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The presidents wore their suits. But after 124 years, Hickey Freeman says goodbye to Rochester

The presidents wore their suits.  But after 124 years, Hickey Freeman says goodbye to Rochester


This week saw the latest Hickey Freeman garments produced at the company’s factory in North Clinton, capping a legacy that stretches back more than a century.

It’s a bit bittersweet, said John Martynec, chief operating officer of the company now known as Rochester Tailored Clothing. You know, I grew up with Hickey Freeman. Well always be Hickey Freeman.

The high-end menswear line started here in 1899 and has become the last surviving brand from an era when the city was known worldwide for manufacturing high-quality menswear.

Timely Clothes, Bond, Michaels Stern, Fashion Park, all these great clothing manufacturers here in Rochester, Martynec said. “It was very big, very big.

Going forward, the factory will continue to produce suits, pants and other items under other brands, including Rochester Tailored Clothing. But the Hickey Freeman label will be made in Mexico, as an off-the-shelf department store brand. There is talk of rebooting the custom made Hickey Freeman items here, but nothing has been decided.

A woman's hand sews a suit jacket.

Manuela Nobragh hand sews a suit jacket at the Hickey Freeman factory in Rochester. Nobragh has worked at the factory for 37 years.

Meanwhile, construction is underway to shore up factory operations as part of an $84 million overhaul by Home Leasing that converts much of the space into 134 affordable seniors’ apartments. This work is expected to be completed in the fall of 2024. The factory building will still bear the name Hickey Freeman, although the development is called Tailor Square.

We’ve been in this building for over 112 years,” Martynec said. So the product won’t change, it’s just a different label.

But Hickey Freeman was not just any label.

Watch: bespoke. The History of the Rochesters Garment Industry

Former Rochester mayor and former lieutenant governor of the state Robert Duffy, now president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber, recalled a visit to the White House with the Conference of United States mayors. Barack Obama was president.

And he went around, running for all the mayors, Duffy said. I shook his hand and said, Mr. President, Bob Duffy, the mayor of Rochester. I opened my jacket and said, Hickey Freeman’s house. And he said, Mr. Mayor, and he opened his coat and pointed.

A close up of a suit tag, saying, 'Custom Expressley for the latest HF 5.31.23'

The last costume made for Hickey Freeman at the Rochester factory.

Hickey Freeman was also inside Obama’s jacket.

It was a great source of pride for Rochester, Duffy said. I give the example of President Obama. But if you go to Hickey Freeman, you can see pictures of the various presidents of the United States who wore Hickey Freeman suits. It meant something.”

He continued: There’s going to be some great clothes made at Avenue D and Clinton, I’m sure. But it won’t be Hickey Freeman. And that’s the sad part. I will never buy another Hickey Freeman costume.

Martynec ordered what was the last Hickey Freeman garment produced at the factory, a bright blue sport coat with Last HF 5.31.23 embroidered on the inside.

The absolute best stuff in the world

By the early 1900s, nearly 200 clothiers, large and small, dotted the Rochester landscape, mostly clustered around the downtown area. These factories were an entry point for countless European immigrants.

Jeffery Diduch poses next to a dark suit jacket, wearing a tailor's tape measure around his shoulders

Jeffery Diduch, vice president of engineering design at the Hickey Freeman factory in Rochester, with a 1940 Hickey Freeman jacket he collected as a historical artifact.

To put it into context, at the turn of the century, Hickey Freeman was known around the world for making the best clothes in the world, said Jeffery Diduch, the company’s senior vice president of design and its unofficial historian.

It tells the story of an English tailor and businessman who sold Hickey Freeman goods and sent his son to see the operation. The son thought ready-to-wear sucked.

And, of course, England being at the time famous for having the best tailors in the world of Savile Row and so on, he came with a little chip on his shoulder and his nose in the air, Diduch said . And as he was leaving, he said, I have to say the difference between Hickey Freeman and the best English bespoke clothes is that Hickey Freeman is better.

Diduch has stacks of decades-old style booklets with paintings of the latest designs. He collected old costumes. While clearing the various odd rooms and spaces, workers found a steamer trunk with the initials of Walter BD Hickey, former company president and son of company founder Jeremiah Hickey.

Pieces of paper from a costume pattern, reading 'Paul Newman - Size 39R - August 9, 1989 - Mod.  192/1940-45 - Model #3'

A suit pattern made for Paul Newman still hangs on a rack at the Hickey Freeman factory in Rochester.

“They would load the clothes into these trunks and put them on the trains to go from town to town. And that’s where the term trunk show comes from, Diduch said. And it was like, this is the trunk OG Oh, my God.

He is in talks with the Museum Studies Program at the Rochester Institute of Technology about preserving certain artifacts. This includes older costume designs, some brittle with age, some newer ones that were designed for actors like Liev Schreiber, Paul Newman or Ray Liotta when he played Frank Sinatra in The Rat Pack movie. .

Most people forgot or never knew that the best things in the world were done here, Diduch said. And everyone learned from it. It is therefore worth preserving.

By the late 1940s, the local garment industry was beginning to decline. Manufacturers were finding cheaper labor in other parts of the country. Within decades, what had been the city’s constant number two industry had all but disappeared.

Historical Hickey Freeman advertisements and articles show men wearing the suits in black and white photos

Jeffery Diduch, vice president of engineering design at the Hickey Freeman factory in Rochester, curated and collected historic materials scattered throughout the building.

Michaels-Stern went out of business in the late 1970s, as did Bond. The downtown Michaels-Stern building has since been converted into lofts. Bond built what is now the Bausch + Lomb factory on North Goodman but never fully occupied the space.

Were the last survivor, Martynec said. Adrian Jules is more of a bespoke tailor, but they’ve been around since the 60s.”

“A harder pill to swallow”

There is no market now, said Tom Conners of East Rochester.

He was among dozens of bargain hunters who showed up for the Hickey Freeman Factory Final Sale at the company’s recently opened downtown retail store. Workers are expected to remove the Hickey Freeman logo from factory store windows next week and replace it with Rochester Tailored Clothing.

I taught school, Conners said. I wore a jacket, shirt and tie every day for 35 years. But the people who teach now don’t do that.

From the Records: Hickey Freeman Hometown Final Draws Nostalgic Crowd

This change took place in the factory. In 2009, the North Clinton Avenue factory produced 900 jackets and 750 pants a day, Martynec said. Today, it’s 180 jackets and 200 pants a day.

Changes in production and demand have ravaged the industry. To survive, the owner of Hickey Freeman sold the rights to the Hickey Freeman name. Then, a few years ago, it transferred a large part of the production to Canada.

It was a harder pill to swallow than this right now, Martynec said.

A woman, in front of hanging suits, sews a jacket

Chandra Taiwang sews a jacket at the Hickey Freeman factory in Rochester. Taiwang has worked in the factory for 8 years.

A lot of people are angry about it, he continued. I was angry about this. Because you’ve been working all these years and they decide to move up there? But then we said, well, we kind of have to do it on our own.

The local factory, one of the last American-made garment factories, has branched out in recent years, producing other brands for the first time. They now manage more than two dozen outside labels from Brooks Bros. and Southwick.

This is why none of the 210 local employees lost their jobs during this latest transition.

Another of the last Hickey Freeman garments they made this week was for Walter Duffy Hickey, who was the third generation in the family to serve as chairman and president of the company.

I picked up the sports coat this morning, which I had packed, Hickey said, when he arrived at his home in Pittsford this week. Navy blazer.

He took over starting in 1976. By then, Hickey Freeman was no longer a family business, having merged years earlier with a Chicago company. He retired over ten years ago after 49 years with the company.

It’s sad to see a brand go elsewhere, he says. I’m not sure I fully understand all the logic of what was done. But you don’t look at it negatively. You consider positively that we still have a lot of people working there.

Old photos and signs reading 'Hickey Freeman' on display in the office of Jeffery Diduch, the company's vice president of engineering design.

With the plant closed, Jeffery Diduch, vice president of engineering design at Hickey Freeman’s Rochester plant, preserved and collected historic materials.




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