Presidents wore their suits. But after 124 years, Hickey Freeman says goodbye to Rochester
This week saw the last Hickey Freeman garments produced at the company’s factory on North Clinton — closing out a legacy that dates back more than a century.
“It's a little bittersweet,” said John Martynec, COO of the company now known as Rochester Tailored Clothing. “You know, I grew up with Hickey Freeman. And we’ll always be Hickey Freeman.”
The high-end men’s clothing line started here in 1899, and became the last surviving brand from a time when the city was known around the world for making high quality menswear.
“Timely Clothes, Bond, Michaels Stern, Fashion Park, all those were major clothing manufacturers here in Rochester,” Martynec said. "It was very big, very big.”
Going forward, the factory will continue producing suitcoats, pants, and other wares under other brand names, including Rochester Tailored Clothing. But the Hickey Freeman label will be made in Mexico, as an off-the-rack department store brand. There is talk of re-starting the specially tailored, made-to-order Hickey Freeman items here, but nothing has been decided.
Construction is underway, meanwhile, to consolidate factory operations — part of an $84 million overhaul by Home Leasing that is converting much of the space into 134 affordable apartments for seniors. That work should be completed in fall 2024. The factory building will still carry the Hickey Freeman name, though the development is being called Tailor Square.
“We've been in this building now for over 112 years,” Martynec said. “So the product won't change … it’s just a different label.”
But Hickey Freeman wasn’t just any label.
Former Rochester mayor and one-time state lieutenant governor Robert Duffy, now president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber, recalled a time he visited the White House with the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Barack Obama was president.
“And he went around, introducing himself to all the mayors,” Duffy said. “I shook his hand, and I said, ‘Mr. President, Bob Duffy, the mayor of Rochester.’ I opened up my suit coat, and I said, ‘The home of Hickey Freeman.’ And he said, ‘Mister Mayor,” and he opened up his coat and pointed.”
Hickey Freeman was on the inside of Obama’s jacket as well.
“It was a great source of pride for Rochester,” Duffy said. “I give the example of President Obama. But if you go to Hickey Freeman, you can see pictures of the various presidents of the United States who wore Hickey Freeman suits. It meant something."
He continued: “There’s going to be some great clothes made at Avenue D and Clinton, I'm sure. But it won't be Hickey Freeman. And that's the sad part. I will never purchase another Hickey Freeman suit.”
Martynec ordered what was the final Hickey Freeman garment produced at the factory, a bright blue sports coat with “Last HF 5.31.23” embroidered on the inside.
‘The absolute best stuff in the world’
In the early 1900s, nearly 200 clothiers large and small dotted the Rochester landscape, mainly clustered around downtown. These factories were an entry point for countless European immigrants.
“To put it into some context, at the turn of the century, Hickey Freeman was known all over the world for making the absolute best clothing anywhere,” said Jeffery Diduch, the company's senior vice president of design and its unofficial historian.
He tells the story of an English tailor and businessman who sold Hickey Freeman wares and sent his son over to see the operation. The son thought ready-wear clothing was dreck.
“And, of course, England being at the time famous for the best tailors in the world of Savile Row and so on, he came with a bit of a chip on his shoulder and his nose in the air,” Diduch said. “And as he was leaving, he said, “I have to say that the difference between Hickey Freeman and the best English custom-made clothing is that Hickey Freeman is better.”
Diduch has stacks of decades-old style booklets with paintings of the latest designs. He has collected old suits. Cleaning out the various odd rooms and spaces, workers found a steamer trunk with initials of Walter B.D. Hickey, former company president and the son of company founder Jeremiah Hickey.
"They would load up the clothes in these trunks and put them on the trains to go from town to town. And that's where the term ‘the trunk show’ comes from,” Diduch said. “And it was like, this is the OG trunk. Oh, my God.”
He is in talks with the museum studies program at the Rochester Institute of Technology about preserving some of the items. That includes old suit patterns — some brittle with age, others newer that were made for actors like Liev Schreiber, Paul Newman, or Ray Liotta when he played Frank Sinatra in the movie “The Rat Pack.”
“Most people have forgotten or never knew that the absolute best stuff in the world was being done here,” Diduch said. “And everybody was learning from this. So it's worth preserving.”
By the late 1940s, the local clothing industry was beginning to decline. Manufacturers were finding cheaper labor in other parts of the country. Within a few decades, what had been the city’s consistent No. 2 industry had all but vanished.
Michaels-Stern went out of business in the late 1970s, as did Bond. The Michaels-Stern building downtown has since been converted to lofts. Bond built what is now the Bausch+Lomb factory on North Goodman but never fully occupied the space.
“We’re the last survivor,” Martynec said. “Adrian Jules is more of a custom tailor, but they've been around since the '60s."
'A more difficult pill to swallow'
“There's no market now,” said Tom Conners of East Rochester.
He was among the dozens of bargain hunters who came out for the final Hickey Freeman factory sale at the company’s newly opened downtown retail store. Workers are expected to remove the Hickey Freeman logo from the factory store windows next week, and replace it with Rochester Tailored Clothing.
“I taught school,” Conners said. “I wore a jacket, shirt and tie every day for 35 years. But people teaching school now don't do that.”
That shift played out on the factory floor. Back in 2009, the North Clinton Avenue factory was producing 900 jackets and 750 pants a day, Martynec said. Today, it's 180 jackets and 200 pants a day.
Changes in production and demand have ravaged the industry. To survive, Hickey Freeman’s owner sold the rights to the Hickey Freeman name. Then a few years ago, it shifted much of the production to Canada.
“That was a more difficult pill to swallow than this one right now,” Martynec said.
“A lot of people are angry about it,” he continued. “I was angry about it. Because you work all these years and they decide to move it up there? But then we said, well, we have to kind of fend for ourselves.”
The local factory — one of the last manufacturing plants producing American-made clothing — branched out in recent years, producing other brands for the first time. They now handle more than two dozen outside labels from Brooks Bros. and Southwick.
That is why none of the 210 local employees lost their jobs in this latest transition.
Another of the last Hickey Freeman garments they made this week was for Walter “Duffy” Hickey, who was the third generation of the family to serve as company president and chairman.
“I picked up the sport coat this morning, which I had made,” Hickey said, when reached at his Pittsford home this week. “Blue navy blazer.”
He took the reins starting in 1976. By then, Hickey Freeman was no longer family-owned, having merged years before with a Chicago firm. He retired more than a decade ago after 49 years with the company.
“It's sad to see a brand go someplace else,” he said. “I'm not sure I understand totally the entire logic of what was done … But you don't look at it negatively. You look at it positively — that we still have a lot of people there working.”