High Style Suits Them Well

Sticking to its high-end philosophy through thick and thin has helped McCausland’s Menswear in Tacoma survive for more than 45 years and counting

South Sound BusinessThere was a time, decades ago, when independently owned fine men’s clothing stores populated the Puget Sound region much like independently owned specialty coffee shops do today.

Advertisements for men’s hats, shoes, slacks, and suits filled newspaper pages, billboards, and radio airwaves, and many were known by their proprietor’s first or last names — Baker Bros., Bernie’s Menswear, Klopfenstein’s, and Lewis Bros. Men’s Clothes — names that felt familiar and comfortable.

Traces of that era still linger at McCausland’s Menswear & Hair Styling in Tacoma.

From the Old English lettering on the signage outside the building, to the shop’s wood-finished floors, to the billiards table, to the polished brass railing that leads to salons upstairs, and the pricey Mercedes-Benz parked inside the store for ambience, McCausland’s Menswear is reminiscent of an expensive steak house or a fine cigar shop.

That’s not to say McCausland’s is frozen in time. The store imports the latest styles of slacks, sport coats, and suits from Jack Victor in Canada and Corneliani in Italy; dress shirts from Eton in Sweden; sweaters from Torras of Spain and Gran Sasso in Italy; and ties and pocket squares from Tino Cosma and Italo Ferretti in Italy. The store is up on the trends.

Nor is it a stuffy environment. During a recent visit, vintage country music played at a low volume while the store’s owner, Brent McCausland, and its longtime salesperson, Larry Leavitt, recalled the fun they had needling Seattle with cheeky ads and slogans 35 years ago. During the early 1980’s a billboard featuring Brent McCausland holding an expensive suit was irreverently placed outside Seattle’s Kingdome: Seattle’s best clothing store…is in Tacoma.

And then there was the 1980 newspaper advertisement for a $75,000 suit. It wasn’t the custom-made shirt, gold buttons, handmade shoes, or accessories that tipped the scales. It was the fact that, in addition to the clothing, the price tag included dinner for two at Michael’s in Santa Monica, California, (transportation and accommodation included), as well as a Porsche 930 Turbo from Tom Carsten’s Porsche and Audi dealership on South Tacoma Way. The Porsche and Brent (again, holding an expensive suit) were pictured in the advertisement.

The catchy ad was picked up by a local radio news reporter, and it went “viral” before “going viral” was a thing. Brent even sold the sports car and suit to a customer in California. Since then, other automobiles (a 1956 Chevrolet convertible, a series of Lexus sedans, and a vintage Plymouth) have been parked front and center on McCausland’s sales floor.

“Everybody asks, ‘How do you get it in?'” McCausland joked. “I tell them, ‘We bring the cars in through the skylights.'”

The history of McCausland’s Menswear is as singular as the company’s quirky ads, or the owner’s infectious personality.

In the early 1960’s, Brent McCausland was 19 years old and selling clothes in California’s Bay Area when he was drafted by the U.S. military to serve in the Vietnam War, and relocated to Fort Lewis. After his military service, McCausland landed a job at the Foreman & Clark department store chain, where he worked as the general manager of a half-dozen stores in the Puget Sound region.

By the early 1970’s, McCausland was in his late 20’s and wanted to open his own clothing store for men.

“I thought it would be easy,” McCausland explained. “You just go to the bank and ask for a loan.”

In truth, it was difficult to find a bank that would loan him money. In a fortunate twist, McCausland met George Davis, a Tacoma businessman who managed his family’s business, Tacoma Millwork Supply Co., and served on First Interstate Bank’s board of directors. Davis and his wife, Mary, an architect, were rainmakers of sorts, helping local small-business entrepreneurs launch their careers.

McCausland mentioned to George the difficulties he was experiencing in trying to secure a bank loan. One day, the Davises invited McCausland to lunch at Johnny’s Dock.

“I was nervous as hell,” McCausland recalled. “But he trusted me, I guess. He asked so many questions about where I was from, what my dad did for a living, what my mom did. He got a good feeling of what kind of person I was. For some reason, he had a lot of faith in me.”

By the end of lunch, George had offered to guarantee a bank loan for $150,000, and told McCausland to call his personal banker and everything would be taken care of.

“That’s how I got started,” said McCausland, who opened a store on South Tacoma Way in 1973. “I could never thank him enough for what he did. George made it possible for me to do everything I’m doing right now.”

As for Leavitt, his taste in clothing emerged at age 12.

“My mom always dressed us to the nines, and I just liked clothing,” explained Leavitt, who was born and raised in Tacoma. “She used to order stuff for me from the Spiegel catalog out of Chicago, and I hated it. It’s not that she didn’t have good taste. We just didn’t have the money for the clothing that I liked.”

If Leavitt wanted finer clothes, his mother explained, he was going to have to work for them. So, Leavitt spent summers mowing lawns — $5 for corner homes with larger lawns, $2.50 for others.

“It was a lot of work in the hot sun,” he added. “But I got to buy the things I wanted. It taught me how to work. It taught me how to save.”

In 1976, Leavitt was 23 years old and working for a men’s clothing store just two doors down from McCausland’s. According to Leavitt, his employer was struggling financially, and introduced Leavitt to McCausland.

Leavitt explained, smiling, “He told Brent, ‘You’ve got to do me a favor. I’m closing up. You’ve got to hire Larry. He doesn’t need a lot of money.'”

So McCausland hired Leavitt, who started at $400 per month.

“The second day I was on the job, I was living at home with my parents, and I told them, ‘I think I’ve found my place, and they need me, badly,'” Leavitt said. “I just knew this was where I needed to be.”

That was 43 years ago this month.

In 1983, when McCausland wanted to buy property along Tacoma Mall Boulevard on which to construct a new building and relocate his shop, Davis was there, once again, to guarantee the loan. According to McCausland, Davis never charged him for guaranteeing those loans, and even insisted on buying his own suits when he shopped at the store.

“I tried to give him a suit. I would say, ‘George, I owe it to you,'” McCausland said. “He would say, ‘You can’t make money if I don’t pay.’ He was just such a nice guy. Unbelievable guy.”

The new location (also its current location) in Tacoma was ideal — visible from Interstate 5, and large enough to sub-lease storefront space to other tenants. Today, Advanced Audio, Edward Jones financial advisor Michael Batt, and Lani Fisher Homes occupy the other parts of the building.

One tenant, Viva, a fine clothing store for women, which once occupied the adjacent storefront, was a nice complement to McCausland’s Menswear. When it closed in the late 1990’s, McCausland’s daughter, Sonya, left her job at Milgard Windows in Tacoma to open Bella Latte in the space. The comfortable, casual café serves bagels, coffee, salads, sandwiches, and pastries, and is still open 20 years later.

Upstairs, the space is home to men’s and women’s hair stylists — The Hive Hair Studio and Vamp Salon — and a nail salon operated by Dary and Randy Thach.

McCausland’s most famous customer?

“Harold Reynolds shopped here,” Leavitt said, referring to the All-Star second baseman who, beginning in 1983, played for the Seattle Mariners, and is now a sports commentator for the MLB Network. “He dropped about $20,000. I had him fill out a credit report, and his salary was $2 million. What a gentleman. What a class act. I still enjoy watching him on television.”

How does a purveyor of fine menswear — where suits range from $1,200 to $4,000 — survive for nearly a half-century in a city with a reputation as gritty and blue-collar?

Brent McCausland has some theories.

First, he stayed true to his original vision. “We went for high-end all the way through, and I think that’s what kept us in business,” he said. “We didn’t do moderate. We went above that.”

As a result, South Sound bankers, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals with the financial means turned to McCausland’s for business apparel of a finer pedigree than thrifty, national chain stores. As McCausland’s advertisements once proclaimed: For the man who can afford to care.

Second, the store built a reputation that reached beyond Tacoma.

“Probably 35 percent of our clientele is from Seattle and Bellevue,” McCausland explained.

“Olympia and Lacey have been very good to us, too,” Leavitt added.

Finally, McCausland’s customers are loyal. A typical customer will buy his first suit in his early 30’s, and then return to the store for additional clothing over the next several decades until he retires. Offhand, Leavitt named a handful of customers — a doctor, an accident investigator, a property manager — who have shopped at the store for at least 30 years.

John Dionas, president and owner of Peninsula Subaru in Bremerton, has shopped at McCausland’s Menswear for 20 years. His stepfather has shopped there for 40 years.

“They have the finest fabrics, colors, and selection,” Dionas said. “The guy that wears the Rolex is like the guy that wears a McCausland’s suit. There’s pride.”

A couple of times per year, Dionas will treat all 10 members of his management team to a new McCausland’s suit, covering upwards of 90 percent of the cost. He even sends other car dealership owners to the Tacoma shop.

“A lot of guys in our business, even the owners, some dress so-so, and some dress great,” he explained. “The ones that don’t, I tell them, ‘Go do yourself a favor, and go see Larry or Brent. They will jazz up your look a little bit.’ I mean, don’t embarrass the car business, please!”

South Sound Business

As for the future of McCausland’s Menswear, Brent, 74, said sales took a hit during the Great Recession, but business has picked up. He owns the building in which McCausland’s operates; paid off all those loans guaranteed by Davis a long time ago; and the store employs only three people: Brent, Larry, and a bookkeeper.

Leavitt, 66, said he plans to work for another 10 years or so. It’s the same thing he said 10 years ago.

He credits his longevity to being honest and truthful to customers.

“That’s the best policy,” he said. “I just try to get people in the right styles and the right colors because it makes a huge difference. They get compliments on what they bought and, guess what, they come back to see us.”

McCausland recalled instances where a customer was ready to buy a suit or a coat, and Leavitt talked the customer out of it because it wasn’t the right color or style for that individual. Instead, Leavitt found other clothing in different colors and styles that better served a customer’s hair color, eye color, and complexion.

“He is so honest,” McCausland said. “He won’t sell something that is not going to be right for you.”

Much like Davis, who came through with bank loan guarantees all those years ago, Leavitt has been vital to McCausland’s success.

“We wouldn’t be in business today if Larry weren’t here,” McCausland said. “I know he just loves what he’s doing. He loves the clothing. I need him in order to run this place. I couldn’t do it all. Not today. It’s been a win-win situation for both of us over the years.

“We enjoy what we are doing,” he added. “It’s fun.”

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