Wearing his siblings' castoffs, I soon discovered, was far preferable to him than darkening the door of a men's store. Like many men I know, John had a serious aversion to shopping. That was, until he met one of L.A.'s better salesmen.
What defines service in an age of automated phone messages and online shopping comes down to the human touch. But a pulse alone does not good service make. A good salesperson listens to the customer, reads visual cues and knows the difference between being pushy and persuasive -- the latter of which might simply involve standing back and giving honest feedback.
Few of us enjoy being swarmed by salespeople jockeying to hit their numbers, which is sadly a common scenario in a landscape still scarred by recession. Which raises another issue: In the wake of the financial collapse, we have arguably emerged as more thoughtful and guarded consumers. Parting with a hard-earned dollar is an experience consumers want to feel good about.
What follows is a look at three salesmen in Los Angeles who can put even the most reluctant of male shoppers at ease.
Ryan Conder, South Willard
When it comes to service, personal relationships are what separates the men from the boys, if you will. And at his South Willard boutique on West 3rd Street, Ryan Conder knows his customer well. "Our customer is someone who cares about design and quality," says Conder, 36. "He doesn't necessarily spend a ton of money. He maybe buys two things a season and makes an educated buy."
Of course, Conder has done his homework so his customer can make those smart choices, offering a carefully chosen selection from designers Dries Van Noten, Margaret Howell, Patrik Ervell, Band of Outsiders and South Willard's own line of shirts, shoes and jeans manufactured in Seattle, Japan and Maine. A Margaret Howell chambray flannel shirt might run you $183, and South Willard's Japanese jeans fetch $238 a pair. Much like the clothes Conder sells, the store's aesthetic is clean and minimalist, with a long table in the center that features photography books, pressed cotton wallets and neckties.
"He seems to sell only things that could be described as wardrobe essentials, not superfluous. And as a result, just about everything I've bought from him in the past six years I still wear on a regular basis," says Hugh Garvey, features editor at Bon Appétit magazine and co-founder of Gastrokid, a blog and social network geared toward foodie families. "Three years ago, I bought a perfect black suit from him, by a now-defunct Belgian company. I've wanted to buy other suits from him since, and he's actually talked me out of buying stuff that he knew I wouldn't be happy with in the long term. Does that make him a good salesman or a good therapist?"
South Willard, 8030 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles. (323) 653-6153. Noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. www.southwillard.com
Chad Rocke, Paul Smith
It's been three years since my husband bought a classic gray suit, camel's hair overcoat and several dress shirts at Paul Smith on Melrose Avenue, but when we recently stopped at the boutique, Chad Rocke instantly remembered him and the camel's hair coat.
"I may forget a name from time to time, but I never forget a face or what a customer bought," Rocke says.
At Paul Smith, you can drop $30 on a pair of the designer's signature striped socks, at least $90 for cuff links and upward of $1,100 for a suit. The boutique also features vintage men's Rolex watches and other curiosities, including colorful toothbrushes and fine china.
Rocke, 37, has worked at the West Hollywood store since it opened in December 2005; before that, he was at Gucci on Rodeo Drive.
"Personal service is important," he says. "We like to see customer service all the way through." For instance, when my husband purchased that suit, Rocke accompanied us to a tailor up the street for minor alterations. He then met us at the tailor's several days later when my husband picked up the suit, to make sure he was happy with the results. "If I just sold things, it would just be a 'job,' " Rocke says. "But getting to know the customer, those relationships are what makes this fun."
Paul Smith, 8221 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 951-4800. 11 a.m to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. www.paulsmith.co.uk
Alexis Hadjopoulous, TINI
Finding your aesthetic in furniture can be every bit as fundamental to your personal style as what you wear. Enter TINI (an acronym for This Is Not IKEA), a vintage furniture emporium on Fairfax Avenue with some 3,000 items -- Danish and midcentury modern, 1960s Lucite to '80s kitsch, and everything in between.
It's the antithesis of big-box shopping and geared toward individual style, whatever that might entail.
Partners Alexis Hadjopoulous, 32, and Tom Whitman, 39, take particular pride in delivering unique pieces for their customers, even if that's a vintage Vanity Fair Ertl Michael Jackson record player with microphone.
"A lot of people find walking into a store overwhelming, so we've put every single piece online so you can browse before coming in," says Hadjopoulous, who scours 80 to 100 estate sales and flea markets each week so you don't have to.
In the market for an orange Knoll Womb chair? "It might take a couple of weeks, but I can find it," Hadjopoulous says, and, judging by his competitive prices, for considerably less than many vintage stores in town. Expect to pay $185 for a pristine Kartell Ghost Chair, versus $340 retail. A vintage German "Frühstück bei Tiffany" (Breakfast at Tiffany's) movie poster fetches $50.
"We had a client who gave us 12 days to furnish an entire two-story house. It felt like a reality show," Hadjopoulous says. "I even sacrificed my own dining table and chairs, but we got it done, though someday I'm going to find a way to get back that orange credenza from him."
TINI, 515 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 938.9230. 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday. www.thisisnotikea.com