“Keep the Quality Up:” Hickey Freeman and Rochester’s historic garment industry

The Hickey Freeman Co. was founded in Rochester, New York in 1899 and it continues to manufacture high quality, handmade suits and garments.

by Ryan Tantalo

Presidents, Senators, Olympians, sportscasters, and professional athletes have all worn Hickey Freeman suits manufactured in Rochester, New York. Known for its quality and style, the manufacturer is a lonely remnant of Rochester’s once prolific garment industry.

Although demand for handcrafted menswear had recently declined, and many U.S. companies outsource manufacturing, Hickey Freeman continues to produce handmade suits and sport coats.

The manufacturer sells clothing under its own label, Hickey Freeman, and produces clothes designed by other labels like Ralph Lauren.

In January 2021, President Joe Biden’s inauguration suit and overcoat were manufactured for Ralph Lauren in Hickey Freeman’s Rochester plant. In 2016, Ralph Lauren collaborated with the Rochester clothier to make blazers for the U.S. Olympic team. 

These achievements might fly under the radar for non-Rochesterians, but many locals recognize the brand’s impact.

23-year-old Sekou McAdams works in the Hickey Freeman factory store, on the ground level of the century-old building. Inspired by his grandfather, McAdams began wearing custom suits at 7, and aimed to work at Hickey Freeman since he was 12.

McAdams hopes to one day open his own haberdashery. He sees fine clothing as an important part of his character.

“People look at you differently when you wear a high-quality suit,” McAdams said. “I just imagine George Eastman rolling up to this factory in his 1920s Rolls Royce, and I want to channel that.” 

McAdams credited the decline of suits to a lack of knowledge about tailoring and a shift toward more casual dress in workplaces and offices.

“Unfortunately, it’s a dying business… there’s not enough people with passion,” McAdams said.

McAdams expressed disappointment that the history of Rochester’s garment industry is not memorialized in local museums or galleries. He contrasted this with the Mob Museum in Las Vegas, “they commemorate that [negative history], but we don’t appreciate our history.”

Tailormade: Rochester’s Garment History

According to WXXI.org, Rochester’s first tailor, Jehiel Barnard, came to the city in 1812. By the 1890s, Rochester was the fourth largest manufacturer of men’s clothing in the U.S. 

Rochester’s economy benefitted from the city’s proximity to the Genesee River, Erie Canal, and Lake Ontario. Those waterways helped power factories and allowed merchants to transport goods throughout the country.

According to “The Hickey Freeman Story: A Temple of Fine Tailoring,” by G. Sheldon Brayer, the Hickey-Freeman & Mahon Company was founded in Rochester in 1899 by Jeremiah G. Hickey, Jacob L. Freeman, George A. Brayer, and Thomas Mahon. 

The men pooled their collective knowledge of the tailoring industry, and $25,000 (over $800,000 in 2022), to incorporate their new clothing manufacturing business.

Historical images of the Hickey Freeman logos, factory and staff – located in the Factory store

In 1908, the company consolidated with the Beckel-Baum Company, another Rochester clothing manufacturer. At this point, it adopted the Hickey Freeman name, which it maintains today.

In 1912, the Hickey Freeman factory opened on Avenue D and North Clinton Avenue in Rochester. The 77,000 square foot building brought the entire business under one roof and allowed many employees to commute on foot.

During its long existence, the company faced numerous economic hurdles. The Great Depression threatened business, but Hickey Freeman worked with its employees and union to keep costs low and quality up, according to “The Temple of Fine Tailoring.”

World War II also created economic peril. By 1945, Rochester’s work force decreased by 25%. Allied victory, however, provided a spark and the company once again rebounded and increased production.

Since then, state and federal programs provided various amounts of assistance to preserve the historic operation. Over 100 years since its inception, the company continues pursuing its original mission of creating high quality, handcrafted garments. It’s one of the few remaining businesses of its kind in the U.S.

McAdams explaining the interior panel of a Hickey Freeman jacket, including hundreds of hand stitches

The Role of Immigrants

Immigrants played a crucial role in the Rochester garment industry. Hickey Freeman’s business relied heavily on the contributions of immigrant employees.

Even before the company’s founding, Jeremiah Hickey learned to speak German to communicate with the other tailors he worked with. Jacob Freeman immigrated from Hungary to New York, before starting his own tailor shop at age 17, according to “A Temple of Fine Tailoring.”

Hickey Freeman executives over the years – from “A Temple of Fine Tailoring”

As it grew, Hickey Freeman saw that domestic tailoring skills were lacking, and the company began looking outside the borders to recruit skilled workers.

Hickey Freeman looked to hire Greek, Italian, Turkish and Lebanese workers. Recruiters traveled abroad to find labor, and non-English pamphlets were distributed around Rochester with information about employment opportunities.

In the 1960s, the U.S. government passed legislation that reduced restrictions on immigration. In 1962, Hickey Freeman began a program that recruited Cuban refugees with sewing skills. 20 Cuban women were hired by the company. 

According to “A Temple of Fine Tailoring,” in 1967, employees from 34 countries collaborated on Hickey Freeman’s production process. 

In 1973, 64 citizens were sworn in at the factory. 

For immigrant workers, the opportunity to work in the United States allowed for economic advancement and a new life. 

In Irondequoit, New York a tailor named Hasan Togay operates his own business, called Cakir’s Tailor, on East Ridge Road. Togay came to Rochester from Istanbul, Turkey in the 1990s and worked as a Hickey Freeman group leader for five years.

Cakir’s Tailor in Irondequoit, New York

Togay supervised a section of workers at the factory to ensure that quality expectations were met. He was one of many employees that Hickey Freeman used to manage their production and maintain high standards.

Togay’s knowledge of the suit-making process allowed him to earn the trust of local clientele. Many customers take their handmade suits straight from the factory to a tailor that once made them himself.

Togay contrasted Hickey Freeman’s process with the more popular business practice of mass production.

“It’s all junk,” Togay said of fast fashion. However, he added that it’s much more difficult for a handmade business to make money in such a competitive atmosphere.

“I can’t sell suits; I can only fix them” Togay added. He alluded to the fact that brands without an established image will fail because they cannot achieve the same profit margins as
 manufacturers that outsource production.

Still, Togay said coming to the U.S., and working for Hickey Freeman, allowed him a new life and control of his own destiny. The lack of skilled American tailors created opportunities for immigrants to come and carve out their own niche. His work over two decades allowed him to save for his sons’ college tuition.

Hickey Freeman Today

Like for many of Rochester’s industrial titans – Kodak, Xerox, Bausch and Lomb – economic growth has been difficult to acquire in a city with a poverty rate over 30%. 

Hickey Freeman is one of few remaining garment companies in Rochester, a city that once dominated the industry.

Many Hickey Freeman employees have seen the decline firsthand. Ray Benson has worked in the factory for nearly 40 years. He said that the company survived because it “did things right and got lucky.”

Benson, however, said that clothing manufacturing has recently been dominated by European countries like Italy. He said that suits are more popular in Europe and manufacturing has largely left the U.S. 

But, “once upon a time it was Rochester.” 

Pictures and catalogs in the factory office

In the 21st Century, Hickey Freeman relies on local, loyal clients, corporate partnerships, and government assistance to stay afloat.

In 2013, Grano Retail Holdings purchased Hickey Freeman for over $10 million. The company, which owns competing manufacturer Samuelsohn, acquired Hickey Freeman and its factory from W Diamond Group. 

Hickey Freeman’s flagship Manhattan store, which opened in 2001, remained under control of W Diamond founder Doug Williams at the time of the deal.

The purchase came as Hickey Freeman continued to struggle economically. 

“Samuelsohn has benefited from Hickey’s weakness the last few years. We’ve seen that firsthand,” said Grano CEO Stephen Granovsky.

The deal appeared to benefit Hickey Freeman. In 2014, Hickey Freeman officials joined Senator Chuck Schumer to announce a $1 million deal with Ralph Lauren to manufacture the company’s “Blue Line” of suits and jackets. The partnership again bore fruit in 2016 and 2021. Hickey Freeman manufactured Ralph Lauren’s U.S. Olympic jackets and Biden’s inauguration garments.

During Covid-19, Hickey Freeman adapted its operation to survive the pandemic. It diverted part of its operation to creating masks and PPE for local hospitals.

In 2021, while wearing a Hickey Freeman suit, Schumer announced the ‘Make PPE in America Act,’ which created government contracts for U.S. companies to produce PPE. Hickey Freeman subsequently announced the addition of 100 employees, thanks to the government support.

“Hickey Freeman is a Rochester icon, and today I couldn’t be more excited to stand alongside its world-class workers to launch my ‘Marshall Plan’ to make American-made PPE the domestic standard,” Schumer said. “Companies like Hickey Freeman stepped up to help their communities in the darkest hour, and their contributions to beating back the tide of COVID will never be forgotten.”

In August 2022, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced $70 million of funding for renovations to the Hickey Freeman factory. The money will fund the construction of 134 apartments in the building, while still preserving 77,000 square feet of manufacturing space.

My Visit to the Factory

Hickey Freeman factory as seen from Avenue D

While researching the company and talking to some of its employees, I had the opportunity to tour the historic factory on Avenue D and North Clinton.

After pulling into the gated parking lot, I descended the stairs into the factory’s outlet store. After I chatted with Benson and McAdams, the men provided me with research material including their employee manuals and the “Temple of Fine Tailoring” book. The book was created in 1999 to honor the 100-year anniversary of the company, and Benson told me it was the only copy he had. I ensured him that I would return it intact.

After a 45-minute chat in the store, McAdams offered to bring me upstairs to some of the production rooms and a walk through the front office. I couldn’t refuse.

The store’s back door led to an abandoned cafeteria, a sign of the company’s hard times. We made our way up the stairs and entered a room full of coat racks, half-finished suits, sewing machines and miles of thread.

Dozens of workers buried their heads in their precise work, threading needles in exact locations.

A sign on the factory floor

Signs, catalogs, and physical garments displayed the company’s history and encouraged the current staff to continue the Hickey Freeman legacy of quality and craftsmanship. 

In the office, gorgeous wood offices remained intact from the factory’s original design. Ancient catalogs sat behind glass. McAdams commented that he thought they belonged on display for the public, not just employees in the office.

As we continued the tour, McAdams’ enthusiasm was obvious. He lamented the lack of awareness of the work that goes on inside the factory. “People think this building is abandoned,” he said.

McAdams, however, will find any reason to wander the factory floors. When he commissions a personal suit, he follows it through every step of production. 

Before we returned to the ground floor, we paused to admire the golden words that arched across the office wall. Words that continue to guide the company over 100 years after its founding.

“Keep the quality up.”

Author: TantaloTakes.com

Ryan Tantalo - University at Buffalo Student, Journalist, Hockey Announcer, Broadcaster

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