Slipping out of formal wear Sale: With the sale of its eight S. Hiken Formal Wear stores to Delaware-based Formal Affairs Inc., the Hiken family will be doing dry cleaning and pressing exclusively.

April 12, 1997|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

On more than a few occasions, Stanley Hiken found himself racing to a wedding to rescue a frantic bridegroom from appearing in a crowded church without a bow tie, cummerbund or dress shoes.

And the businessman can't count the number of times that he's calmed a worried parent by personally delivering to the home a tuxedo or its missing formal dress accouterments so a son could be properly attired for a high school graduation or prom.

But the East Baltimore family's rich history spanning seven decades and dedication to the formal-wear business has run its course.

The Hikens, alas, have sold their eight S. Hiken Formal Wear stores to an out-of-towner, Delaware-based Formal Affairs Inc.

Hiken's sons, Edward and Steve, plan to continue to operate a growing dry cleaning and pressing business, Hiken Valet, which chiefly caters to the hotel industry. The business was an outgrowth of their formal-wear trade.

But they've rented their last snazzy tux.

"The one thing we really prided ourselves on was the personal touch. You could call us day or night and we'd doing everything we could to help people out in a pinch," said the elder Hiken. His family has run a chain of S. Hiken Formal Wear stores in the Baltimore area for 70 years.

Financial terms of the Formal Affairs deal were not disclosed, but Edward Hiken said the family decided to sell the formal-wear side of the business because the offer was so strong.

Formal Affairs is keeping on S. Hiken's 72 store employees, but the formal attire warehouse operations in Highlandtown have been shifted to Newark.

As part of the deal, Formal Wear bought the rights to the Hiken name and intends to keep that moniker on the eight Baltimore stores. They will now trade under the name Hiken, Formal Affairs.

"The Hikens have been a legend in this business," said Chris Lock, president and chief executive officer of Newark, Del.-based Formal Affairs, which before the deal operated four Formal Affairs stores in Delaware and one in Towson.

"The good will of the Hiken name alone is irreplaceable," said Lock.

That goodwill was built, in part, over decades during which many a high school lad aiming to make a dapper showing at his prom or graduation paid a visit to one of the Hiken stores for that timely right of passage: the first tuxedo fitting.

The Hikens would guarantee customers that anything that was wrong with the outfit would be made right, even it included an emergency trip to the customer's house to replace a missing piece of the outfit.

During the peak of the graduation season, said the elder Hiken, the family's stores would fit 5,000 young men a week.

And no matter how outrageous the fashion of the day -- even the cream, yellow and blue tuxedos in vogue in the 1970s -- Hiken had an ample supply. The firm stocked more than 10,000 formal suits.

"I've fitted the same men for their graduations and weddings and in turn they sent me their sons for their graduations and weddings," said the elder Hiken, a man legendary for his stories about people, famous and unknown, who have been customers throughout the years.

Hiken is particularly proud of the time the family trade was called on to provide tall hats for President John F. Kennedy's inauguration.

"We did it again for his funeral," the elder Hiken recalled sadly.

Most recently, Hiken provided formal attire for dignitaries and others attending President Clinton's second inauguration in January.

Now 70 and semi-retired, Hiken took over the tuxedo sales and rental business in 1948 after his father, Samuel Hiken, died.

The immigrant from Ukraine had launched the business in 1927 on East Baltimore Street in Highlandtown. Initially it was a "pressing" operation -- the dry cleaner of the period.

He soon added renting and selling formal wear, called "dress suits" in those days.

When son Stanley took over, he aggressively expanded the tuxedo and rental business from the one shop on East Baltimore Street, eventually building it to, at its peak, a 10-store chain with shops in Silver Spring and Fairfax, Va.

Family members credit Stanley with single-handedly building a large and loyal following among Baltimore high schools by personally visiting area schools to fit prospective graduates after school or during class breaks.

For years, that end of the rental business flourished and was lucrative, said Edward Hiken.

But times changed. Enthusiasm has waned for any type of formal wear beyond a black tuxedo, or a fancy cummerbund and bow tie to jazz up an outfit.

Despite the changes, saying goodbye is difficult for the elder Hiken. The tuxedo business has been all he's known.

"This is a 70-year-old family business that has been good to me and my family. We were just working my grandsons -- the fourth generation -- into it. It's a shame to see it go.

"I'll miss it."

Pub Date: 4/12/97

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