By Betsy Diacatos
Boston’s own Alan Bilzerian opened his first store in 1967 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Although it seemed the least likely place to start a boutique, Bilzerian stocked his store with corduroy trousers, bellbottom jeans, and velvet shirts. This was a time of great social and cultural change around the world and in the United States, allowing for new up-and-coming designers to show off their unique concepts and introduce a whole new way of dress to the public. Bilzerian carried many of these young designers, including Giorgio Armani, Katherine Hamnett, and Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garcons label, while also mixing in his own designs on the floor.
Bilzerian was first inspired to start his business while traveling in Europe for three months, after graduating from college. He admired the way the European stores displayed their merchandise in a way that evoked emotion in their customers. Upon his return to the States, Bilzerian decided he wanted to open a beautiful store reflecting that style.
Bilzerian believes that the key to his success lies in his anticipation of what his customer is looking for next. His boutiques in Newton Centre and on Newbury Street are full of quality clothing, much of it handmade rather than mass produced. The boutique operates as a vertical store, making and buying at the same time, and acting like any fashion house but keeping production under one roof. The Bilzerian customers are looking for a unique experience and timeless yet stylish pieces that will make them stand out in the crowd. While he carries other major designers, Bilzerian displays his own designs as well. It is also important, he says, to make the customer feel like an individual.
“Most stores just buy products to fill the shelves. When people come [to our store] from different parts of the country, they come for our own brand, something that no one else has. When Elton John came, he only wanted to see Bilzerian products, and he spent $70,000 on only Bilzerian. It means a lot to have your own identity!” he said.
And if something does not look good on his customers, Bilzerian is not afraid to tell them so. Customers do not feel pushed into buying something. If only five people come in but buy a lot of products, it is a successful day. Bilzerian keeps a relatively low profile. He does not do a
lot of advertising and stays out of the spotlight. Bilzerian’s theory is that if you are constantly in the consumers’ faces, they will no longer want you. “It is very difficult to hold your own, doing the things you know will represent the future of what people will gravitate towards. You develop your own style and keep it. We are not for everyone, and we don’t want to be for everyone. We want someone who wants and is interested in a beautiful product,” he said. The best form of advertisement for Alan Bilzerian is word of mouth. When customers happen upon this jewel of a boutique, they will keep coming back for more. A Bilzerian customer is for forever.
There is no one popular item among customers, either. The categories change every month. “Usually a woven cashmere, or a particular piece of jewelry, or a certain brand brings different people. We put out a hand basket of our best ideas, and each person zooms in on something different in this kind of environment. Everything moves as a mixing pot and keeps changing,” he said.
According to Bilzerian, what attracts men to his clothing is its masculinity. Said Bilzerian, “It is not wimpy. It has a very masculine mentality to it, whether a pair of canvas handmade jeans or a handmade cotton shirt.” The high quality of the garments brings in customers and keeps them coming back, and because the garments are unique, the Bilzerian man feels like an individual, with his own look and his own opinion.
Because of his design technique, unique and timeless designs, and excellent service, Bilzerian has attracted many creative and famous clients over the years, including James Colburn, Steven Tyler, James Taylor, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Carly Simon, Madonna, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Elton John, Winona Ryder, and Johnny Depp. His designs have also been com- missioned for film directors such as Tim Burton.
Forty-seven years after starting his business with only $4,000 in his pocket, Alan Bilzerian has become a major success.