fabric or leather next to your skin. We want you to experience the luxurious hand of the materials—whether silk or linen or simply denim—as part of your visit.”
Besides delighting the senses, Garmany offers a range of customer amenities—private shopping service; a movie theater for kids; old-fashioned shoe shines; a large, free, private parking lot; 47 private dressing rooms. …
Why so many dressing rooms? “We have a large store, 40,000 square feet, but we designed it to feel intimate,” explains Johnell. “Each space is like a small boutique, with its own dressing rooms. The customer needs only to walk a few steps to try something on.”
A merchant philosopher in the mold of Harry Selfridge and John Wanamaker, Johnell laments the decline of the department store experience: “I’d say there are three major differences between Garmany and today’s department stores. The first is that we have style consultants, not sales clerks. Department store clerks size you up by how much you may be about to spend, and then treat you—or ignore you—accordingly. At Garmany, everybody is welcome, and browsing is encouraged. If you want help, we’re going to help you; you’re one of the family.”
Another major difference is selection of merchandise. “Department stores buy a lot of basic, ‘vanilla’ clothing in gray, navy and black, and hope it sells,” notes Johnell. “We do the opposite: Almost everything in our store has been selected with one or more customers in mind. We have more specialty items, more fashion choices, more unique pieces here, because we know our customers.”
A third big difference is tailoring. “Department stores do basic alterations, but they’re not attuned to the subtleties of fit,” Johnell continues. “The importance of fit is very underrated! At Garmany, by contrast, we have old-world, in-house tailors who can do complicated alterations, transforming any garment to fit the customer perfectly.”
Flipping the question around, how is shopping at Garmany different than shopping online?
“It’s actually like the department store comparison: The same major differences apply,” says Johnell. “Shopping online, you don’t benefit from style consultants, unique selection gathered in one place or personal tailoring. There’s a big difference between trying on a whole look in person, on the one hand, and buying online, sight unseen, the individual items that make up a look.”
Point taken. But isn’t shopping online at least more convenient?
“If you’re buying socks and you know just what you want, then maybe so,” he continues. “But online, you can’t try on clothes and know you really like the merchandise and have the right size. Factor in the need to go to a tailor for alterations, and the convenience advantage goes out the window. It’s a phantom savings. Not only will you look better when you shop at our store; I guarantee you’ll find it less stressful and more convenient in the end.”
Taking stress out of the shopping experience is, in part, the role of Garmany’s style consultants. They do it by virtue of their training and their attitude. Says Johnell, “Our staff has a knowledge of sartorial heritage and tradition, they understand the intricacies of fit, and they’re passionate about fashion and style. More than that, we have a sense of responsibility to the customer. We’ll never let someone buy a garment that we don’t think looks good on him or her. By the same token, when we know for sure that the customer is going to get compliments on a piece—when the customer really looks fantastic—we’re going to say, ‘Hey, you need to get this!’
“We have a very high trust factor in our customer relationships. And the relationships grow in depth over time. Really, we regard a lot of our clientele more as friends than customers, and the feeling is mutual. So when we advise a customer to push the style envelope a bit with a particular look, we do that from a standpoint of personal regard as well as expertise. Invariably the customer is happy with the result.”
Garmany carries some of the world’s best-known luxury brands—and also some obscure brands not available for hundreds of miles around. How does an independent retailer discover sources of the best merchandise? “We travel a lot,” answers Johnell. “We attend the major seasonal fashion markets, such as Pitti Uomo in Florence. And we leverage our relationships in the industry to find artisanal producers and emerging designers. For example, we manufacture Garmany socks and underwear in Peru, close to the fabric sources.”
A heightened appreciation of craftsmanship is just one way in which the Garmany customer has evolved in recent years. “People are less interested in brand labels today and more interested in discernible value, as reflected in authentic craft, luxury materials and quality construction,” Johnell explains. He ticks off other notable trends: “Rules have been relaxed, leading to the rise of ‘high-low’ pairings, such as dressy sneakers worn with tailored trousers or a tailored cashmere sportcoat worn with jeans. Customers are more confident and individualistic in what they wear. For example, guys who wore only black or brown dress shoes five years ago are now trying blue, green and even red shoes. Men are much more attuned to cut and fit—the silhouette of a jacket, the taper of a pants leg. They’re more likely to have tailored clothing Made-to-Measure. And men are more likely to be collectors of what they like—jeans, shoes, cuff links, belts. Customers are more devoted to physical fitness, and as a result, they’re more interested in athletic wear—and in the way all their clothes fit.”
How has Garmany responded to these trends? Says Johnell, “Today we stock more denim, sportswear and casual accessories, including a full range of athletic wear for women. We offer more merchandise at accessible price points, so we can satisfy truly any customer, of any age, who’s interested in looking good. Our range of Made-to-Measure lines has grown. We’re presenting some new, more youthful designers. In short, the taste level remains a constant, but our range of merchandise has expanded. Our style consultants have a more important role than ever, because we’re not just selling suits and separates; our customers are interested in creating complete, pulled-together looks.”
Looking beyond the merchandise, it’s apparent that the Garmany Experience itself is evolving. The store is offering more events that go beyond fashion, such as a recent Balvenie Scotch tasting. Adds Johnell, “We’re also doing more to extend our relationships beyond the customer and into the community. For example, we’re increasingly active with humanitarian causes that have local roots, such as the new Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Red Bank. If something is important to our customers, then it’s important to us.”
Johnell Garmany recalls the cosmopolitan style of his father, Larry, and the origins of their clothing store.
Johnell, your father was born in Cuba before the revolution. How did he come to the U.S.?
After Castro overthrew Batista in 1959, my grandfather was one of the few who wasn’t pro-revolution. Not only was my grandfather against Communism, he hated Castro’s methods. He knew that his son Larry would be drafted into the military when he turned 13, so when Larry was 12, my grandfather resolved to get out of the country.
They escaped by fishing boat. On board were my grandfather, my father, my aunt and a cousin along with the boat crew. They took a risk—in those days, if you were caught escaping, you were shot on the spot. Freedom lay only 90 miles away, but it took a long time to get there. The fishing boat became stranded on a tiny island off the Florida Keys, and the family lived for days on rice pudding that they’d brought with them. Eventually they hailed a passing British Navy destroyer and were rescued. The rescue made all the newspapers.
Did the family land in Miami?
Initially, yes, and then they moved to Brooklyn. That’s where Larry learned to speak English, attended high school and got his start in business. He wasn’t the best student, but he always had a phenomenal work ethic. He had jobs as a librarian and a gas station attendant. In fact, he was part owner of a gas station before he turned 20.
How did Larry get into the fashion business?
After saving and borrowing $10,000 to invest, he partnered with his best friend’s father to open a clothing store. This was in the early 1970s, when Larry was in his early 20s. Even at that young age, Larry had great sartorial style. He sold fashions from Italy and France, which were novel in America at the time, and everything just really took off. The store was successful from the start, and soon there were several stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Larry made a big bet Red Bank, New Jersey, opening a store here in 1989 when the town had seen better days economically and was jokingly known as Dead Bank. Today Red Bank regularly shows up on lists of the best towns in America for quality of life.
So was it a brilliant decision to move here, or did Larry get lucky?
Maybe a bit of both! After the family moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey, people here used to comment on how Larry dressed. They’d say, “You have to open a store here! There’s nothing like your style in New Jersey!” So he opened a store, and we didn’t sell a single thing for the first 13 days! But Larry was undaunted. He always considered 13 to be his lucky number because he was born on the 13th. People predicted we’d be out of business in six months, but other stores fell by the wayside and we flourished. We gave customers what they wanted and treated them like VIPs. That’s our formula for success to this day.