Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Franco's Fine Clothier stands out in its humble Richmond, Virginia, neighborhood like a Hugo Boss tuxedo on a rack of flannel shirts. Surrounded by small neighborhood businesses--consignment stores, auto-repair shops, restaurants--it is a 35,000-square-foot brick-and-glass behemoth with a marble-floored rotunda and a skylight modeled on the Galleria in Milan. Franco Ambrogi, 78, is here 10 hours a day, doing what he's done since striking out on his own in 1967. Hugging customers. Chalking pants. Making bodies look better.
"My heart is still very young; and I believe in everybody," says Ambrogi, in the old-world accent of his native Tuscany. "Whether you are 100 years old or 15 years old, it makes no difference to me. I respect you, and I will do the work to make you look the way you should look."
Ambrogi, who wears a coat and tie everywhere, takes credit for bringing European fashion to Richmond when he arrived 63 years ago. "Back then, everything was basic," he says. "Basic gray. Basic brown. Basic navy. A two-button coat. Center vent. Flat-front trousers." A thousand people attended the store's 1986 cocktail party and fashion show, which introduced locals to designers like Armani and Valentino. The city's CBS and NBC affiliates covered the event. "In Richmond, there had been nothing like that," Ambrogi says. "It was just Richmond firms that would treat the customer for Richmond and dress the customer for Richmond."
While Ambrogi has upped Richmond's style game, he is no fashionista. Rather, he is a tailor, who may complement a purple pocket square with a tape measure round his neck. Roughly a third of Franco's 26 employees across the company's two locations (the second is in an upscale mall) work in the humming, well-lit tailor shop inside its flagship store. Ambrogi may be the founder of a multimillion-dollar business, but he still insists on taking every garment apart at the seams to mark directions inside with wax chalk. "That way when the tailor gets it, no mistake is made by them," he says. "And that is the reason our success has been very good."
Ambrogi's expertise--he's been altering clothes for 68 years--means Franco's can accommodate challenging physiques. About 10 percent of the business is custom and made-to-measure, which Franco's provides in conjunction with vendors like Hickey Freeman.
"You go to a lot of places and they just want to maybe put a bottom on a pair of pants and shorten the sleeves," says Kevin Reardon, Ambrogi's son-in-law and now co-owner of Franco's with Ambrogi's son, Mark. (Ambrogi's daughter, Maria Reardon, also works in the business.) "Men who have been sold that way, their coats don't fit properly, their pants don't fit properly. We do whatever needs to be done to make it fit."
As a banker in Richmond, Melvin Watkins wears a suit every day. For 20 years, he's bought all his clothes at Franco's, where he says he's treated like family.
"I am not a European model size, and they are able to make stuff look amazing," says Watkins, who had Ambrogi's team alter his wardrobe after losing 25 pounds. "It's so nice to have a true men's clothier still around. What they do is a lost art."
Moving Richmond's needle
Franco Ambrogi was born in Tuscany in 1940: "a true World War baby," he says. At age 6, he learned to sew from his mother. After fifth grade, he left school to work in a tailor shop, where he labored five years without pay. An American citizen on his mother's side, Ambrogi at 15 emigrated to her hometown of Richmond. There he worked for a small tailor shop, and then at a venerable southern department store chain called Thalhimers. Eventually he fetched up at the upscale specialty retailer Berry-Burk.
With three children by 1967, Ambrogi supplemented the family's income by tailoring in his garage. Most of the work was alterations, but he also custom-made suits, charging around $125. After a day at Berry-Burk, he would spend the evening at his customers' homes, doing fittings and delivering garments.
One night in 1972, "I came home tired from working for the specialty shop, and my wife said, 'What the hell are we doing? Why don't we just go into business?'" Ambrogi recalls. "I said, 'OK. Let's do it.'"
Ambrogi rented a small shop in a sleepy neighborhood, betting on the proximity of I-95 to deliver customers. (It did.) A warm, gregarious presence, he chatted up people at restaurants, churches, and events for the arts organizations he'd begun to support. Former clients from Berry-Burk followed him with their too-long pants and too-short sleeves. "Before you turned around, there was a flow of people. No problem," he says.
By 1975, Franco's Fine Clothier was chugging along nicely as a full-service business selling both ready-to-wear and custom clothes, as well as shoes, ties, and accessories. Then Saturday Night Fever put things over the top. "Leisure suits made me more money than anything," Ambrogi says. "Spire suits with the big collars. On Friday afternoons, I would sell as many as 50 of those."
Franco's introduction of European fashion followed swiftly upon completion of its elegant new store, in 1985. The rotunda in particular drew in the community for parties, trunk shows, auctions, and charity events. Acclaimed designer Giorgio Sant' Angelo staged fashion shows there several times back when Franco's also sold women's apparel. "He would come in from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and we sold as much as $250,000 in furs," Ambrogi says.
Your partners in shopping
If you're the kind of customer who likes to slink unobserved into a store, hustle something into a fitting room, and interact with staff only at the cash register, Franco's isn't for you. A salesperson--often Ambrogi or Reardon--will greet you at the door and docent you through appropriate selections. "You have to look at the body and style of the person," Reardon says. "Everyone is focused on making sure that the customer is put in the right garment first."
Franco's philosophy---"you can't sell it if you don't have it"--means the stores carry a lot of sizes, styles, and price points. Custom suits cost as much as $3,500, while ready-to-wear starts at $395. "People think all we do is $1,000 and $2,000 suits. That is not true," Reardon says. With more young people coming in, "we have more offerings with prices someone just starting out can afford."
Over the years, the company, which Ambrogi calls "very, very profitable," has taken itself in a bit. For a while, it operated four stores, all within 15 minutes of one another. Finding the return incommensurate with the effort, Ambrogi closed two of them. In 2008, the company dropped its women's department. That part of the business had been the provenance of Ambrogi's wife, who had retired to battle cancer.
Although Ambrogi handed off control to the next generation in 2009, he is at Franco's virtually every day. Occasionally, when things are extra busy, he still wields a needle and thread. "The only thing that has slowed me down is my wife's health," he says. "I'll retire when I have one foot in the grave and one on a banana peel."