“You need ivory shoes, not watermelon,” Carswell pronounced, his high-pitched voice made for the stage, if not the pulpit. “We’re going dress you, top to bottom.”
Carswell was in matching slacks and a vest with lapels, the tan and brown stripes blending with his peach shirt, two-tone straw hat, three-tone shoes and burgundy necktie festooned with Redskins logos. A pair of crosses sparkled at the center of his diamond- encrusted cuff links.
Vinson, in a black Scarface T-shirt, knew not to argue.
In Washington, ever fewer shops exist where a man can buy a pink zoot suit in all its polyester glory. Now another is shutting down, the place where “Mr. Willie,” as he’s known to many of his customers, has presided since 1970.
At his peak, Carswell sold 1,000 suits a year. His patrons included postal workers, government bureaucrats and pastors. Sometimes, wives would sink into a worn chair by the cash register and bellow, “Willie! Make my husband look like you!”
Chuck Brown, the go-go music legend, bought his size 75
8 roll- brimmed hats at Men’s Fashion. Rayful Edmonds, the drug kingpin whose aunt was once the shop’s seamstress, came in every few weeks to buy Fruit of the Loom underwear for his soldiers, paying with hundred dollar bills he would politely lay on the glass counter.
The drug dealer’s money roll was “a knot big enough to choke you,” Carswell said.
Carswell started as the store’s security guard after Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination ignited riots that ravaged the H Street area and other parts of the city. He moved up to salesman, manager and general manager as the corridor deteriorated, recovered and soared, a rebirth celebrated Saturday by tens of thousands at the annual H Street Festival.
Along the way, Carswell, 68, an African American raised in Georgia, found himself learning the intricacies of retail, and a smattering of the Yiddish that owner Murray Goldkind tossed about.
“Gonnif!” Carswell would tell his co-workers, invoking the Yiddish word for thief when he thought one was perusing their aisles.
Through the 1980s and ’90s, Men’s Fashion prospered, peaking on Father’s Day weekend in 2002, when the store held a “Buy One, Get One Free” sale and grossed $35,000. Carswell and his fellow salesman, Steve Davidson, collected enough in commissions to celebrate over steak dinners and buy themselves diamond rings.
Then, on the Monday after this past Easter, 42 years after Carswell started at the store, Jerry Goldkind, Murray’s son, called to say in a choked voice that he was shutting down in October. Goldkind then phoned Davidson, who began at Men’s Fashion 28 years ago, and who, as he listened to his boss’s words, felt as if “someone had snatched my heart out of my body.”