Retailer Spotlight: Vestis.
We've been working with Pittsburgh-based men's shop Vestis since its inception almost four years ago. As a brand that has navigated numerous changes over the years and has had the opportunity to explore new directions, we can certainly appreciate where owner Phil Romagni has taken his shop. They initially opened with a roster of elevated American workwear staples befitting of their hometown's blue-collar industrial background, but over time Phil has branched out and has in turn breathed new life into his city's retail environment. We took some time to catch up with him and learn more about his operation.
When did you open Vestis, and what motivated you to open the shop?
I opened my doors at Vestis in September 2015 but that was the culmination of 7-8 months worth of work before I officially opened. I quit my job in Quality Assurance at a stem cell therapy startup in January after 7 years, loafed for a few weeks and then got to work bringing the shop into being. I was motivated by a few things – dissatisfaction with my current job, a fondness for retail and customer service and the dearth of the kind of men’s clothing in Pittsburgh that I carry. I kept waiting for something to open up, nothing did and I figured it was my opportunity to make it happen. It’s been almost three years and I haven’t looked back!
Tell us more about Pittsburgh’s retail market and how it’s changed or progressed since Vestis came about.
Pittsburgh is in the middle of a cultural renaissance – after years of hemorrhaging population and little opportunities for graduates and professionals, the city has truly come alive in the last 10 years. A lot of that is driven by the bar & restaurant industry (with new spaces opening on what seems like a weekly basis) but it seems Pittsburgh’s retail market is coming into its own. There are some areas of retail like records (seriously Pittsburgh punches way, way above its weight class when it comes to great record stores) that have been superb for some time, but men’s retail is definitely progressing rapidly in this city. On my block of Butler St. in Lawrenceville alone, there’s another incredible vintage shop called Mello and Sons, opened by a Pittsburgh transplant from NYC. It’s definitely an exciting time for men’s retail and I’d like to think we’re contributing to that in our own, humble way.
Being a first time retail owner, what are some unexpected lessons you’ve learned about the industry?
First and foremost how damn difficult it is <laughs>! I knew it wouldn’t be a cakewalk but perhaps I’d underestimated how much time I’d be spending on Vestis. It’s basically two full-time jobs – one is physically manning the store (as the sole employee, I’m responsible for everything here) and the other is web maintenance, accounting, shipping/receiving, customer relations, etc. High-quality men’s clothing in 2018 is a niche retail market so I’m always on the go and always hustling. Frankly, this shop is the hardest gig I’ve ever worked, but it’s also one that I’ve loved more than anything I’ve ever done.
The second is how important customer service is for a shop like mine. Going into this, I was determined to create a space that was not only warm and inviting, but one where customers never felt condescended to. I’ve always hated shops where the owner/employee/etc talked down to or ignored me and I made damn certain Vestis was not like that. When I get return customers either from Pittsburgh or from out of town, it really puts a smile on my face to see them come back, even if it’s just talk about clothing or catch up. That’s hands down the most important lesson I’ve learned thusfar.
We love the wide range of brands that you have in the store, as well as the fact that you’re not afraid to buy some more advanced pieces. How did you develop the Vestis look?
When I first opened the shop, I was buying for some archetypal customer that existed only in my head. As time has gone on, I’ve become more and more confident in my buying – and that includes pieces or silhouettes that I would’ve considered too weird or avant-garde a few years ago - and thankfully my customers have been willing to go on that journey with me. I’ve gotten to know folks who’ve been coming in since I’ve opened and their own style has been growing along with mine, which is an incredible experience. For example, with the Alpha Industries x 3sixteen indigo fishtail parka (released earlier this spring) I knew it would sell in my shop, whereas it might not with other stores that were a little more conservative with their assortments. That slightly “anything goes” attitude has become a bit of a guiding principle in here.
Regarding the Vestis look - I love workwear and Americana and that was the original focus of the store, but in the last few seasons I’ve been trying to mix in more pieces that take me a bit of out of my own comfort zone and into (for Pittsburgh) stylistically uncharted territory. There are some things I’ve always loved – banded collars, all-beige-everything, chunky knits, long coats, minimal footwear – that I knew I’d be working into the shop eventually and I figured even if they didn’t sell well, they were an honest reflection of who I am and what Vestis is all about. Frankly, now when I’m at market if something strikes a chord with me, I buy it and don’t worry too, too much about whether it will sell – but I make damned certain that I pick up at least one in my size! One of the real blessings I’ve had with Vestis is that every time I think I’ve gone too far out, my clientele seems to really respond, which has given me the confidence to really develop the image that I have of the shop.
You recently moved to a new shop location in Lawrenceville. What’s the neighborhood like, and what are some local business that you like to support in the area?
I’ve been in Lawrenceville since I opened and honestly never really even considered any other locations for Vestis. However, I moved the shop 7 blocks up (to an address that used to be one of my favorite women’s clothing stores before it closed) to 4415 Butler. I’ve been here since 2009 after a brief flirtation with grad school in Oregon, and in those 8 years I’ve seen the neighborhood change so much. It’s definitely an area that’s rapidly improving – even in the three years Vestis has been open there’s so much more energy and population moving in here. It’s’ a great area for dining and nightlife and recently there’s been more and more retail moving in. I love the sense of community – particularly among many of us first-time retailers – that the area seems to foster. Just in Lawrenceville along there are some incredible places to go (my apologies for leaving anyone out!). For bars and restaurants I love b52 for some of the best vegan Arabic food I’ve ever had, Ki Pollo for incredible fried chicken, Piccolo Forno has been here for years and they’re some of the best Italian in Pittsburgh (and they have an incredible grappa/amaro bar called Grapperia that’s fantastic). For drinks the Allegheny Wine Mixer is always spot-on with some interesting wines from places you wouldn’t expect, Spirit is great for events and a solid cocktail list, and Remedy is my favorite bar in Pittsburgh, albeit a grungy, acquired taste.
And I’d be remiss in not spotlighting some of the great retail here – Von Walter and Funk has a great, curated selection of antiques, home goods, and barware and the interior design is next-level. The Gilded Girl (my old neighbor) has an awesome selection of skincare, fragrance and makeup (and is usually my first stop for buying my wife presents), Pavement is a great women’s shop that’s been on the front lines of revitalizing Lawrenceville for years, and the previously mentioned Mello and Sons on my block has some of the best curated vintage you’ll find anywhere. Lastly we’re really spoiled for both great coffee (Caffe D’Amore and Espresso a Mano are both excellent) and vintage furniture (Who New?, Pittsburgh Furniture Co. and Toll Gate Revival are all a must-visit!). The whole neighborhood is worth a look!
Pittsburgh, PA 15201