Style came naturally and early to David Hodgkins, founder of David Wood Clothiers in Portland, who this month retired after launching the upscale menswear shop 45 years ago.
His mother was an interior designer and often brought him to fabric stores in New York City. That education in textiles got him interested in his own clothes. He remembers the day she brought home an assortment of new items for him to try on; he rejected them all. Then she handed him money.
“She said, get on the bus and buy what you want,” he said.
Decades later, Hodgkins has turned over similar decision-making at David Wood. Sara Hutchison Brown, who has worked with him since 2017, now owns and operates the business.
Hodgkins leaves a deep impact, both aesthetic and economic. As he developed relationships with brands all over the world – from a shoemaker in Massachusetts to an Irish maker of small-batch knitwear – the haberdashery helped make the Old Port a shopping destination.
His friends joke that his favorite thing about the business has been that he can buy his own clothes at wholesale prices. But Hodgkins said the people are what he will miss the most.
“What I like about the business most is the personal relationships that you develop with your customers and your business,” he said. “It’s a very social business on both sides.”
Hodgkins grew up in New Jersey, but his father was from a farm near Litchfield. The family visited every year, and Hodgkins knew he wanted to live in Maine. He attended the University of Maine “and married a Portland girl,” he said. He spent three years in the U.S. Army after graduation and then settled with his wife on Cousins Island in Yarmouth. He wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do.
Then he saw a newspaper ad seeking someone to run the marina store at Handy Boat Service in Falmouth. The shop sold nautical supplies and a few items of clothing.
“It was no more than 300 square feet,” he said. “Before I knew it, I was next to the bottom paint and a little stack of sweaters.”
He spent eight years growing the shop and developing contacts in the menswear business. In 1978, he opened David Wood Clothiers in Falmouth. (Wood is his mother’s maiden name. “It certainly made her happy, but it’s also graphically pleasing” on the sign, he explained.) Hodgkins wanted to cater to a crowd that liked “classic styling at a fair price.” In the mid-1980s the store moved to Portland, at Market and Middle streets, and has been on Commercial Street since 2011.
“Most men don’t enjoy shopping, but we seem to provide an experience that they do enjoy,” he said. “I think part of that enjoyment is an atmosphere and a space that’s not too big and is very focused on the merchandise. You were able to pick this and that and create a look that was uniquely yours.”
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
David Wood has carried some brands for decades – such as shoemaker Alden of New England, which produces exclusive styles for the store. But menswear itself has evolved. The store used to offer a whole rack of suits, but now they are made to order. Casual styles have eclipsed business ones. For Hodgkins, that evolution has been exciting and has resulted in a more versatile closet.
However, he frowns on the growth of what he calls “disposable clothing” – cheap items that are easy to buy online but aren’t made to last. The David Wood website includes a 10-part guide to the “fit kit,” a simplified and sustainable wardrobe. He includes homework and ruthless instructions on how to purge your closet.
In keeping with that philosophy, he said, the items in the store today are meticulously selected and of the highest quality. He sources from New York and Massachusetts, Italy and Ireland. Hodgkins regularly attends the Pitti Uomo fashion show in Florence, considered the world’s premier platform for men’s clothing and accessories.
“I’ve always believed in a wardrobe that you do not need a lot of clothes,” said Hodgkins. “You need the right clothes.”
Brown worked on the wholesale side of luxury menswear for years, mostly for Italian brands, and considered Hodgkins a mentor in the industry. In 2016, she saw him at a show in New York City. “Sara, I need something from you,” he said. Anything, she replied. “I need you to move to Portland,” he told her.
Hodgkins wanted her to work in the store and eventually take over his business. She decided to fly from New York City to Portland to spend a day in the store, and the experience of working alongside Hodgkins convinced her to accept what she described as a dream opportunity. She relocated to Maine the next year.
She admires Hodgkins for his attention to detail, from his own tie selection to his routine sweep outside the shop every morning, and his openness to new styles and ideas. She has seen firsthand in recent years how Hodgkins has built lifelong and generational relationships with customers and recalled a recent shopper who had been coming to the store for decades.
“He started shopping with David when he was in law school and continued to shop with David in his law career and now is retired and continues to shop with us,” she said. “It’s very special.”
Dana Connors, the outgoing president and CEO of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, has been shopping at David Wood for more than two decades and described Hodgkins as a friend. Connors said the store has always been stylish and modern, prioritizing items that will stand the test of time over the ones that will be out of trend next year. Brown will continue to uphold the standards for style and service, he predicted.
“They’re really cut out of the same cloth,” he said.
Connors said David Wood, along with retailers such as Joseph’s of Portland and Peter Renney’s Fashions, has made Portland a regional destination for quality menswear. He recalled meeting a fellow shopper who said he comes to Maine from Rhode Island three or four times a year just to visit those stores. Connors called that “a pretty darn significant endorsement.”
“The proof in the pudding is that all three of those stores will have people that come from other states to purposefully buy in each,” he said.
Hodgkins and his wife raised four children on Cousins Island and still live there.
“My dad always dresses like he is going somewhere better next,” said Shelby MacLeod, his daughter. “I would be in pajamas for coffee on a Sunday morning, and he would show up for family coffee and be dressed to the nines. It is who he is.”
He doesn’t have big plans for retirement yet, although he and his wife are planning a trip to Italy in March, shortly after his 78th birthday. He has been to the country dozens of times for work, including to the Pitti Uomo show, but this will be a real vacation.
Of course, he said, he’ll still do some shopping.
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