From tractors to tuxedos, how this popular Lisburn family store founded by a farmer is still going strong today
As Lisburn menswear specialists McCalls marks 60 years in business and is in line for a national award, Lee Henry finds out why this brand has never gone out of fashion
The Fifties were a landmark decade in the world of international fashion. In towns and cities across Europe and America, Teddy boys roamed the streets in search of girls in Christian Dior pencil dresses and bullet bras. From Paris' bustling Rue Cambon, Coco Chanel was already being touted as the greatest designer of all time. And in Co Down, one Robert W McCall opened an unassuming menswear store on Lisburn's Market Square, determined to provide for a growing population of working men made prosperous by peace time.
What in 1956 may have seemed a comparatively modest outlet - well-presented and stocked, but surely destined to struggle with the competitive capital so nearby - McCalls made an impression from the outset, and has since gone on to become one of our most successful family-run businesses.
Currently occupying two premises in Lisburn's busy town centre, McCalls has survived IRA bombings, hard-hitting recessions, changing trends and online shopping revolutions to celebrate 60 years of trading in 2016, and does so by once again being shortlisted for the Independent Menswear Retailer UK & Ireland at the prestigious Drapers Awards.
While other provincial clothes retailers have gone bust in recent times - Derry's Austin's, Ireland's oldest department store, for example, ceased trading abruptly earlier this year - McCalls has flourished, remaining relevant and profitable in the era of eBay to employ a third generation eager to do their visionary grandfather proud.
Director Alastair McCall - one of four McCalls currently running the shop at executive level, along with sister Jill and cousins Mark and Chris, all in their 40s - hopes it will be third time lucky when the Drapers Awards get under way on November 17.
"Our grandfather used to say, 'I enjoy making a sale, but true success comes from making a customer', and that ethos is as deeply ingrained in the company today as it was when it was started 60 years ago," says Alastair.
"Our mission statement, Stylish Wear - People Who Care, sums up our dedication to looking after our customers, so naturally we're delighted to be recognised as one of the top seven men's stores across the whole of the UK and Ireland, and the only one in Northern Ireland to be shortlisted for such a prestigious award. We reckon Robert would have been delighted to see how far we've come."
Robert W McCall was born in Armagh in 1912 into a farming family - Alastair recalls that he always kept a few cattle at home while running his clothes store, 'because you can take a man out of the farm…' - but when it came time to fix upon a career, ultimately Robert saw fit to exchange tractors for tuxedos.
He learned to sew, measure, cut and sell by serving out an apprenticeship at TJ Walker's tailors in Armagh City, and in 1943 took up a full-time position at Robert Young's in Lisburn, managing the store as a means to opening his own.
"Robert was called 'the Boss' by family and staff alike," Alastair recalls. "A tall man with a firm handshake, a sharp haircut and a waft of cigar smoke always in tow, he was an impressive figure, always dapper, even in his 80s, often dressed in his favourite Magee three-piece tweed suits.
"He was a very down to earth man from a humble background and he got on with everyone. He was dedicated and hard working and even after his retirement he still took a keen interest in the business. His belief that the customer is king was and still is paramount in everything that we do at McCalls."
Jill Hanna remembers her grandfather as a handsome man, outgoing and courteous, someone with a lust for life and not just tailoring. "He had a love of sport, and I have great memories of watching Barry McGuigan on television late at night with him. So when Carl Frampton called into our store recently, I was a little star struck. It was great to shake his hand and I think RW would have enjoyed that too."
On August 5, 1981, an IRA bomb exploded on the premises of McCalls, badly damaging the interior and assembled stock but thankfully causing no serious injury to customers or staff. Seven years later, with the busy Christmas shopping season already under way, a second device tore through the store on December 7.
With the help of his two sons, Mervyn and Percy, though, Robert managed to rebuild, regroup and restock, and McCalls of Lisburn continued to trade as the worst of the Troubles came and went.
"There was never the threat of closer," Alastair says. "Thanks to Mervyn and Percy's hard work and resolve, we were able to weather those difficult times. We had great support from our loyal staff and our customers from all across the province. While retailing is tough, we've never been near to contemplating closure - the very reverse has always been the case. We have always risen to challenges and adapted."
They have needed to. After all, tailoring and the world of menswear in general have changed greatly since Robert W's heyday.
Suits today are much more affordable than they were in the Fifties, for instance, and customers are increasingly buying online, with many choosing to stay away from the high street altogether.
Alastair describes the evolution in the trade: "When our grandfather started the business, suits were all still individually tailored to the wearer, with each customer coming in several times for 'fit-ons' before the garment was finished. In the Sixties, off the peg 'readymade' suits became more common and therefore the shop expanded.
"Thankfully, Percy and Mervyn had great foresight and courage to build the existing menswear store in 1978, in spite of the ongoing Troubles, which was extended in 1987 and attracted customers from all over Northern Ireland. Today we even have some expats who live and work in London but buy their suits from McCalls.
"In 2005 we added a lift to the shop, which allowed for some of the top floor's offices to be converted, and now the wedding department occupies much of that extra space.
"We've added new brands to our offering, like Tommy Hilfiger, Gant and Ted Baker, which have been a significant draw for our modern customers. And we have been online since 1996, which has allowed us to sell into other parts of the UK, Ireland, Europe and beyond.'
Robert W's shrewd business sense has evidently passed down through the generations. Having cut their teeth working summers and evenings in the shop as children, all four current directors went on to graduate in business, and today combine skills in accounting, sales, IT and marketing to make the shop succeed.
"We all started on the bottom rung," says Jill.
"And we all went on to experience other businesses before coming back to work with the family. Our open plan office helps us all to keep in touch with what's going on in each department. As a family and as a business, we have a strong bond, and being brought up with the same values means we rarely differ in our opinion."
Perhaps inevitably, Robert's fondness for fashion has also transferred to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Alastair and co look forward to essential shopping trips in London as the highlights of their working year.
"When we are buying in London, we love to see the key trends coming through, and I can't wait for the new season's ranges to arrive and get my new wardrobe.
"My favourite at present is a large windowpane checked three-piece suit, which my niece Georgie loves. She calls it my Rupert the Bear suit. If you've got it, flaunt it, I say.
"Being born into family business is a bit like being born into a farm. It becomes a way of life very quickly and the children have all enjoyed being part of that - once they accept that working on Saturdays is normal, that is. The first 10 years are the hardest," he jokes.
"There are several fourth generation members of the family working part-time during the summer, and it's great to get a younger perspective on things. Their energy and enthusiasm is infectious. Robert always felt strongly about handing over the reins to the next generation."
McCalls has played a part in thousands of families' special days, with loyal customers returning for new threads ahead of births, deaths, marriages, christenings, job interviews and every milestone event in between.
And there have been lots of memorable episodes in the McCall story that deserve to be told.
"As you'd expect over 60 years and multiple generations, we've had our fair share of company romances, including one that led to marriage," says Alastair.
"One day our office manager took a call from Archbishop Desmond Tutu's secretary, who said he was flying in to Northern Ireland and needed to buy a jumper. As we have done for many customers over the years, we kept the store open late for him to come and buy a woolly pully to survive the Northern Irish summer.
"Really, business is about people. People are what make everything happen, from those who work here to those who shop here. The interaction with them is what makes life and business successful."
The next 60 years will bring with them many more memories, but for now the emphasis is on celebration, appreciating everything that has been achieved, and paying tribute to the man whose vision has long since been fulfilled.
"We're all very proud of reaching this milestone in our company's history," Alastair adds.
"To celebrate the anniversary, we went to the dogs, literally - a night out for the entire 40-strong team at Drumbo Park was enjoyed by all and I believe one or two might even have gone home with a few extra pounds in their pockets."