Chuck Drewitt is carrying on an ‘Art-istic’ tradition.
With a lifelong love of fashion, Chuck purchased Art Gabriel’s Men’s Shop, a well-known, top-of-the-line Sault Ste. Marie men’s clothing store, when its founder Art Gabriel suddenly stated his intention to retire in 1983.
“He said ‘that’s it, I’m done. I’m 65. I want out by the end of the month,’” Chuck recalled Gabriel stating in June of that year.
“So on July 1st, I’m the new owner and operator of Art Gabriel’s Men’s Shop after Art had 34 years of success.”
Gabriel had opened his shop, originally located on Gore Street, in 1949.
“I thought ‘I can’t let this go, this beautiful store with all this history,’” Chuck told SooToday over coffee at a stylish Queen Street cafe.
Chuck credits Gabriel, who passed away in 2011, for teaching him much of what he knows about the men’s clothing business.
“Art came from a big Italian family, a very hard worker. God bless him, we had kind of a father and son relationship. I owe a lot to Art Gabriel. He laid a great foundation for me to build upon.”
“Art was a man of great taste, a great understanding of the clothing business.”
“He had unbelievable window displays, one of the best window men in the country. His windows were a piece of art, his store was a piece of art. He was well-named ‘Art’ for sure.”
Carrying on Gabriel’s tradition of dedication to quality while adding his own sense of style, Chuck said “I love what I do. I love my clients. We have a saying ‘we like to hug our customers.’”
“If you came in to the store and said ‘fix me up, I need an outfit,’ well, I’ve got to learn about you a little bit (that’s where the so-called ‘hugging’ comes in). The idea is I don’t just want to sell to you today, I want to sell to you all the time.”
“You have to like people, you have to have passion for this industry, for clothes. You have to be blessed with a good staff and the support of your family,” Chuck said.
“We’re about service, about quality. We have a wonderful clientele which has supported us over the years,” Chuck said.
He emphasized he would never want to operate a business anywhere else than the Sault’s downtown core, describing Art Gabriel’s as a workplace where you’ll find true professionals, comparing it to a medical or legal office.
Chuck, a Sault native, recalled earning good money as a 19-year-old Algoma Steel employee, but not enjoying the plant’s heavy industrial environment (though he respected his family members and friends who were steel plant employees).
Acting on a friend’s advice, Chuck successfully applied for a job at Davis Clothing, which was situated at the corner of Queen and Bruce Streets.
Chuck said he started off making half the money he was earning at Algoma Steel, but was happier.
“I felt good about it. I always liked clothes. I went to St. Mary’s College when I was growing up, where they had a dress code. For whatever reason, I liked dressing up. I was always aware of the latest fashions,” Chuck said.
While working at Davis Clothing, Chuck became acquainted with shoe salesman Eddie Dunn, who he described as “probably the best shoe man in the country.”
When Dunn opened his own shop, Chuck followed him and gained an enormous amount of experience in managing a clothing store.
The shop was a success, Chuck eventually making the same money he had earned at the steel plant.
“It was a ball. It was a gas,” Chuck said.
When Station Mall opened in 1973, Chuck and Eddie Dunn moved into the then-new shopping centre.
After buying a suit from Art Gabriel’s Men’s Shop, by now relocated to Queen Street, the well-respected clothier Gabriel offered Chuck a job at his store.
“I thought ‘wow, here’s a chance. Art Gabriel’s was the big league, the NHL of clothing in Sault Ste. Marie,” Chuck said.
While maintaining his friendship with Dunn, Chuck started working for Art Gabriel in 1974.
“It was another learning curve for me. This was learning the best in men’s clothing. He had a beautiful store, his inventory was impeccable,” Chuck said.
“I was very fortunate. I kept some of the suppliers we had, but I started buying from European fashion designers as well.”
One of Chuck’s European buying trips included a meeting with Spanish golf great Seve Ballasteros.
In Sault Ste. Marie, a blue collar city which has seen its share of economic downturns, Art Gabriel’s has always been able to sell high end men’s clothing, and not only to doctors and lawyers.
“Quality will always sell,” Chuck said.