'This is where the future is': Veteran core clothier recommits to downtown
Fifty years ago, David E. White began his menswear career on Dundas Street in downtown London.
Thursday, after years of battling for a greater voice for core-area merchants, he officially opens the newest version of the store that bears his name, recommitting to London’s core. “This is where I need to be, where the future is. There’s opportunity,” he said of his new home at 517 Richmond St. in the Old Oak apartment tower called One Richmond Row.
When he steps out of his new front door, he sees a lot of cranes in the sky, and that means future business, he believes. “I’m still a believer in revitalizing the core.”
That can’t be an easy position to take, given growing street vandalism, homelessness and drug use downtown. And with more people working at home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the downtown office workers he dresses may not come back.
“We have to be nimble and adapt. That’s why we moved back on to Richmond Row. We have to change our formula and product mix,” White said of his future growth strategy..
As a measure of confidence, he points to the 175 units at One Richmond Row. And the downtown is filled with building, with high-rise towers going up at 131 King St., a multi-tower development at 108 Fullarton St., another at 195 Dundas St. and a recently completed tower at 40 York St. Another will rise at 661-667 Talbot St. Two more are expected to go up at 556 Wellington St., across from Victoria Park. And several others are in the wings, including an ambitious proposal for 50 King St.
“Those are projects that will feed us. Where there’s population, there will be business. We’ll figure it out,” White said.
He lived downtown until he was seven, when his family then moved to the suburbs. He returned to the city centre in 1971, 50 years ago, working at H.W. Ball, a menswear store.
“I was what would you call a gofer. If packages needed to be picked up at the Greyhound station, the store needed to be swept and the awning opened in the morning and rolled in at night, that was my job,” he said.
White opened his first store in Goderich in 1980 and made enough to open in London in 1987, 34 years ago, on Richmond Street, where the Tasting Room restaurant is now. He moved to the Talbot Centre building, then to Richmond and Queens Avenue.
David E. White was located at Richmond and Queens for about 20 years. When One Richmond Row went up, he wanted to make a move. His new store is smaller, 1,600 square feet compared to the 3,600 sq. ft. he had. But it has more barber chairs – four instead of two – and the smaller footprint allows him to be nimble with a growing portion of his business online now.
“It needed attention,” he said of his former store. “The footprint didn’t work.”
The added barber chairs are a good way to draw more people in and build relationships, White said.
“Everyone loves the word pivot, but that is what we have done since the beginning of time. You have to be ready for what comes next. The consequence of not doing it is obvious.”
When he opened his first business in downtown London in 1987, there were 22 menswear stores. Now there are about half a dozen. Discount clothiers, large retailers and online sales don’t hurt much. Most men still want a personal touch when buying fashion, he believes.
“COVID forced us to be creative. People will go where they are better served. We (menswear stores) have experience and knowledge,” he said.
The David E. White move is another sign of the city’s downtown weathering the storm of pandemic shutdowns and social ills, said Barb Maly, executive director of Downtown that represents core businesses.
In the last 12 months, 36 new businesses have been added to the downtown and about a dozen have closed, she said. Of the new arrivals, 11 are retailers, 20 are restaurants, and five are service-based.
“He’s a merchant that has been here (34 years) and is recommitting to downtown. We’re very happy about this. It’s a lovely store,” Maly said. “I think businesses see opportunity here. We are seen as a growth centre with all the high-rise and residential development.”
The recommitment to downtown comes after White joined other retailers in 2018 expressing concern over the Downtown London merchants’ group. It drew criticism for not representing member businesses and questions about its spending. In December 2018, 140 downtown merchants petitioned for a review of the agency’s leadership. In August 2019, director Janette MacDonald was fired.
“I admit there was a time I thought about leaving,” said White, who was a vocal critic. “I just wanted to stay downtown. It’s in my DNA, or just a stubborn streak.”
Thanks Norman Debono |London Free Press for a great article.