Abbott Sells GR On Individuality

May 17, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — David Abbott, president of A.K. Rikks Menswear, doesn't just sell men's clothing. He sells lifestyle in Grand Rapids.

"Grand Rapids has become a more business casual place," he said. "Our focus is no longer on the full-scale, pinstripe suit and button down collar wardrobe. There is no uniform left in the workplace. There's the gentleman who is wearing the CEO power suit to the gentleman who's wearing khakis and a sweater to the office."

Fresh out of college with a degree in clothing and textiles, Abbott applied at several multi-national companies and every one of them wanted him to come back to Grand Rapids, he recalled. He said he realized he "wasn't going to get out of here," and now he's glad he didn't because he might not have had the same opportunities that he has enjoyed at A.K. Rikks.

Abbott worked for Dayton Hudson for three and a half years, then took a six-month medical leave to wage a battle with cancer. Surviving cancer gave him a new outlook on life.

"I decided I wanted to pursue things that I really wanted to do," he recalled. "I didn't have the desire to be a manager anymore. I didn't have the desire to be a big executive. I just wanted to do something I was really passionate about, which was selling the absolute best of clothes."

He did a couple of company hops before settling on A. K. Rikks nine years ago. About five years later the store's founder decided to move to Atlanta and sold the business to Abbott and a partner. Abbott bought out his partner last summer.

He simply likes good clothing. He likes the style, pace and variety of the men's clothing industry as well. But what he enjoys most about the business are the clients.

"I work with the best people in Grand Rapids," he said. "I have a wonderful group of clients that really understands what we're doing and what our mission is. To work with the caliber of individuals we work with is really an honor and a pleasure. We understand we can't be everything to everybody, but we are definitely something to quite a few people."

Abbott operates two A.K Rikks stores locally, one on 28th Street in the Cascade area and another on Ionia Street downtown. The downtown store, previously housed on the second floor of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, relocated to Ionia Street a year ago. Abbott spends two to three days a week at the downtown store and the remainder of his time at the 28th Street location.

He said local developer Sam Cummings courted A.K. Rikks to come to Ionia Street "with his vision of downtown." Cummings was successful in interesting Rock Kauffman, of Rock Kauffman's Urban House, and Foye McDonald, of Foye McDonald & Associates Hair and Day Spa, in storefronts on Ionia as well.

"It was the right time and there was the right energy. Sam was instrumental for signing all three of us at the same time," Abbott said. "I believe a good men's haberdashery needs to position itself where men still are wearing suits. That doesn't necessarily mean that that's who you end up catering to, but it really sends a clear-cut message. We have a belief and a trust in a thriving downtown."

For companies at the A.K. Rikks level, advertising isn't the key; word of mouth is the key, he said. The misperception of retail is that traffic is what makes a business. But A.K. Rikks is in the relationship business. It only takes one client to make Abbott's day, and that one client will talk to two or three friends and get them into the store, and that's what continually grows his business.

The company has had established relationships with clients for 15 years. It draws its clientele from all over the country and has a strong following in West Michigan, Abbott noted. He said his clients appreciate the longevity of his "family of staff" because every time a client walks in the door they know the people with whom they'll be working.

As A.K Rikks' buyer, Abbott travels to shows around the country. Today everybody wants to be an individual in how they dress, he said, so he never buys more than three or four pieces of the same wardrobe item.

"With the A.K Rikks vision, you may get a Kenneth Cole shirt with a pair of Jhane Barnes pants and an Armani jacket," he said. "You'll get something that's complete and unique specifically to you."

Many of Abbott's clients travel overseas. The perception of clothing in Italy, Germany and England is completely different than in America, he said. In European countries people dress up more. Men want to be on an equal playing field, so they come to A.K Rikks, he said. For clients who prefer help with wardrobe selections, A.K. Rikks can provide them with direction.

"We like to look at it as a subtle education process," Abbott said. "I'm not going to hit anybody over the head with a style or a fashion. I really want to know what's important to them in their life and see whether or not we can be of aid." In an industry that's all about relationships, you do more for some relationships than others, depending on what people's needs are, Abbot said. A.K. Rikks offers a variety of personalized services from packing a client's wardrobe for a business trip to arranging a client's closet so wardrobe pieces are labeled and matched for the client's convenience. The company also produces a style magazine every spring and fall to let its clientele and the community know the direction it is taking for the season.

As far as the Grand Rapids community, Abbott is one of its biggest boosters.

"I'm really tired of how Grand Rapids gets perceived and how we sometimes perceive ourselves," Abbott remarked. "We are an extremely fast growing community. We're not backwoods; we're not hicks.

"Some of the most powerful individuals reside here in Grand Rapids. They're movers and shakers and they're changing the face of our nation and our state. We have to start looking at ourselves in a different way. Other communities are looking at us and they want to see what we're doing. We need to be recognized more for our arts, our tastes and our creativity."

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