EVERYONE in Glasgow's demimonde has a favourite story about Ralph Slater's, the Glasgow menswear business, hidden from public view up a close, which made it into the Guinness Book Of Records.
Mine was when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was at the King's and the theatre had arranged for the seven diminutive actors to be fitted for suits at Ralphie's for a bit of publicity.
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No one, though, told the member of staff who was confronted by the seven homunculi and who asked in a chatty way: "What are you up to these days?"
"We're appearing at the King's," they replied. The chap serving them has never been allowed to forget that he then asked: "What show?"
Ralph would have liked that story. Ralph Slater was the son of a Russian emigre who, 40 years ago, was working with his father in their Howard Street clothing manufacturing business when there was a fire.
The firemen who ran up the close were met by two doors. One was a false door with a steel plate and a brick wall behind it. That was the one they attacked. By the time they realised it was going nowhere and smashed in the door opposite, the fire was well alight and destroyed the machinery. If they had picked the right door straight away, the machinery might have been saved and life would have carried on as before.
But at this point Ralph decided that the margins were better in retail than manufacturing, and reopened as a seller of suits to the public. All this at the age of 55 when other business-folk were thinking more of the golf course than the workplace. It was still up the close, without the costly overheads of a street-front store, and the only advertising was word-of-mouth.
But Ralph loved people. From lords to dustmen, it did not matter. Ralph would find you the suit you needed at a good price.
In the early days you were given a card of introduction to visit "Ralphie's" as everyone called it, taking you up that Howard Street close and into this room-after-room treasure trove of suits of all colours and sizes. Like entering a favourite pub, men could relax and know that the pain of shopping would soon be over.
Amongst the first to realise the benefits of Ralphie's were the police. In those days members of the CID were given a £15-a-month clothing allowance. Ralph suggested they pay him the £15 a month by standing order and they could start shopping for suits straight away.
Then the criminals being collared, if they were of a conversational mien, asked the detectives where they got their suits, and another slew of customers was opened up. Next came the footballers.
Men who kicked a ball professionally in the 1970s and 80s were not paid a king's ransom, yet they needed a suit for their public appearances.
Glasgow politicians were also regulars, although the late Scottish Labour leader Donald Dewar almost defeated Ralph. Recalled son Paul, who now runs the business with his sister Susan after dad Ralph passed away: "I've never known a man who could make a suit look bad like Donald Dewar." Donald made any suit look like a badly packed parachute.
Curiously, it was a politician that gave Slater's a dip in trade - Margaret Thatcher. While she was Prime Minister, the yuppies ruled. Young men, heading for bars such as Charlie Parker's and La Bonne Auberge in Glasgow, wore suits to go out while brandishing their new mobile phones, which were the size of bricks. Ralphie's flourished.
But within a year of Maggie being deposed as Prime Minister, the suit market fell like a stone as being a Yuppie paled, and being casual was all the rage. However, the pendulum of fashion never stops swinging.
School proms are now the rage, with teenage boys wanting to wear a suit for the end-of-school party. They don't want to dress like their casual dads. Another generation of customers has been found.
It is a truism that men do not like shopping. That's why Paul Slater likes it when a chap comes in with his wife. "He needs a suit," she will say, and an assistant will go into action, asking what it is for, showing a few samples, gradually narrowing it down until the chap takes a couple into the changing room and coming out to announce that he had made his choice.
This often confuses the wife who points out that this is only the first shop. Hubby will think she is mad, as why would you want to go to another shop? It would be like going into a pub for a pint, and just before you order it, your wife suggests you have a look at another few pubs first before ordering the Guinness. It's just not going to happen.
Talking about Guinness, it was one of the McWhirter brothers, who ran the Guinness Book Of Records, who came in for a suit and, amazed by the selection, asked Ralphie if it was the busiest suit shop in the world. "Don't know of any busier," said Ralph. The now suited McWhirter checked, and put Slater's in the book.
For others it is almost like a confessional. People open up to the assistants. Paul says an elderly couple were in for a suit and the wife confided that her husband was dying of cancer and they wanted a nice suit for him in his coffin. There is not a witty rejoinder you can give that.
But that's Glaswegians. They still want to look smart even if it is for their funeral.
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