Rebirth of a Salesman
At 66, the founder of Men’s Wearhouse is starting over — with a startup.
George Zimmer knows exactly what I am going to say when I walk into his Oakland office.
“I sound just like on TV, don’t I?” he asks. His staff has covered over the iconic commercial phrase on a wood carving with a sheet of paper. It is mostly rubbed off the bottom of a branded mirror hanging on his wall. But Zimmer leans back in his leather chair. “You’re gonna like the way you look,” he says in that baritone, grainy Tom Waits voice. “I guarantee it.”
Zimmer — the founder and, for decades, spokesman of Men’s Wearhouse until he was abruptly fired in 2013 — is back. He’s angry. And he has a startup.
His Uber for tailors, called zTailors, sells on-demand, at-home alteration services. Started in June with his own money as seed funding, the company now has about 60 employees based in Oakland and more than 500 contracted tailors nationally. He’s partnering with Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s and at one point was planning to start a second company for tux rentals. He quotes what his friend Michael Murphy, the founder of the New Age Esalen Institute, said to him: “Everybody thinks platonic forms are truth or beauty, but zTailors might be your own platonic form: retribution.”
Zimmer started Men’s Wearhouse with his college roommate in 1973 after a stint as a traveling salesman. He built the brand into an empire of more than 1,000 stores and 15,000 employees. Then he was fired without public explanation during a power struggle with the company’s board. (After an outcry, the company released a statement explaining, “Our actions were not taken to hurt George Zimmer.”) There was speculation that age played a role; one analyst told The New York Times that Men’s Wearhouse had been reviewing Zimmer’s effectiveness as a spokesman: “An old guy with a gray beard may not provide credibility to the product in the eyes of a 22- or 24-year-old.”
Zimmer has bright-blue eyes and salt-and-pepper hair going closer to salt. He’s 66 and thinner than he was in the commercials. His zTailors office is packed with a mix of memorabilia from his career and liberal miscellany. He has a framed copy of the 1974 Houston Post from the day Nixon resigned. There’s a picture of him with long curls, sporting cutoff jean shorts.
After his ouster, he tried to retire, he says. He sat in his backyard for a couple of months. But retirement didn’t make sense to him; he questioned the entire concept: “What does it mean to retire? There’s no indigenous word for retiring. Can you really ‘retire’ from life?”
The tight tailored suits popularized in the past decade are a stark contrast to the loose boxes Zimmer and others were selling in the ’80s. But in all the tucking and hemming Zimmer saw an opportunity for a new company, one that would bring convenience and technology to the old-world art of tailoring. “Americans haven’t tailored enough — disposable people, disposable products,” he says. He also hoped to improve the lot of the tailors themselves. “Tailors in America are treated so poorly. They sit in the back of stores, in windowless, un-air-conditioned rooms,” he says. “And stores consider them only an expense.”
Zimmer’s not much of a technophile himself, but he’s acutely aware of the press. On the wall behind his desk he’s tacked seven pages of a single long email full of zTailors media mentions — still hyperlinked blue. His lifestyle is much the same since launching his startup, he says, except that he no longer flies private. He’s wary of appearing as anything other than a populist. “My authenticity is my power. But I don’t know if people really see that. Somebody said to me, we’re going to do more PR for zTailors and I should dye my beard and fix my eyes,” Zimmer says. “Why? I’m getting old!”
“Everywhere we go, they think he’s from their hometown,” says his wife, Lorri Zimmer. “It’s mostly when they hear his voice. That’s when they realize who he is.”
Zimmer’s a private person, the better to keep his reputation as “everyone’s neighborhood tailor.” He’s never let a reporter visit his house in Oakland, a beautiful place in the hills with a tea pagoda, a zip line, and a giant trampoline. He has two Maltese Chihuahua mixes — Ginger and Jack — and says he may prefer dogs to people.
Walking upstairs to his office, he talks about the spiritual journey that’s come with age. In addition to running his new company, he meditates frequently and sits on the board of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a local organization dedicated to the study of consciousness: “What is consciousness? Is it contained in your brain? Nobody knows the answers — you can never be quite sure,” he says. “It is the element of randomness that makes life so game-like.” He’s also the keynote speaker of the Cannabis World Congress this year.
Zimmer knows his new business is a hard one. Already, many of the “Uber for X” startups are shutting down or transitioning contractors into employees, for legal and quality-control reasons. His company is pivoting to have more roving on-staff tailors with more experience — even though that’s often a money-losing proposition. The biggest challenge, however, is a more traditional one: skepticism about letting strangers into your home. Women sometimes request gay tailors, but screening for that is a challenge. (“Now I hear there’s tailor erotica,” he laughs.)
Before we leave, California Sunday’s photographer asks Zimmer to pose in a sweater, just to mix things up. The photographer jokingly says, “You’re gonna like the way you look.” Zimmer throws him a side-eye. “I’ll keep the suit on.”