His first cash register was a cigar box. The amazing story of Men’s Wearhouse.
Warehouse stores were just getting started in the 1970s. Most sold groceries or household goods. George Zimmer wanted to sell something different in his warehouse — clothes. And not just any clothes, fine men’s clothing.
People laughed. But in 1973, Zimmer and some roommates opened their very first Men’s Wearhouse in Houston Texas.
Zimmer knew apparel. After college he worked as a salesman in his father’s Hong Kong coat-making business. Then he spent months traveling the U.S. selling clothing to department stores from the trunk of his car. While he had little money of his own, that experience gave him contacts in the industry, and he took advantage of them. He took full advantage of the new warehouse trend too, cleverly changing the spelling of his store to Men’s W-E-A-R- house.
That first store was relatively primitive. The first sign was a stencil on a 4-by-8 sheet of plywood. George had to shimmy up a drain pipe to the roof to install it, along with several spotlights. He ran one hundred feet of extension cord out the front door to power them.
Since the entrepreneurs had no cash register, they used a cigar box. Their business vehicle was Zimmer’s personal car – a van with the company logo on the side and clothing racks in the back.
They didn’t sell suits at first, just sport jackets and slacks — $25 for jackets, $20 for slacks. Shirts, ties, suits and tailors came later.
But from the start Men’s Wearhouse focused on name brand clothing. As Zimmer later said, “Men’s Wearhouse is a fine men’s specialty store. We are not a place where you can buy a ‘cheap suit’ cheap.” His passion from the beginning was making great-looking clothing affordable for the average man.
Prices were consistently 20-30% below department store prices, and stores were located in upscale strip shopping centers near customers’ homes and workplaces – versus malls. Eventually that formula grew Men’s Wearhouse into one of the world’s largest clothing companies, with more than 1,200 locations in North America.
Throughout it all Zimmer was an American original — a college man who preferred hiring high school graduates. A businessman who refused background checks because he thought “everyone deserves a second chance.” A CEO who felt creative advertising was overrated, opting instead for consistency and repetition. His relentless use of the slogan “You’re going to like the way you look, I guarantee it,” proved him right. (Zimmer’s ad man George Wilson convinced him men were self-conscious about their appearance, so there was value in repeating that slogan.)
Zimmer was unique in other ways too. He was a clothing mogul who wasn’t a clotheshorse (he preferred jeans, and never owned more than five suits at a time). When the economy crashed in 2008, he held a special suit drive to help unemployed men get a job. And while he understood profit and loss, he insisted on putting a spiritual leader, Deepak Chopra, on his board. (When other board members asked “Who?” Zimmer responded “Ask your wives”). Finally, Zimmer was an original because he insisted on backing every purchase personally, “I guarantee it.”
His dismissal by his board in 2013 – 40 years after founding Men’s Wearhouse — caught the business world by surprise. It also caused a backlash among loyal employees and customers, people who felt they either worked for George, or bought their clothes from him.
In short, George Zimmer was bigger than his brand. That wasn’t hard to understand. In an era of manufactured personalities, this suit salesman appeared to be the genuine article.
No matter what eventually happens between George Zimmer and his board, one thing’s for certain, he exemplifies an axiom featured on our website: Pursue your passion. By selling suits in a warehouse setting, he made great looking clothing affordable for the average man.
The Men’s Wearhouse. Now Why Didn’t I Think of That?