Supplier likes uniform look Clothing: The growing popularity of student uniforms is good news for a longtime supplier.

August 12, 1996|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

David Leonard is getting 20,000 youngsters dressed for school.

He is putting together outfits that come in 70 plaids, a dozen solids and at least 40 sizes with crew necks, V-necks, open necks and turtlenecks. He has short sleeves, long sleeves, broadcloth and twill -- and don't forget those polyester pleated jumpers.

It's headache time for Leonard, co-owner of P. J. McEvoy Inc., which supplies school uniforms to students in more than 200 public, private and parochial schools from New York to Florida.

From a nondescript brick storefront that extends into warehouse on Edmondson Avenue just west of the city line, the 108-year-old business sells thousands of pairs of pants, shirts, shorts, jumpers, skirts, kilts and knee socks every year -- most of them during a few weeks in August.

"It's a crazy, crazy business," says Leonard, who came to McEvoy 40 years ago as a stock clerk and stayed to become a traveling salesman, vice president and, four years ago, owner with partner Anthony Kovacevich Sr., another longtime employee.

"It's a narrow window of opportunity to fill all the orders before school starts," he said recently, as noise from the small show-salesroom on the other side of his office wall began to build. "If everyone cooperated and ordered early, it would be much easier."

But customers procrastinate. Manufacturers fall behind schedule. And more students than ever seem to be wearing uniforms as private schools enjoy record enrollments, public schools warm to the advantages of uniforms and even President Clinton hails them as a remedy for crime and education woes.

So, as summer wanes, business heats up at the little store, and the regular work force of 17 triples.

On a recent morning, a half-dozen clerks were fitting polo shirts and pinafores for students, ages 5 to 17, checking schools' specifications against parents' purchases and offering advice on sizes and just how many blouses a first-grader might need.

In the back, workers scurried about, plucking a blouse from this cardboard bin, a pair of pants from that, filling the mail orders that make up two-thirds of McEvoy's business.

In the showroom, customers Roy and Sherry Lane of Edgemere were beating the last-minute rush. As Mrs. Lane worked with a salesclerk for more than an hour to outfit three of their children, her husband tended a 10-month-old daughter.

"It hasn't taken us too long -- not with three children," said the husband, whose youngsters attend Baptist Christian School in Fort Howard. "I like uniforms because it's easy." But he added, "If I'm going to spend this kind of money for clothes, I'd rather have the ones I want."

Joshua, 11, Rebekah, 7, and Elizabeth, 5, were more enthusiastic than their father. "It's pretty neat," Joshua said of his new black pants, black belt and white shirts.

Despite nearly captive clienteles, retailers specializing in uniforms face increasing competition from lower-priced mass marketers, who have taken on uniforms in recent years.

Leonard estimates it costs $135 to $150 to outfit an elementary student at his store: for a boy, three pairs of twill pants, five shirts, a sweater and a tie; for a girl, two jumpers, five blouses, a sweater and six pairs of knee socks.

But that would not be enough for the more expensive embroidered polo shirts, turtlenecks or wool blazers -- options at some schools, requirements at others.

At SuperKids in Westview Mall, where uniforms are a big part of the back-to-school business, manager Ruth Hunt said the average uniform sale runs about $150 a child -- four pairs of pants, five shirts, a sweater, socks, a tie, and perhaps gym clothes, she said.

SuperKids, however, carries only basic, solid-color uniform items -- no plaids or specialty pieces.

Leonard and other uniform specialists -- selling almost exclusively American-made garments, and burdened by the need to carry a huge inventory year-round -- say they cannot compete with the prices offered by larger retailers.

"What we have to sell is service," said Leonard, who does fittings each spring for repeat customers and carries as many as 42 sizes in girls' styles.

But whether a small or large retailer, uniform stores trade in a fashion anomaly -- a product that, season after season, remains generally the same.

"Change is the worst word in uniforms," said Ken Knoss, president of School Apparel Inc., a manufacturer in San Francisco. "They are basically very stable, very classic. The emphasis is more on comfort, more on durability."

But there have been a few concessions to the whims of style -- such as pleats in the khakis and kilts, and walking shorts and polo shirts that cross gender lines.

When McEvoy began selling school uniforms in 1958, Leonard said, "There were three styles [of jumpers] and four colors for girls -- navy, green, maroon and brown. For boys, navy pants, gray pants and khaki pants."

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