Lou Mettler is a Northern Michigan business maverick: he’s grabbed a hold on the look of the American way, never looked back, and ended up with a fashion retailer’s dream career. The following essay, written by MyNorth contributor Anita K. Henry, is featured in the 2014 March edition of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
Lou Mettler loves Lake Michigan. He also loves boats. At one point, he had neither, but a handful of planned and not-so-planned career moves changed that.
Mettler, who owns Mettlers American Mercantile stores in Bay Harbor, Charlevoix and downtown Philadelphia, has spent most his career in the retail arena. For nearly four decades, the clothier has bought, operated and sold stores—many stores—and despite the shifts in the clothing industry, he has always held fast to a specific mission: present a carefully curated collection of fine-quality apparel. But the specialty stores he owns today boast something that most other retail shops can’t—everything’s made in the U.S.A.
The first time Mettler and I connect is in the winter. The lake is closed for the season for this now avid boater, so I figure he’ll have time to talk. Not really. The life of a retailer is a busy one … all year round. Mettler is just back from St. Maarten, armed with good ideas for the next season. “Just ideas,” Mettler says, since the resort wear he saw in the Caribbean isn’t manufactured in the United States. “I see what’s out there, and then I put my own spin on it.”
Mettler started his career in the early ’70s as a traveling sales- man for Gant, the makers of the classic button-down shirt. “Gant made this shirt famous,” Mettler says. “The brand was preppy and synonymous with ‘Ivy League.’” His territory was from Chicago to the Rockies, and Mettler spent his time visiting some of the better specialty shops in the states. But it turns out that his affinity for the finer things started long before that first job.
“I grew up just outside of Detroit, and my dad often took me into some of the nicer stores in the city,” Mettler says. “Things were made really well back then, and they were made here, in the U.S.” It was a winning combination in Mettler’s book and a retail concept that would eventually make a big impact in his career. That, and his passion for boats. “I’ve been around water my whole life,” he says. “I always hoped I’d own a boat one day.” The Gant job helped with that.
“The Gant work was seasonal, and I had my summers off,” Mettler explains. “And lucky for me, the company was headquartered in Minneapolis, close to Lake Minnetonka.” With nothing but summertime on his hands, the salesman decided to buy a small boat and get out on the water. “The problem is, once you have a boat, you always want a bigger one,” laughs Mettler. “And then you want to explore bigger waters.” In 1975, Mettler and his bigger boat headed 175 miles northeast to Bayfield, Wisconsin, and spent the summer on Lake Superior.
Bayfield was a small town built around boating and it attracted a very seasonal crowd. Mettler fit right in. “What the town needed was a store that sold casual sportswear, a clothing concept that didn’t really exist yet,” Mettler says. “There was a dry goods store for sale up there, so I bought it, quit Gant, and set up the first Mettlers shop.” The initial season was a successful one, and Mettlers Retail Group was officially formed.
Much like his desire for a bigger boat, the retailer now wanted more stores. “Being from Michigan, I decided to look for more retail space here,” Mettler says. And considering his burgeoning hobby, he sought locations along Lake Michigan. He opened his second shop in Charlevoix in 1977, and upon its success, Mettler sold the Wisconsin store and opened up a Petoskey location.
Happily situated along the water, with work and play now so closely intertwined, Mettler focused on creating a collection that appealed to his customers. “These were resort towns,” Metter says. “People were on vacation and more willing to step out of their box and dress in something they wouldn’t normally wear.” His collections were casual, traditional in feel and preppy … sophisticated sportswear. “But, I wasn’t afraid of color, so I’d carry men’s shirts in brighter shades, too, like lavender and hot pink.”
I walk into Mettlers American Mercantile Bay Harbor store in July, six months after my first conversation with the clothier. I want to see if he still offers the goods you can’t get anywhere else. Over the years, the retailer has branched out well beyond clothes, and his shops are now filled with an eclectic mix of accessories and lifestyle and decor items, too—new, reclaimed and vintage. Mettler greets me at the door, or rather the half door, as it resembles the entrance to a stable, and introduces me to his staff before starting our tour. He is a tall, handsome man who is, not surprisingly, sporting a preppy look: a white, classic button-down, pink Bermuda shorts and gray suede shoes. He also has the number 17 stitched on the back of his shirt. “It’s my lucky number. I even have it on my cars,” Mettler says. “It’s just easier to do that than get in the wrong car.”
As we make our way around the store’s perimeter, Mettler gingerly picks up items and tells me their American story: “These are military-style blankets from a manufacturer in Minnesota; two history majors from Boston University who couldn’t find jobs after college started making these T-shirts. I really loved the packaging on these dog biscuits—they’re from a SCAD graduate in Georgia,” he says.
Mettler pauses to help a customer find the right size of a smart, updated varsity sweater. I step back to watch the seasoned salesman at work. He projects such an easy, relaxed demeanor that he appears to be making friends rather than making a sale. I think it’s truly a bit of both. Another customer asks Mettler, “When are you coming back to Naples? We miss you there,” referring to a store he once owned in Florida. Clearly, Mettler and his brand made a lasting impression. Mettler joins me on the other side of the store, and I comment that he seems to know every customer personally. “The job at Gant taught me the value of creating relationships, with both customers and colleagues,” Mettler says. “In fact, some of the people in the industry I’ve been dealing with for over 30 years.”
By the end of the 1980s, Mettlers Retail Group had grown to seven stores, including Florida and California locations. And the “sophisticated sportswear” business was booming. Some former Gant friends had also moved in the same direction, joining Ralph Lauren. So, when they approached him about taking over several of the brand’s stores, he agreed. “I was always carrying Ralph Lauren in my stores,” Mettler tells me. “So the move made sense.” And just like that Mettler went from owning seven stores to being in charge of a dozen.
Some of his stores were land-locked and he now considers those ventures mistakes. “I found myself never wanting to visit them,” Mettler says. “Water is such an important part of my life and even when I’m working, I like to keep it nearby.” So, I ask about his East Coast store, thinking a New York location might have offered bet- ter boating. “Philadelphia is the birthplace of America,” he explains. “It made so much more sense to set up a Mettlers American Mercantile there.”
Mettlers Retail Group continued to expand well into the ’90s, forming addi- tional partnerships with Hugo Boss and Joseph Abboud. Branded apparel was on the rise, while interest in specialty stores began to decline. Ultimately, this was not great news for the Mettlers stores, but the retailer continued to make smart career moves. “When friends approached me with an idea for a branded Hawaiian shirt, I decided to invest,” Mettler says. Together, they founded Tommy Bahama. “It was practically an overnight success. We couldn’t open stores fast enough.”
By now, the retail world was a very international one. Apparel was being manufactured just about everywhere but in the United States. Knowing the same is true today, I wonder just how difficult it must be to operate stores that showcase only American-made products. “I visit a lot of manufacturers personally to make sure they’re doing quality work. It can’t feel like it’s fresh off the assembly line,” says Mettler. “If it’s in my store, it has to be well-made, competitive and cool.”
The same could be said of the store itself. Mettler paid particular attention to the interior design of the space. Instead of a retail environment, the store feels like a composite of a walk-in closet, a reading nook and a den, replete with classic books, model boats and childhood trophies.
I’m curious about the items in the store that are actually designed by Mettler. I see a lot of patriotic accents, and I suspect they’re his creations. (I’m right!) “Our tea-stained flag pillows are a big seller,” Mettler says. “Along with our framed flags in shadow boxes and our fur blankets lined with American flags.” He also designs preppy, captain-style belts in an array of bold and bright colors.
Mettler and I spoke several times over the course of six months, leading up to my store visit, and I never asked him if he loves what he does. I wanted to see for myself. “This has never felt like work to me,” he says. “And I love the appreciation I get from my customers.” I’m curious what customer appreciation means to him. “I love when people tell me we sell the stuff they can’t get anywhere else,” Mettler says. “Or that they’re still wearing something they purchased from me over 20 years ago.”
I start thinking about my own closet and what’s been hanging around for a decade or two. Not much, but there are a couple of pieces in there that have stood the test of time. Classics that were really well made—the Lou Mettler formula for success.
“In 1979, John Wayne’s assistant approached us about making a versatile outdoor jacket for the star,” Mettler recalls. “We used the fabric that was developed in WWII for U.S. fighter pilots.” The Duke loved it and, not surprisingly, the clothier has been selling a version of that jacket ever since.
Even though enduring style has always been a staple in the retailer’s stores, his original Mettlers outposts didn’t survive the branded era and he closed them in 2001. “I ended the Ralph Lauren and Tommy Bahama partnerships, too,” Mettler says. “I focused on real estate and property development for a while.” Then Mettler bought a bigger boat and embarked on an eight-month cruise along American shores, a 7,000-mile journey. He and his family traveled by way of the Mississippi River, Gulf of Mexico, Intracoastal Waterway and the Great Lakes. “When I returned home, I decided that if I opened up another shop, there was no better place than Northern Michigan.” And in 2011, he did just that.
Mettler’s cell rings so I wander the shop again, creating my own personal wish list. There’s a giant copper horse commanding attention in one corner so I go in for a closer look. A sales clerk sees me admiring it and give me the stats: “It’s from North Carolina and it’s the same size and weight as the real thing—1,100 pounds!” Then she tells me that it retails for $8,000 and the matching colt (not displayed) is priced at $5,000. I’m sticker-shocked, wondering how long it would take to move something like that. I’m stunned when Mettler returns to tell me the horse and the colt just sold! A customer admired the horse last week and just called to make it official. “Not every clothier would take the risk of having this horse in the store,” says Mettler, undoubtedly enjoying the 13-grand payoff.
I call Mettler again just before the holiday season begins and he tells me that the stores are thriving. “Our Philly location was just voted the #1 men’s store in the city,” Mettler says. “And, we just sponsored a regatta and brought our mobile-Airstream store to the site.” I ask why he thinks specialty shops are popular again. “It’s an accessorized world out there now, and people don’t find everything they need at one store anymore,” he says. “I know we can’t be everything to everybody. We have a unique look and vision and I won’t compromise that, not even for the sake of fashion.”