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Company to Watch: A.O. White

This Western Mass. Institution Makes a Fashion Statement
Company to Watch: A.O. White

Lewis White, owner of A.O. White, pictured with his wife, Kathy, says the most successful retail stores know when the time is right to reinvent themselves.

Evolution. Lewis White used that word early and quite often as he discussed the business, A.O. White, started by his father more than 60 years ago and that he took over in the early ’90s. He also used it to describe the retail industry, fashion, attitudes about dress, and even that relatively new and ubiquitous industry term ‘business casual,’ which both women and particularly men struggled to get their hands around when it came into prominence in the mid-’90s.

“We pretty much built a business on what’s called business casual,” he explained, “because guys coming out of tailored clothing and the business uniform didn’t know what to do. I gave seminars … I went to companies and talked to people about what was good, what wasn’t, what you could and couldn’t do. People were in Never Never Land, not knowing what was appropriate.”

In each case, including business casual, the evolution continues, said White, as he explained in depth how the store his father started in downtown Springfield to sell men’s tailored clothing is now operating in the center of East Longmeadow and sells mostly women’s attire. In short, A.O. White has changed to adapt to all that evolution taking place in society and retail, he said.

“Today, we sell everything from $2,500 sheepskin coats to Red Sox T-shirts,” he said, “and very often to the same customer.”

Tracing the history of the company, White said his father, Albert Oscar White, opened the men’s clothing store that took his name and initials in the late 1940s. He moved several times, always within downtown Springfield, and eventually settled in what was then known as Baystate West (now Tower Square) not long after it opened in 1967. The elder White would go on to be the first general manager of that retail and office facility.

In the early years, his store sold tailored items — suits, jackets, and trousers — made by some of the finest clothiers of the time, including many names that have disappeared from the fashion landscape. “It was a great store,” said White, “one of the finest in the country.”

Albert Oscar White eventually diversified into women’s clothing (he took a vacant storefront in Baystate West above his men’s store for this second venture, A.O. White for Women), and it was this aspect of the business that his son essentially took over and refined, focusing on working women, which was a new trend in the retail sector.

In 1983, the company continued its evolutionary process by opening a store in the Longmeadow Shops called A.O. White Sports, which, as the name suggests, sold casual, sporty clothing for both men and women. And when downtown Springfield started to become much less of a retail center (part of that business sector’s evolution in the wake of the Holyoke Mall and other facilities like it), A.O. White first closed its women’s store downtown (in 1991), and then its men’s store (in 1993).

The Longmeadow store then became the sole location, and it continued to change with the times, focusing increasingly on women’s clothes and moving out of tailored men’s clothing entirely.

When asked to describe the sum of what’s offered today, White thought for a moment and said, “a carefully selected and well-edited collection of casual and dressy clothes for men and women that basically covers every aspect of someone’s lifestyle.

“I sell everything from upscale yoga pants and active sportswear for men and women to dressy separates and tops — we dressed a lot of people for New Year’s Eve,” he continued. “This is probably the only store I know of where you can get a Red Sox sweatshirt and a crystal-trimmed silk tanktop sold to the same person. The common denominator is quality.”

Over the past few decades, White and his wife, Kathy, have helped men adjust to business casual — meaning, among other things, life mostly without ties — while also continuing to edit the selections that go on the shelves and racks.

“We’re still evolving and still changing,” said White, noting that the move to the East Longmeadow Center Village was part of that process. The new location, which features large amounts of natural light, gives the store a new look and atmosphere.

“I was ready to do something fresh and new,” said White. “I think that you have to reinvent yourself in retail every so often, even when times are good. If you look at the stores that have gone out of business, I think it’s because they didn’t do that.”

When asked to recall the landscape when he first started with the family business — meaning the scene downtown and the large number of competitors that existed back then — White started talking nostalgically about a bustling central business district. And when he started naming those competitors — from the old Forbes & Wallace and Steigers to Joseph’s and Paramount Clothes — White paused for a moment and said, “I’m really dating myself.”

Perhaps, but when recounting more than 60 years of life in the clothing business, one has to go through a lot of history — and evolution.

— George O’Brien

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