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In Store: Steve Austin follows suits 

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One Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago, a sophisticated gentleman in the advertising profession stopped by Steve Austin Designer Menswear. He was the kind of customer, Austin says, who only comes along once or twice a year. "He cherry-picked the place. He was really refined, with great taste; he got two Armani sportscoats, size 42 long, and they fit him perfectly. Absolutely drop-dead gorgeous. I wanted them for myself, but I'm too skinny. He also got two suits and a cashmere topcoat, all for $1,700. That sounds like a lot of money, but the clothes were approximately $6,900 retail value, and you couldn't tell the stuff from new. Absolutely unbelievable."

To distinguish between a secondhand suit Austin sells in his Lakeview store and a brand-new one, you'd have to be a suit salesman. Austin accepts only merchandise of the highest quality with no sign of wear. "I won't even take them if they're worn out from a pen being put in the pocket," he says. He stocks Zegna, Canali, Versace, Calvin Klein, and Giorgio of Beverly Hills, from size 36 short to 50 long. "I even have suits from Bijan of Beverly Hills, with the double vent. They interviewed Bijan about 15 years ago on 60 Minutes, and the cheapest item of clothing in his store was a $110 pair of socks. I'm selling this whole suit for $289."

He got into the clothing business in 1993, when a friend took him to a lawyers' association dinner at the Drake. Austin had just arrived from Park City, Utah, where he'd run a leather and boots emporium since 1975. He mentioned to a tablemate that he wanted to sell off some of his old suits. The lawyer said he also had some suits he wanted to get rid of. A few lawyers and dozens of suits later, Austin had a collection. Lawyers still provide most of his inventory--he doesn't traffic in vintage. People who come in with old sweaters are sent down to the Brown Elephant.

"My providers are men who buy early in the season," he says. "They don't wait for sales. They get the best fabric choices, they get the nicest things in the stores, and they pay top dollar. They've never headed for an outlet mall or a factory store. These were the newest suits when they were purchased, because if you wait for sales you don't find your size. The more money they spend on suits, the less they wear that suit and the faster they're willing to turn it over. They don't want to be seen in the same suit after two seasons."

Austin's customers, on the other hand, range from lawyers slightly farther down the food chain to teenagers buying their first sportcoat to guys who need a suit to get married in. There are at least four other establishments in Chicago that sell used designer men's suits exclusively, and several women's shops have some lying around as well. Austin is friendly with all of them, as he often supplies them with his runoff merchandise. "If a guy needs a suit right away," he says, "I want to make sure he gets one. My Yellow Pages rep used to live down the block. He was clearly a 39 short. He'd come in and buy 40 regulars and have them completely recut by his tailor. They looked like they were made for him. He went through my inventory, buying the best Zegnas and Armanis, and said it was worth tailoring those suits, because he was still way under half price."

Austin is also a connoisseur of 20th-century product design, of which he has collected many examples, including toasters, blenders, adding machines, televisions, Maxim ovens, typewriters, KitchenAid mixers, telephones, cameras, and snare drums. He's picked up this stuff in a variety of places over the last 20 years, but mainly in Utah. "The Mormon Church operated a chain of thrift shops," he says. "I used to look down my nose at them, but before I left Utah I discovered they were the greatest source of collectibles, especially housewares." He originally thought of opening a small museum. But when he rented the space for his suit shop, the landlord told him the empty storefront next door was part of the deal. So he unloaded his boxes and created a housewares annex.

Austin runs both establishments at once. He doesn't make many sales, but when he does, the customers tend to be discriminating. "You never know who's gonna walk in, and what they're gonna want," he says. Right now he's offering a set of moose antlers for $200, when anyone else, he says, would ask $450. In the last two weeks, he's sold a Wassily chair by Marcel Breuer for $85, the pitcher of a blender for $20, and a size 48 long Armani suit that fit the customer perfectly. Meanwhile, two regular customers put some suits on layaway, and several more came prospecting. When business is slow Austin putters in a back room, perfecting recipes for a series of cooking videos that he's already trademarked, based on the cuisines of seven different regions, including Southeast Asia, South America, and the Mediterranean. If the suit business dries up, he says, he can always pursue his dream of becoming a diet guru. Occasionally the two passions intersect.

"I had an emergency suit situation last summer," he says. "I'd gained back a little bit of my weight, and I was really a 42. But I was unhappy with that, and I got strict with my food-combining principles, and slimmed back down to a 41. I had to go to one of my competitors that I supply to get a suit to wear to my 30th high school reunion. I paid more for it than I would have charged a customer in my own store. But that's where good business sense comes in handy. It's like that movie Miracle on 34th Street, where the Macy's Santa Claus sends customers to Gimbel's. I don't want to compare myself with Santa Claus. But I feel like I am sometimes."

Steve Austin Designer Menswear, 934 W. Grace, is open Saturday from 12 to 6 and by appointment weekdays from 4 to 8. Call 773-296-2715. --Neal Pollack

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.

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