Hot Sam's adapts to better suit a changing Detroit

Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
The Detroit News

Detroit — When Tony Stovall was a teenager, his father took him to Hot Sam's to buy his first suit as a man. In 1974, Stovall went to work at the shop as a salesman. And in 1994, he bought the shop with his business partner, Cliff G. Green.

For Stovall, that first suit, which in truth was too short for his 6-foot-2 frame and bunched up in the back, made him feel confident and proud. Now he spends his days teaching young men how to dress to impress.

"Somebody's got to do it," said Stovall. "When women go out, they dress to the nines. Men wear blue jeans. They don't even know what to wear for a job interview."

Hot Sam's is the quintessential Detroit business, open since 1921 and, in many cases, serving three generations of Detroiters at the same time. Much like Henry the Hatter, which is just around the corner from its Monroe Avenue location, Hot Sam's has always been the place where stylish men, particularly African-American men, go to get their clothes for special occasions.

"We have a customer base, a niche," said Green. "Our customers have supported us for years."

But as any good business professional knows, it's important to change with the times and downtown Detroit is diversifying. Bedrock, Quicken Loans and Wayne State University are bringing in an entirely new crowd of men with a different kind of style to the city, and Hot Sam's is working to capture that new pool of potential customers.

"If you want to create new business, you've got to reach out to the young, you can plant that seed," said Green. "You've got to be able to take that style and refine the young folks."

Refreshed store, products

Stovall and Green have refined the shop as well. They recently completed a refresh of the store and product lines, under the guidance of Stovall's daughter, fashion designer Lauren Stovall. They've widened their selection and even begun to offer jeans, casual shoes and polo shirts.

"The point of the facelift is to appeal to all men," said Lauren Stovall. "Even if you don't have to wear a suit every day, you still need a couple of them."

For the grand reopening, Hot Sam's is also revealing a new line of suits called the Power Collection, which includes bold colors and patterns and slim fits to appeal to a younger crowd. The face of the new collection is Vinicius Machado, an up-and-coming Brazilian actor who is best known for his role as a gang member in the Starz show "Power."

On Tuesday Machado joined Green and the Stovalls at the shop for a lunchtime meet-and-greet with customers. A red carpet event was scheduled later in the evening with city officials.

For Machado, the role as spokesman is about much more than stylish suits. It's about self-expression and identity.

"As people of color, we're still perceived as minorities," he said. "We are a powerful community and we should be allowed to dictate our own identity."

As owners of a long-established business, Green and Stovall have worked to maintain the identity and history of the shop.

Beyond the ordinary

Hot Sam's was founded by businessman Sam Freedman in 1921, with a location on Brush Street. The quality and low prices brought people into the store and earned him a reputation that eventually attracted politicians, athletes and Motown musicians. Some of the customers through the years have included The Temptations, the Miracles, The Four Tops, Joe Louis and former mayors Coleman Young and Kwame Kilpatrick.

"A guy came in here five years ago and told me about how he bought his graduation suit here in 1939," said Green. "That's the kind of history we're talking about."

Green started with the company in 1983 after six years as a buyer for J.L. Hudson. When the opportunity came up to buy the shop in 1994, he and Stovall jumped on it. They decided not to change the name because, as Green puts it, "you can go almost anywhere in this country and people have heard the name Hot Sam's."

And while many shops are popping up in downtown and Midtown Detroit selling $100 T-shirts and $1,000 vintage leather bags, Green and Stovall are determined to keep their prices low. Suits start as low as $99 and can get up to $600, depending on the material, occasion and details.

"We aren't that removed from the recession," said Green. "You have to understand that and keep your customer in mind."

Judge Craig Strong, a longtime customer, popped in Tuesday to "put together my Kentucky Derby outfit." Strong picked a head-to-toe sherbet-colored suit and a bedazzled tie. Hot Sam's is a favorite of the always vibrantly clothed TV personality.

"They're different, they're creative. And they've got some of my favorite colors," said Strong. "I don't want to wear ordinary."