My obsession with observing closely the personalities and machinations at the heart of the monied classes and political power, came through a provincial employers’ grant in the early Eighties.
Winnipeg's toniest men’s boutique, then as now, was Hanford-Drewitt, a long-established club of sorts for the city’s best-heeled men.
And “everybody who was anybody” shopped there: Trust-fund heirs to Winnipeg grain fortunes, leveraging lawyers and unaccountable accountants, schmatta-trade tricky-dicks, miserly Mennonite property managers, corporate evangelical Christ-professors, dodgy doctors and derelict dentists, prickly and preening professional athletes, and not just a few of the country’s political power-brokers.
My entry into this lair, as a down-at-the-heel university student, was prompted by a girlfriend's suggestion that Hanford-Drewitt was just the place for me to support my move into my first apartment and to continue my studies in style. So I gave it a whirl....
Entering the haberdasher of choice for the local hoi-polloi for the first time was a bit daunting.
Situated on swanky tree-lined Broadway amidst insurance company headquarters and law firms, the legislature’s Golden Boy just a few blocks to the west, the shop itself was an architecturally spare modern block of anthracite and glass. It looked as forbidding to me from the outside as the price tags on the suits displayed on the inside.
And at the end of a long Spanish dining table, cluttered with fashion mags and newspapers, sat an astonishingly good looking man.
His patrician nose dropped as he looked over the frames of his glasses to appraise me. His hair was perfect. His shoes were polished pools of cordovan. And as he stood to attend to me, the cut of his suit, the impossibly elegant drape of his trousers, the luxurious sheen of Italian linen that wrinkled just right under the merciless summer sun streaming through the skylight, made me want to be him: Paul Stiller. The man who would be my mentor.
I introduced myself, sweating nervously in an autumn houndstooth sport coat borrowed from my pop, and tried not to reveal myself as a stuttering socialist from the Mennonite ghetto of North Kildonan. And after a short discussion, Paul hired me and told me to come in the next day, a busy Saturday, to start.
After the morning chores were completed, Paul threw me a twenty and said, “Okay kid. Good start. Why dontcha grab us a smooth and a mover from Sal’s.” Paul and his partner John typically started each day with a routine that would become my own for nearly a decade to come: reading the morning papers over a coffee and a bran muffin (the “smooth and a mover”) before clients started strolling in. It had the dual benefit of enforcing currency vis-a-vis events unfolding and, perhaps even more importantly, gastrointestinal regularity.
I learned a lot in the first weeks of work; and I started what would become my first career. And along the way, I gained some invaluable lessons from my mentors, Paul chief among them.
First and foremost: Listen to what your clients say (or: shut up). Next came: Don’t judge your clients by first impressions -- you have no idea who you might be dealing with. Third: Always wear great, well-polished shoes (or as another somewhat more flamboyant mentor once advised: You can tell the lot by their pumps!). And four: Never betray confidences.
Paul’s lessons served me well back then, and they serve me well to this day. As I became habituated to my new work-life I became astonished at what my clients would reveal to me.
And another great revelation came to me: the monied and powerful put on their trousers one leg at a time. Just like the rest of us. They may be the board-members of billion-dollar corporations, or provincial premiers, or municipal mayors. They may be political-party strategists or bagmen. They may be chain-smoking senators and global media magnates. Or they may be regular working joes who value the finest duds they can afford. Long and short of it: We put on our trousers one leg at a time.
Often under-estimated and increasingly out of reach for so many, I would wager that the country’s finest menswear shops are ground-zero for many a tidbit of political gossip and insider information. An interesting job for a political journalist would be to canvass the owners of these shops to get a sense of the real meat behind the pallid prose that informs us each and every blessed day of an election campaign.
But if the rest of the country’s haberdashers have taken to heart the same lessons that I learned, literally at the feet of some of Canada’s most powerful politicos and business bobs, chances are journalists won’t get too much out of them.
Sure we can tell you what they like to wear, and even tell you what side they might dress on; but the meat of what matters will remain in the proverbial vault.
At least until I publish my first memoir... Stay tuned.
— Jeffrey Loewen is a Kelowna-based writer who plays music by day and politics by night