Celebrating A Menswear Industry Innovator
Harry Rosen Executive Vice President Jeff Farbstein was recognized as a Menswear Industry Innovator at a prestigious awards ceremony in NYC hosted by MR Magazine. The following is an excerpt of the publication’s profile of one of our most colourful and acclaimed personalities.
There’s no question that Jeff Farbstein lives and breathes menswear. It’s what he loves doing and what he loves obsessing about. His passion incorporates the product, the people, the promotion, the presentation and especially the problem- solving. He’s totally involved in every aspect of the business, always striving to understand, always dreaming up new and often crazy ideas to capture his customers’ share of wallet.
David Vosko, merchandise manager of clothing and furnishings at Harry Rosen, has worked with Farbstein for 30 years and knows him well: as a mentor, teacher, and friend. “There’s an intuitive element to what Jeff does that defies explanation. He’ll often surprise you with his ideas: they’re rarely textbook. He has powerful relationships in the market and always takes time to listen to people, which gives him an amazing grasp of what’s going on out there. Most importantly, he’s always the voice of reason: when Larry wants to know what’s really going on, he turns to Jeff.”
Larry Rosen, Harry Rosen’s brilliant CEO, confirms this. “Jeff is the youngest-thinking old guy I’ve ever met: in his dress, his attitude, his expression, in life. He hasn’t aged: I’d put him up against any 30-year-old. He’s current in his thinking because he always knows what’s going on. He has an uncanny sense of forecasting: he can anticipate what trends will be relevant to our clients before they do. For example, he came to me in the early 1990’s and pushed to do more fashion, to take a stronger position in Hugo Boss and other modern brands. Then 10-15 years ago, he came to me and insisted we move more aggressively into the luxury market: Kiton, Cucinelli, Zegna, Loro Piana, Canali; he felt we shouldn’t be a part-time player in these brands. The same with outerwear: before anyone was talking about Canada Goose and Moncler, he brought them in with authority. While most merchants initiate change by adding a few percentage points here or there, Jeff uses data and intuition to make major shifts. He’s an insightful, thoughtful, connected merchant who understands the world, predicts what customers will want, and always seeks what’s new. And because he’s trained his team so well, the excellence he’s brought to the business will surely outlive his career with us.”
Known for his integrity and humility, Farbstein appears uncomfortable with such praise and insists there’s nothing magical about what he does. “All it takes is intuition, guts and a little luck. For me it’s easy because I’ve always loved retailing: as a kid, I’d spend hours staring into the windows of the five men’s stores lined up on the main street near my grandparents’ home. I loved the preppy looks of that era: Polo shirts, Levi’s and penny loafers. Before Harry Rosen, I ran my own men’s shop with a partner. I loved it, but one day I had this premonition that in my old age, I’d still be there in that exact same spot, unpacking boxes. So I gave it up and worked part-time at a men’s store while checking out other career options: real estate, fast food franchises.
Then a mutual friend put me in touch with Harry who suggested we meet over lunch. I picked him up, we went to a restaurant, he fell asleep, I woke him up, but somehow we bonded: I started work as assistant manager of the Bloor Street store in 1979.”
As the story goes, Farbstein loved working on the selling floor but was becoming increasingly frustrated about gaps in the merchandise mix. So he wrote a memo to Harry, suggesting some changes.
Harry called him in and said, “You think you can do better? You’ve got the job.” Recalls Farbstein, “The position was clothing buyer and I was secretly disappointed to get stuck in the most boring category in the store. But I ended up becoming Harry’s sidekick, going along with him on market appointments and to fabric shows and learning so much. I always had a feel for the fabrics and would shop the European mills early, assigning specific piece goods to specific brands. I could envision exactly which fabrics would work best in which clothing make.”
Farbstein talks passionately about his admiration for Harry as a boss. “He was always challenging, always wanting to know what I really thought, not what I thought he wanted to hear. In group discussions, he was famous for speaking last because he wanted to analyze all sides of the picture. I try to do this now with my team: if they come in with a problem, I need to hear all sides of it or how else can I help them solve it?
“Another thing I got from Harry is my work ethic. We’d finish our work day, have a short dinner, and then run around town (in whatever city we happened to be) looking at stores and in store windows. Harry loved to see what other stores were doing and I got my advanced merchandising degree working with him… To this day, I love visiting great stores all over the world. I steal ideas from the best of them and just make sure to execute them better.”
As much as he’s learned from Harry, Jeff equally appreciates the connection he’s cultivated with Larry. “We’re very different,” Farbstein explains. “Larry came to us already a lawyer and has a logical bottom-line approach to retail so our discussions on how to do things can get pretty heated. But when we get through arguing, we generally end up with great results, mostly because Larry is incredibly supportive of my wild, crazy, ‘dreamer’ ideas.”
Fortunately, many of Farbstein’s ‘dreamer’ ideas have proven successful. These include bringing in the first Zegna Traveler suits before Zegna even had an office in Toronto. “Our first order was 36 suits that we purchased out of a suitcase; 36 quickly became 1000…” Other fantasies turned fabulous: featuring clothing to reflect the Savile Row look of the 80s; supporting the relaxed luxury of Brunello Cucinelli (a first order of 80 pieces steadily evolved to where Rosen is now Cucinelli’s largest independent store account in the world); supporting Tom Ford’s strong shouldered British-style garment before even seeing product (Farbstein argued that if a Tom Ford collaboration is good enough for Gildo Zegna, it’s good enough for Harry Rosen); a recent storewide push to lifestyle shops (some by brand, some by mixing brands to create a more eclectic look), a recent successful focus on Munro, a new MTM clothing brand out of Amsterdam geared to younger guys (and brilliantly housed in the denim area rather than in tailored), and a major investment in their own Bespoke tailor shop.
Yet Farbstein considers it his mission to make it fun. “The mood in the industry these days is a problem. Retailers need encouragement: they need to bring their game face every day, to dig deep inside themselves and excite their teams and maintain that positive spirit, no matter how tough things seem. If we could just channel the excitement of the old days: taking out your pocket knife, tearing open the big box that just arrived, seeing for the first time in your store the styles you selected months ago, eagerly calling your customers before the product’s even out of the box. Back then, every retailer knew that feeling of exhilaration; today, store owners are dealing with financials, and buyers have too much else to do. So no one’s having fun, yet ‘fun’ is the success secret in our business.”
It’s also the success secret for a good a marriage, Farbstein maintains. “I have lots of kids,” he notes with pride, ‘lots’ meaning five, all of whom bring him tremendous joy. In addition to his wife who works in real estate, his family includes twins who are 33 (a daughter who’s a social worker, a son who’s a high school teacher); another daughter who’s 24 and practicing dentistry; another son who’s 23, just graduated business school and immediately got a fabulous job at Price Waterhouse (without his father’s help except for the suggestion to wear a pink tie to the interview) and his youngest daughter, now 15, who might be the one to follow in her dad’s fashion footsteps.
“I’m just grateful that we’re so solid together as a family and for that I credit my wife and the wonderful way she’s always engaged with the kids. I’m not in a hurry to retire but these days, the pleasure of spending a bit more time with family, friends and golf is very appealing.”
Read the entire profile here: http://www.mr-mag.com/merchants-merchant-jeff-farbstein/
As soon as news of the award became public, the acclaim started to roll in from all corners of globe. Here’s what a few fashion industry titans at home and abroad had to say.
“It’s a difficult task to concisely summarize the brilliance of Jeff but I can easily and sincerely say he is dignified, graceful, charming and filled with pure passion and integrity,” Peter Tannenbaum, Tod’s.
“Jeff is an amazing merchant! He’s always raising the bar higher, always pushing to find what’s new, what’s next. He was one of the first to believe in our unlined , unstructured KEI jacket, and it’s now almost 75% of the Canali sportcoat business at Harry Rosen,” Giorgio Canali.
“I started my brand in 2011 and Jeff supported me from day one. There’s a trust between Jeff and his vendors: we help each other which is very atypical and very wonderful,” designer Patrick Assaraf.
“Harry Rosen would not be Harry Rosen without Jeff’s merchandising and relationship-building talents,” Al Israel, Triluxe.
“Jeff seems to understand the art and the science of merchandising a store. That might sound easy but it’s an increasingly elusive skill,” Robert Aldrich, Zegna.
“When I met Jeff at the beginning of my career, I know that like Brunello (Cucinelli), he was a man of substance who cared deeply about human connection over the simple art of closing a deal,” Massimo Caronna, Brunello Cucinelli.
“Jeff has been a mentor to me throughout my career. But most importantly, he’s a mensch, a gentleman, and a treasured friend,” Arnold Silverstone, Samuelsohn.