Text and awful photos by Pete Anderson
If you were a man of discriminating and esoteric taste, and needed to restock your wardrobe from scratch, maybe you'd choose renowned Italian maker Kiton for your tailored clothing, Yohji Yamamoto for artfully relaxed casual wear, Band of Outsiders for some American prepness, and just in case anyone was still tempted to categorize or classify you, biker chic brand Chrome Hearts for some accessories. You could conceivably travel to Italy, Paris, and Japan to pick all this stuff up. Or you could just visit 49 East Oak Street in Chicago and spend an afternoon at George Greene.
Inside George Greene. Salome?
John Jones and two other veterans of Chicago menswear founded George Greene in 2001. They had been working in the city for nearly 40 years, previously at clothier Ultimo, a Chicago fashion beacon since 1969. Explaining the range of lines George Greene carries, Jones told me "We've always created an assortment. It's highly personal. The way we put it together can be surprising to people, but that's how we do it. Sometimes to the chagrin of the designers."
Yohji bag and jacket.
It is indeed doubtful that Yohji Yamamoto expects his stark palette and rumpled aesthetic to hang next to Arnys Forestiere jackets and linen knits from Irish maker Inis Meain. In the middle of the largest room in the store, antique wooden cases show off belts and sunglasses with touches of worked silver from Chrome Hearts. On a side table, English-made Pantherella socks cushion a pair of laser-etched suede shoes from Lanvin. It's a lot to take in, especially in the limited space of this four-room shop, across from Chicago's Jil Sander boutique and next door to a Lucky Jeans outlet.
Reclining in a sportcoat and chinos, contrast-collared brown gingham shirt, and a pair of weathered suede balmorals, Jones waves away the implication that the George Greene collection may not be all of-a-piece. "Our customers all like it. They like the energy created by it. What we can do, that a department store cannot, is have the same set of eyes select the clothing." Rather than splitting up the people who buy shoes from the people who buy tailoring from those who choose the accessories, "We put the puzzle together."
Plus, George Greene has earned the trust of their customers over time. Says Jones, "We've had the same tailor for over 30 years. Our clients come back, and now their sons, their in-laws, they all come in."
From the Kiton shop-within-a-shop.
Experience puts Jones and his George Greene partners in a good position to observe shifts in men's clothing over time. Over the last few years, "We've seen a redirection in casual. Several years ago, everyone went from suits and sportcoats to more casual clothing. Now it's shifting again, but in a different way. A guy going out at night"”a young guy"”he's wearing a suit. Sportswear houses are making suits now. You might see a guy in a white shirt, the brightest white shirt you've ever seen, starched, with a slim navy [Alexander] McQueen suit and no tie."
Woolrich Woolen Mills and Inis Meain pieces share a rack.
Jones declined to name any favorites among newer brands, but his shop carries several young, forward brands. Band of Outsiders oxfords and trenches share the ground floor with Y-3 sweats and sneakers, Thom Browne madras, and Daiki-Suzuki-designed Woolrich Woolen Mills plaids. A pair of zip/lace boots from Yohji Yamamoto rests on a piece of vintage luggage next to some white Repetto Zizis.
YY boots, etc.
Upstairs, Belstaff's interpretation T.E. Lawrence's motorcycle jacket is draped over a chair. George Greene associate John Moran told me about the company's history and opened a photo book to show me Steve McQueen and Bud Ekins in matching Belstaffs. "He did the jump in The Great Escape, not McQueen." When I expressed interest in a piece of luggage from malletier Globetrotter, Moran told me of the marketing stunts Globetrotter pulled a hundred years ago. "The material is so strong, they had baby elephants come in and stand on the suitcases." I would have liked to see more, but the piece was Greene's last in stock.
Band of Outsiders and Seavees in the background.
Chicago has lost a few interesting stores for men recently, with the shuttering of both Jake and Hejfina. When the economy is weak, says Jones, "Women are always the last to stop shopping and men are the first." When things improve, "Men are the last to start up again. You have to give them a reason... it's a very serious business, and you have to work hard at it. We have so many years in and so many clients, which a lot of more recent [stores] don't. There's less connection. In business as in life, you have to separate the hype from the reality. Shops come and go; some totally overbuy and have trouble backing it up. You need to be trusted by clients."
Arny's pieces--great textures in cuts that aren't for everyone.
I lamented the lack of a place like George Greene in Washington, D.C., where I live. Jones went to school in the city and understands it's a conservative kind of town, regarding clothes at least. A large group of his clients migrated there recently and, although they keep coming back to George Greene, they now skip the shop's dandier offerings. He's not naming names.
George Greene is currently an in-person-only operation, although Jones said they may try e-commerce again. "We're working with someone," he confided. "Previously our site has always turned out looking like everyone else's." A problem worth correcting, as George Greene is a shop not like everyone else's.
49 E. Oak Street
Chicago, IL 60611