Last year, Christmas was less than merry at the Tabor Center. The downtown mall was halfway through a massive renovation project, its front entrance closed, many of its spaces boarded up and empty.
But Ron Neel waited it out, knowing that good taste never goes out of style. Sooner or later, people would find their way back.
The Shirt Broker was one of the Tabor Center's original tenants when the state-of-the-art mall opened on Denver's 16th Street Mall in 1984. The store was uprooted in 2001 and sent up to the food-court level, then relocated again in June to a spot on the remodeled second floor, where it's one of only three stores. "It was tough," Ron admits. "People felt sorry for us. But we survived, because there isn't another like us at all."
During the worst days of the Tabor Center's renovation, when Ron visited the Park Meadows "retail resort," he was momentarily seduced by the milling crowds -- but they were mostly made up of women. "Women like instant gratification," he says. "They don't like waiting six weeks for clothes, and they know what they want. Men don't, so we tell them."
Or they show them. Now, for the first time in eighteen years, the displays in the Shirt Broker's plate-glass windows are right where a man can see them as he walks from his 17th Street office straight through to the pedestrian mall. (According to Neel, 110,000 people are expected to make this trek every day.) This man may end up browsing through the $140 scarves, the Italian bathrobes with the "meaty" texture, the sweaters -- "nothing thick, nothing ski-ey," notes Ron's wife, Judith -- or the selection of gifts for "people you don't know well," she says. A silver case just big enough to hold money and lipstick, because you're vaguely aware that your young secretary goes out clubbing on the weekends. Or, for a step up in intimacy, a copy of How to Be a Gentleman, by John Bridges.
The Neels need no such guide. Each Christmas, they collect gently worn suits for donation to former welfare recipients on their way into the workforce. Many of the Shirt Broker's fabric swatches end up with quilters at a South Dakota Indian reservation. They know how to give.
At the Shirt Broker, most of the transactions are far from impulse buys. Instead, they're conducted in a manner that, in Denver, passes for ancient tradition. At 3 p.m. today, for example, the Neels expect a fastidious businesswoman to stop in for the unveiling of her tailored tuxedo, ordered with both white and black shirts to match.
"She's not an easy fit," Ron says. "She's tall and pretty large, and we do all her clothes. French cuffs, the same suit over and over. In this tuxedo, she will look businesslike yet feminine."
The suit perfectly pressed, the Neels turn to another order: six suits, their fabrics nearly indistinguishable to the untrained eye -- a gray, a blue, a stripe, or not. Each suit will cost more than $1,000.
"He's an attorney in Anchorage, Alaska," Ron says. "In 1984, he walked into our store because he'd been doing a deposition here. He bought shirts and a tuxedo. Every ten years we get on the phone with his wife, then we send swatches. Once we flew to San Francisco just to measure him. His son lives in Tokyo, and we make his clothes, too.
"His wife says he's been working out with a personal trainer," Ron continues, consulting a file. "Apparently, this year his coats are tight."
Everything in the now-buff attorney's extensive file is handwritten, covered over with stapled bits of fabric and measurements.
"We could never do it on some Web site," Judith explains. Indeed, her mechanical cash register dates to 1912. There are no computers in the store, and even the two "gentlemen" salesmen on staff were as carefully chosen, and now seem as timeless, as the carpet.
The Neels met as clothing buyers for Fashion Bar in the late '70s. First they found each other; then they found the Shirt Broker, a Larimer Square shop founded by Alan Berg, the radio talk-show host who was later murdered. Ron went to work there, and eventually the couple bought the business.
"We never had children," Judith says. "Perhaps the store is our child. We work, live and play together. It's an unusual relationship. Without discussing it, we often show up wearing the same colors. We're matched."
Back in Nebraska, where Ron grew up, his buttoned-down job and bearing can seem as out of place as white socks in a formal setting. "I was raised on a farm," he recalls. " I didn't have nice clothes. We were poor, so I took care of what I had. I'm a fish out of water when I go home. And I married a Jewish girl."
And he's spent thirty years interpreting almost microscopic niceties -- the meaning of the black-velvet smoking jacket currently hanging in the window, for instance. Could it be called an Oscar Wilde sort of jacket? It could not. It's the kind of jacket a formidable businessman loves so much that he's ordered the Neels to call his wife and "suggest" it as a Christmas present. Only three of these jackets are in stock, and only three will be sold.
But this man is not a typical customer. In fact, there is no such thing.
"I have a regular customer who's a janitor, who appreciates fine clothes," Ron says. "Every year it's one order: three shirts. A suit every three years or so. I have bus drivers, bellhops from the airport, general managers from sports teams. We really don't care who they are or where they've been. I particularly like the regular guy who's looking to take a step up."
Several times each day, Ron stands outside his store, politely scanning the increasing crowds for such a person. And he received, most recently....
"A trust-fund kid, obviously. He hadn't worn a suit before, and we were to make him some shirts, as well," Ron says. "Young men have not been taught to dress these days. He wanted the pants hanging down the way they do. I said no, it has to look somewhat traditional. He went away 'to think about it,' he said."
After all, what's the point of "custom-made" if a trust-fund kid can't have his suit pants made the way he wants them? Still, Ron was not prepared to bend. In the end, he didn't have to.
"Eventually, the young man came back," he says, with just the amount of satisfaction appropriate to the anecdote. "We're making him a nice suit."
"Nice" has a very different definition next door at Wet Seal, a store self-described as "trendy, very trendy, for women in their early twenties."
"Here is the nice thing to wear right now," suggests saleswoman Celene Gonzalez, showing off a long, droopy sweater-coat. "And maybe these" -- extremely low-rise jeans that are to be worn with a tiny T-shirt, fringed scarf around the hips and about six inches of bare lower ab. "You might wear this to go out clubbing, you know, or to the movies or just for hanging out. Suede is coming back, too. Big time." Wet Seal also has work clothes -- if you like to wear something very stretchy on the job, accessorized with an Austin Powers necktie ($12.50).
The store, for years known as Contempo Casuals and housed in the same space it occupies now, has always been a source for cheap and cool -- and young twenty-somethings aren't the only ones interested. One regular customer, a former model in her fifties, is currently obsessed with Wet Seal's wide selection of Shaft-style berets.
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Like Ron Neel, Celene grew up in a small town on the plains. Also like Ron, she's completely involved in her work. The Wet Seal inventory is etched in her brain. She can lead you to the pretty dresses, the super-tight pants, the fluffy pink-heart slippers, the slave necklace. If you need fashion advice, she has it. "We'll help you find things to go clubbing in," Celene confirms.
And if you need time to amass the cash, fine. She'll be waiting.
"Usually, they buy one thing at a time, but not always. One time a girl spent $200! All at one time," she sighs dreamily. "For party clothes."
In the coming months, Robin Chotzinoff will commemorate Westword's 25th anniversary with 25 profiles of Denver today. Click here to read these stories.