I shop at Sulka. Or at least I did before the venerable men’s clothier shut down in Manhattan shortly before Christmas. Don’t get the wrong impression: I’m not Hamish Bowles. (Or is it George Wayne?) I don’t have a walk-in closet. I own maybe five pairs of pants, all of them khakis.
The only thing I bought at Sulka were silk neckties, on an average of one every couple of years. In total, I doubt I spent more than $400 there. But my visits always made me feel prosperous. The fabric was so heavy it made your neck hurt, and the ties somehow managed to be both classic and eccentric at the same time.
My last purchase, about a year ago, was a conservative dark green tie. But if you looked closely, you could see that the pattern was composed of rows of well-mannered pelicans, their pouches bulging with fish.
I also owned a burgundy tie that was subtly psychedelic, though it could have passed muster in any corporate boardroom, and a third tie that was lavender with yellow pinpoints. Rothko had nothing on Sulka’s designers when it came to using color.
The Sulka boutique in the Waldorf-Astoria and the shop on Park Avenue were closed early last year. But the company-owned by the Vendôme Luxury Group, which also owns Alfred Dunhill and Cartier-still had a store on Madison Avenue and 69th Street, in the former Westbury Hotel. Lately, whenever I passed it, I’d think, “I ought to go in and treat myself to a necktie.” But I didn’t. I was either too busy or felt I couldn’t afford it.
Just before Christmas, I was stunned to read a story in The New York Times announcing that the men’s haberdashery-whose clients once included Clark Gable and Winston Churchill-was closing the Madison Avenue store, too.
I was particularly upset by a quote in the piece from Paul Wilmot, the fashion publicist, implying that the younger generation needed the reassurance of a designer who starred in his own ads and popped up at the MTV Fashion Awards.
“If you spend that kind of money,” he told The Times , “you want Calvin Klein’s name on it. You want to see Ralph Lauren. These are the design authorities.”
Says who? Part of Sulka’s allure was that its clothes were blessedly free of anyone’s corporate logo. As far as I’m concerned, the fact that so many aren’t just willing, but proud, to wear shirts and sweaters and socks with that jerky little polo player on them is further proof (lest any was needed) of the spiritual rudderlessness of society.
The Times story said that Sulka’s Madison Avenue store was expected to close in early 2002. I figured that if I got there before Christmas, I’d be fine; if I was lucky, they might even be holding a going-out-of-business sale.
So I was sincerely bummed when I visited Sulka on Christmas Eve morning-three days after the Times article appeared-and found it had already closed. There was construction paper covering all the windows. Through a crack in the paper, I could see that the lights remained on but the shelves were bare. What few clothes remained were stacked in a pile on the floor.
I walked away, bereft. In fact, the profundity of my disappointment surprised me: It was just a clothing store, after all. And I rarely shopped there. Maybe the starkness of the midday sun had something to do with it, or the fact that the Upper East Side seemed half-deserted the day before Christmas, but I couldn’t help but feel that something irretrievable had been lost-not just clothes, but a gracious way of life, of which Sulka was merely the latest victim.
My wife had a more prosaic explanation for my bleak mood. “You never really had the cash to take full advantage of Sulka, and it closed before you made it,” she said. I don’t know whether she meant made the cash, or made it professionally. But I wasn’t up to asking her for clarification.
They say the grieving process starts with disbelief, then moves on to anger, resignation and finally acceptance, or something like that. The anger came next. Not only had the store ceased to exist, but judging from the barren state of its shelves, I’d also missed the mother of all liquidation sales.
I looked the store up in the phone book and called several disconnected numbers before someone answered. It was Mario Sarmiento, one of their salesmen. Mario assured me that I wasn’t alone in feeling the store’s loss. “Of course we’re all sad,” he said compassionately. “We’re packing up and hugging each other.
“Mrs. Schiff came in, and she was just devastated,” he went on, referring to Karenna Gore’s mother-in-law. “She said, ‘Mario, what am I going to do?’
“The company has been very good to us,” he volunteered. “They gave us a nice package.”
I was happy for Mario, but that didn’t solve my tie problem. He admitted that there had indeed been a sale. “It was going on for a while,” he said.
I asked why I hadn’t heard anything about it; I was on Sulka’s mailing list. Mario described the event as “more or less private. They didn’t want to scare the people that we were going out of business.”
It was what Mario told me next that dumped me into a slough of despond from which I have yet to emerge. He said the merchandise had been on sale for 75 percent off. Do you understand what that means? Imagine buying a brand-new Lexus for $7,500. Or a woodcock at Alain Ducasse for the price of a hoagie.
“Everything was just a real bargain,” Mario continued, unintentionally rubbing it in. “Every suede jacket.”
Henry Kissinger had been a customer. “Sweaters and ties,” Mario reported.
Ronald O. Perlman, too. “Cashmere sweaters.”
“Wait a second,” I said. “Did Kissinger and Perlman know about the sale?”
I frankly don’t think I could have gone on living knowing the corporate raider and the merry bomber of Cambodia were loading up on slippers and silk bathrobes like they were at Filene’s Basement while I was left in the dark.
In fact, my wife said she’d driven by the store an hour before my ill-fated visit and could have sworn she’d seen some elegant older gentleman-though neither of the above-emerge from the boutique with a tie box in hand and slip into the back of a silver Bentley or Rolls. In other words, Sulka saw me coming and hung out their “Closed” shingle.
But Mario assured me that Henry and Ron had also missed out on the bargains. “Then who did take advantage of them?” I wondered out loud.
“I got beautiful cashmere sweaters and some suits and lots of ties,” Mario said.
There you have it. While the rest of us went about our sullen little lives, Mario and the rest of the staff were becoming the best-dressed ex-salespeople in town. I suppose there’s some justice to that. After waiting on the rich all those years, the staff could finally afford the luxury they’d been selling to others.
I asked Mario whether he’d be interested in selling me some of his ties. He just laughed.
And if I were him, I would laugh, too.