Volume 76, Number 52 | May 23 -29, 2007

A Salute to Union Square

A Special Villager Supplement

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

The Giddon brothers, Jim, left, and Ken, co-owners of Rothman’s Union Square.

Rag trade runs in the blood at Rothman’s Union Sq.

By Bonnie Rosenstock

When I arrived for my appointment to interview Ken Giddon, president and co-owner of Rothman’s Union Square, I had to wait a half hour. Giddon was busy doing what he enjoys best — giving personal attention to a customer, in this case a CBS weatherman, who shall go nameless. Even after 22 years in the menswear business, Giddon, 46, admits, “It is still fresh. The people interaction is the fun part that we both enjoy.”

The “we” includes brother Jim, 39, co-owner and vice president, and people pampering is their specialty, attests Ariel Lawrence, a stylist for several major television networks, including ESPN, NBC, CNN and CBS. She outfits all her male clients here.

“You can’t beat Ken and Jim for the service they give,” she said. “This kind of store doesn’t exist anywhere else in New York. It’s a dying breed. They remember every customer. The merchandise selection is really good value. And they often give me an additional incentive to shop here.”

The tradition of good value began with the Giddon brothers’ grandfather Harry Rothman in true immigrant fashion. When Harry Rothman’s Russian-born father was run over by an ice truck when he was 12, he had to work to support his mother and seven siblings. Armed with a sixth-grade education, he pulled himself up from the proverbial pushcart on the Lower East Side, where he was born, and in 1926, with his younger brother Jack, established Harry Rothman’s. The store was first on East Broadway, then Bleecker St., followed by a move uptown to Fifth Ave. and 26th St., finally ending up on Fifth Ave. and 18th St. Along the way, Rothman’s developed a loyal following and a reputation as a high-end discount brand-name men’s clothing store.

The two brothers died in their 80s in 1985 and left no line of succession. Grandfather was adamant that no child of his would ever be in the rag trade, said Giddon. When his mother and aunt decided to close up shop, they sent for Giddon, then 25, a Boston-born and bred bond and currency trader, to help. He was M.I.T.- and M.B.A.-bound, but put off business school for six months to work with the liquidator. To his family’s chagrin, he opted to revive the business.

He shut down for nine months and reopened at 200 Park Ave. S., on the northwest corner of 17th St. facing Union Square and worked at changing its image from what had become an “old man’s store” to an upscale, hip shop.

“I really didn’t know what I was doing at the beginning,” he said.

His brother, Jim, signed on in 1990.

“We’ve evolved,” Giddon said. “We started out as a discounter and traded up and up. We pride ourselves on having every price range, reasonable prices and a very big selection.”

Rothman’s is the last large independent multi-brand store in New York. Their biggest competitors are their vendors, like Canali, Hugo Boss, Hickey Freeman and Zegna, which all have their own shops.

“Twenty people that used to do what we do are all out of business,” said Giddon, with a tinge of nostalgia. “Either we’re really good at this, or the last guys in the hat business,” he joked.

Rothman’s happens to carry hats, but also outfits men down to the toes, from casual to dressy and “fun stuff.”

“I don’t think I wear anything that’s not from my store, except maybe athletic shoes,” said the nattily dressed Giddon.

“[The two-floor layout] may not be as beautiful as some other stores,” Giddon acknowledged. “But customers don’t have to come in and sort through all the things in the world to make their decisions. We make it so you can get in and out of here quickly, like the weather guy who bought four suits in about 25 minutes,” he said.

Their customers range in age from early 20s to late 60s and “from doorman to investment banker,” he said. “We’re an expensive discounter. Our prices are better than a department store, but we think our service is better,” he said.

One of the brothers is always on the floor, along with their very helpful, well-trained staff.

“This is a place where New Yorkers come. It’s not a tourist destination. It’s for guys who don’t need to say they went to Bergdorf’s or Bloomingdale’s,” Giddon said.

Giddon believes their success is due to the fact that they are business guys who happen to be in the fashion business, as opposed to fashion guys who went into business.

“We bring a more levelheaded approach,” he stated. “The important thing here is we’re just selling clothes, we’re not curing cancer.”

In 1999, the Giddon brothers opened a second store, in Scarsdale, not far from Larchmont where Ken Giddon lives with his wife, twin boy and girl, 14, and son, 9. The kids only occasionally visit the stores.

“I don’t know if they’re that interested or whether I want them to go into the rag trade,” he confessed. “Yeah, it’s still called the rag trade.”

So what would his grandfather make of his going into the family business?

“He would say he couldn’t understand why someone who went to Brown was selling clothes,” Giddon guessed. “But I think he would be proud of what it’s become. It’s his legacy. We wouldn’t have this if it weren’t for him.”

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