The calls to Raleighs's Harvey Brown started immediately after Garfinckel's declared bankruptcy last month. Customers of the old and elegant department store chain wanted to know what was going to happen to Raleighs.
For Brown, who serves as senior general manager for the 12-store local specialty chain, the connection Washingtonians still make between the down-and-out Garfinckel's and Raleighs is exasperating.
Brown has been striving mightily to carve out a niche for Raleighs since it was bought in late 1988 by the Chicago-based Hartmarx Corp. from the investor group that is now closing Garfinckel's.
Brown, 53, has led efforts to reinvigorate the Washington haberdashery, attempting to navigate a careful return to its conservative roots, while trying to avoid the antiquated aura that enveloped Garfinckel's.
"They are two different businesses, but there is still a perception in this town that tie these two together," said Brown. "But we are a business in good shape that is going to be here for the long haul."
But as you stroll the subdued aisles of Raleighs's flagship store on Connecticut Avenue NW in the District, over the marble floors and oriental rugs and past the mahogany-paneled walls and brass fixtures, queried but not bothered by the attentive salespeople, it's easy to see the link between the two retailers.
Raleighs is now an intimate outlet of good, though not exciting, taste -- exactly the kind of store Garfinckel's head George P. Kelly said he had in mind for the Garfinckel's future before his dream was cut off by beleaguered investors.
The difference between the two chains seems to be the commitment of Hartmarx. "We bought a name that had some meaning in Washington for years and we bought it because of that," said Harvey Weinberg, Hartmarx's chairman and chief executive. "And we decided to focus on what made that store great in the first place."
The purchase by Hartmarx, the manufacturer and retailer of men's and women's apparel best known for its Hart Schaffner & Marx and Hickey-Freeman clothing lines, might have come just in time for Raleighs, whose annual sales are estimated by analysts to be between $65 million and $75 million a year.
Raleighs, a longtime Washington retailer, was bought from the Lansburgh family in 1984 by Neil J. Fox, who added Garfinckel's to the company in 1987 for a hefty $95 million. Garfinckel's, Raleighs and Co. was composed of the two chains.
The high-profile Fox ran the stores separately, though he tried to modernize the image of both, adding designer clothes to appeal to customers interested in haute couture.
Fox's strategy did not work, as consumers flocked to other upscale department stores that flooded the metropolitan area in the 1980s, and both stores alienated many of their older customers.
Lackluster business was further exacerbated by the large debt incurred by the purchases. Fox borrowed heavily to buy Raleighs in 1984, and then again to buy Garfinckel's. So in 1988, the company's investors dumped Fox and sold Raleighs to Hartmarx for an undisclosed amount that has been estimated at about $50 million.
A. Robert Abboud, chairman of a Texas bank that is now a major creditor of Garfinckel's and a friend of Saudi financier Wafic Said, who is the principal owner of Garfinckel's, was on the Hartmarx board of directors at the time of the purchase and is believed by many retail observers to have helped engineer the deal.
Hartmarx, which also owns the local Kuppenheimer chain, immediately began renovating and down-sizing the stores and shifting the merchandise back toward the traditional business customer -- stocking more domestic lines and abandoning the emphasis on European designs pushed by Fox.
Raleighs also was integrated into the centralized operation of Hartmarx in merchandising, distribution and administration.
The significance of being part of Hartmarx, which owns more than 250 specialty retail stores and has revenue of $1.2 billion annually, is not unimportant. For example, Hartmarx brought a state-of-the-art computerized management and inventory tracking system to Raleighs, which also enables salespeople to keep detailed records of customers' preferences and buying histories.
The link with Hartmarx also ensures a good relationship with a principal supplier -- Hartmarx -- though Brown said that Raleighs does not get any breaks on price or selection because of the relationship.
While Raleighs does have a strong mens apparel line, it is also striving to attract more women customers, at all price levels. Fox tried to attract women to the store with expensive cocktail dresses and fun furs, but current management believes the chain's true customer is the woman executive.
"We want to dress a woman from eight in the morning to eight at night," said Susan Gorman, who runs a number of Raleighs branches, including the downtown store.
The many changes are designed to give Raleighs a comfortable niche in the competitive retail marketplace that includes Nordstrom, Macy's, Britches of Georgetowne and others. "What is Raleighs? We have to give customers a good answer to that question," said Weinberg.
A number of retail analysts warn that if Raleighs cannot answer that question it might suffer the same problems that ultimately brought Garfinckel's down -- problems that included a fuzzy identity to customers.
Another challenge for store executives is the soft sales environment that is now testing all retailers. Hartmarx has seen declines in profits and has higher inventories, a trend that cannot be ignored, even in a strong market such as Washington, especially in the wake of Garfinckel's.
"We'd rather not talk about Garfinckel's, though it is very sad," said Brown, who noted that Raleighs will open its first new store in years in Reston in the fall. "At Raleigh's, we'd prefer to look to the future."