Britches of Georgetowne, the homegrown menswear chain that started with a single store in the District 35 years ago, is closing its marquee stores in the city and many others in the region without fanfare or explanation just weeks after emerging from bankruptcy protection.
Yesterday, the retailer shuttered its stores on K Street and in the Pentagon City mall. Last week, the Britches store in Montgomery Mall closed, leaving behind a skeleton crew to handle leftover alterations for customers. Even the original Georgetown store, launched in 1967 by Rick Hindin and David Pensky, is expected to shut down next Wednesday, people familiar with the plan said.
The closings have baffled store employees and Britches' landlords, especially now that the chain can put the bankruptcy behind it. The chain has undergone a steady stream of setbacks since 1990 as it has tried to adjust to changing consumer tastes, mounting competitive pressures and constant upheaval within its top executive ranks.
Britches executives did not return calls seeking comment. Attorneys who represented the retailer in bankruptcy court declined interview requests. So did the chain's newest parent company, Paul Davril Inc. of Los Angeles. The silence from the company left an air of mystery over the fate of the chain and the future of some of its stores.
Britches emerged from bankruptcy on Jan. 2, almost one year after filing for protection from its creditors. Many landlords expected the chain to return to business as usual. Instead, they now hear that Britches may shut down all of its stores -- located in the District, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Georgia -- within weeks.
"At this stage, there doesn't seem to be any explanation," said one of the landlord's attorneys, who asked not to be named. "We're all working to find out why. . . . Several of us [attorneys] are investigating the matter."
But perhaps more baffled are Britches' longtime regular customers, some of whom received calls from K Street's veteran salespeople notifying them of yesterday's closing.
In this area, Britches was a fashion staple for the city's power set for decades. Most recently, Clinton adviser and Georgetown resident George Stephanopoulos shopped there. So did retired senator Sam Nunn and CNN talk show host Larry King. And Wayne Huyard, president of MCI Mass Markets, once walked into the Pentagon City store and bought about $8,000 worth of suits.
The chain's offerings: conservative menswear that falls in between that in high-end department stores like Nordstrom and that in value-oriented chains like Men's Wearhouse. Pinpoint oxford shirts for $42. Italian hand-sewn ties starting at $45. Or Cole Haan loafers for $200.
For a certain kind of Washington man -- the hard-charging type who hates to shop -- Britches is a pain-free gentlemen's club. Doting salesmen know his name, his size and, most importantly, how to match a pinstriped shirt with a monochrome tie.
Jay. W. Freedman is just such a man. The 60-year-old attorney at Foley & Lardner picked up his last three ties, two belts and suit yesterday at the K Street store and wondered where he would take his finicky business.
"I'm one of those guys who tends to shop two days a year -- once in the fall, once in the spring. And so I often came here," he said. "These salesmen helped you from suit to accessories."
Another member of the club, Tripp Reed, said he is "color deficient," a problem Britches' salesmen overcame by matching fabrics for him.
"The people here never did the haughty salesperson thing. They never scorned you for not knowing the difference between fabrics," said Reed, 48, a psychotherapist in the District. "They provided information about the clothes, which is rare, and they stood by them."
But despite its loyal following, Britches has faced a string of financial hurdles since co-founder Hindin left in 1988, followed by his business partner Pensky a few years later.
CML Group, a publicly held retail holding company based in Ohio, bought the chain from Hindin and Pensky in 1983 with the goal of expanding Britches and taking it public.
By 1988, Britches earned $9.5 million on sales of $95 million from its 62 stores. A year later, it earned $3.6 million on sales of $105 million at 63 stores.
But in 1990, the company lost money, $1.6 million on sales of $117 million in 71 stores.
A number of factors converged to derail the company, including a recession in the 1990s and a tilt among consumers away from the tailored men's suit, a signature Britches item, toward casual wear.
Struggling to regain profitability, a new set of owners sold the Britches women's wear division and its casual clothing division, Britches Great Outdoors, which was later resurrected without much success.
By the time the company filed for bankruptcy on Dec. 28, 2001, it was trying to dig itself out from under $10 million in debt, its attorney said in an interview last year.
But with the bankruptcy over, many thought Britches' worst troubles were behind it.
"We have been working hard over the last year to emerge from bankruptcy, and when we did, the company told us the doors were closing," said Mike Davidson, a salesman at the K Street store. "It was quite a shock."