“Man, this looks good!” says a tall man standing in front of a mirror, admiring a colorful three-piece suit. Three friends surround him, expressing their agreement.
It’s a Saturday afternoon during winter’s last gasp, a good day for men to start thinking about how they want to look in spring and summer. The four friends are hanging out in Whalley Sample Shop, about a block up from the Whalley/Goffe/Dixwell convergence, and for a place filled with suits and slacks and dress shirts and ties, the culture is fairly casual. Attendants tend to be in shirtsleeves with collars unbuttoned, leaving jackets and ties for the racks and the customers.
Light bouncing off beige carpeting, off-white walls and medium-brown wooden details cast a sepia hue over the place, creating a vision that’s part of the way to an old photograph. That’s not inappropriate: the shop’s been around a long time, even in its current iteration. After moving to New Haven in 1959 from Western Ukraine, Lou and Anna Lehrer bought the Sample Shop, an already-established apparel store, in 1960. George and Alex, the Lehrers’ sons, currently own and run the store with help from their cousin, Jeff. “We specialize in fashion-forward apparel here,” George begins, but these are men who can finish each other’s thoughts. Jeff adds, “We’re primarily an inner-city store.” Alex continues, “Yes, we offer clothing with a lot of flavor here.”
George points to a white jacket on an adjacent rack, the kind not just anybody can pull off. A jovial customer nearby interjects, “You can come in here for anything you want. A wedding, a funeral, a trip to Vegas.” He was clearly thinking big.
Entering the front door, it likely won’t be long before one of the fellows manning the floor approaches to find out what he can do for you. But before that, a two-tiered wall of suit jackets greets you to your right, wrapping halfway around the room, with shelves and racks of dress shirts, pants, neckties, shoes and belts occupying the middle and left in an impressive array of different styles, prints, colors and sizes, with barely a stitch of casualwear in the house. If something you like doesn’t fit, there’s an onsite seamstress capable of making on-the-spot alterations. “We don’t let anyone leave until they look perfect,” George says.
Whalley Sample Shop also gets many local youth looking good through the Developing Tomorrow’s Professionals program. Organized by New Haven public schools and the United Way of Greater New Haven, it helps 9th-, 10th- and 11th-grade male students of color with career preparation. The store’s contributions are made in suits, ties and dress shoes, given to students with low access to the kind of clothing that’s appropriate for professional job interviews.
The wall behind the register is plastered with pictures of customers wearing their Sample Shop finery during proms, weddings, funerals, those trips to Vegas and, of course, more local nights out on the town, flaunting some of the flavor Alex mentioned. “Flavor” doesn’t necessarily mean bright colors or flashy prints, by the way; the store stocks stacks and racks of more restrained menswear. It also sells tuxedos for prices most places would charge for rentals.
A few of the photo subjects on the wall are well-known figures. Jermaine Jackson has been there since a visit to New Haven last year. The seminal vocal group The Ink Spots are up there. National radio personality J. Anthony Brown is as well. Numerous professional NBA and NFL players have also shopped here, I’m told. Jeff points out one of the patrons trying on a bright new blazer right at that moment. “This guy used to play for the Giants.”
Of course, you don’t have to be a Giant to leave Whalley Sample Shop feeling like you’re living large.
Whalley Sample Shop
61 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Will Gardner.