Gifted at soccer, trained as an educator and filled with sociable energy, my oldest child has chosen to become a fashion designer. It’s ironic on a number of levels not least of which is that Kelly was not exactly, shall we say, rigorous in her fashion choices as a youngster. During her teenage years, in fact, she wore the same corduroy jacket, jeans and wool cap for weeks on end. By high school, whenever she needed to dress nicely, she relied upon her nine-year-old sister for guidance.
Now just over thirty, with her wife, Laura, Kelly is consumed with the establishment of their firm, “Kirrin Finch,” which will offer clothing to women with tomboyish tastes. Together, they are selecting fabrics, buttons and cuts with meticulous care. No detail is too small for them to debate, in a constructive way, in a heartfelt drive to “get it right.”
What would Lou Sanders have thought about this?
My father didn’t set out to spend a fifty-year career in the clothing business. When he finally arrived in Philadelphia from Kiev, via Cuba, he took the first job that was offered, behind the counter at a delicatessen. Immediately, he found the smell of fish on his hands to be repulsive and, after several months, quit to become a clothing salesman. Shortly thereafter, in the late 1920’s, he rented a space to house his own shop. By the early 1940’s, he’d bought a neighboring building and moved his business, Lou Sanders’ Men’s Shop, into it. There it continued until 1981.
Unlike Kelly, my father didn’t aspire to the creative aspects of the business. He also had no interest in manufacturing. He was a salesman. I’m not even sure it would have mattered to him if his product were clothing or hardware or tires, so long as it wasn’t fish.
Kelly also didn’t come to fashion as a foregone conclusion. As recently as a year ago, she and Laura considered opening a restaurant as their enterprise. Their consideration of businesses so unrelated to their professions raised eyebrows.
“Why not just keep teaching and pharmaceutical marketing?” someone asked Kelly and Laura, respectively.
“We want to do something together,” said Kelly.
“Fair enough,” concluded the Greek chorus. “But what makes you think you can just parachute into a business or career without any preparation?”
“You’ll see,” they said, to the skeptics.
And we have. On their honeymoon, Kelly and Laura clearly spent countless hours churning through the possibilities. They identified the lack of female-proportioned clothing available to tomboys as a need to be addressed; they concluded they were the perfect team to solve the problem. Not content merely to spend money and hire professionals, Kelly and Laura have set themselves on a vigorous course of education to become experts in the field.
Utilizing their existing skills in marketing (Laura) and networking (Kelly) they have created a business plan, social media buzz and gained acceptance to Pratt Institute’s prestigious incubator for new fashion entrepreneurs. a major accomplishment. To our alarm, Kelly even asked to borrow our sewing machine; that might be taking the “do-it-yourself” mentality a step too far.
“How do you turn it on?” she asked.
My father loved his time at the Store. It was where he was most comfortable. But I don’t believe he cared about the product. He wasn’t solving a problem or addressing a need, except for his need to make a living. Not given to reflective communications, he never expressed anything about the subject of men’s clothing, even while devoting half a century to the cause. Sure, he preferred dressy clothing to denim. And he certainly wouldn’t have approved of ripped jeans under any circumstances. But these preferences could just as well have been expressed if he’d become an insurance agent or a lawyer.
He held many beliefs deep within a well of silence. We weren’t always sure about the inner workings of his mind. But the preferences he did feel sharply, such as that his sons marry within their faith, were communicated with an extreme clarity, spoken or not. When he first met my wife, Katie, who is not Jewish, he closed his eyes, leaned back his head against the couch and proceeded not to speak for the rest of the afternoon.
Several months later, when it appeared Katie and I might stay together, to my great relief, he refrained from an angry display. Certainly already chastened by my mother, he broached the subject of his disapproval with subtlety, even graciousness.
“She’s pretty. She’s smart,” he conceded, then continued, with his coup d’ grace: “But she’s a little older.” This from a man who had married a woman fifteen years younger and made known he felt that was a good idea.
He left out the major facts that she was also Unitarian, divorced and the mother of a two-year-old daughter.
“How will he be with Kelly?” Katie and I fretted.
“Will he accept her?” we wondered.
If he rejected her, Kelly would sense it, to say nothing of the resentment Katie would feel. To say we were concerned with their introduction to each other is a vast understatement. Yet, when the time came, Lou Sanders instantly abandoned all his inhibitions about religion, about divorce, and about step-grandchildren, a relationship he would have scoffed at as tenuous, at best, in any other family.
He loved Kelly like his own grandchild immediately, indistinguishable from his other six. Katie, too, was accepted as a beloved daughter-in-law from the moment it became clear she would not be going away. Did Lou reach this accommodation easily? Probably not. But once he got there, Lou Sanders didn’t look back.
Perhaps that is the closest connection he has to Kelly and Laura’s new enterprise. It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. It’s just coincidence Kelly is entering the field of clothing where my father “played” for so long. In the important ways, when push comes to shove, Kelly is going about it the right way, all in. And as a grandfather to Kelly, when he could have fallen so much shorter, Lou went all the way. If Lou Sanders’ Men’s Shop existed today, doubtless he’d feature a new line on display the moment it becomes available: Kirrin Finch: menswear apparel for women.