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British clothier calls West Virginia home

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- He's a long way from London, a quantum leap from his blue-collar British roots to the high-falutin' clients he serves from his office on Lee Street.

No one finds that journey more remarkable than Richard Emery himself.

In 1979, at 22, he packed his punk rock garb and flew to a place called West Virginia to work as a tool-and-die maker for Volkswagen in South Charleston.

Those die-making skills led, of all things, to embossing and designing handbags in Palm Beach. He traveled extensively in India, Hong Kong and Thailand to engage manufacturers for the leather goods he developed. He traveled throughout America selling the purses and other products.

In 1995, he returned to Charleston where he runs the state office for Tom James, a custom-made clothier catering to discerning shakers and movers.

That telltale cockney accent reflects his upbringing, but West Virginia has his heart. A U.S. citizen since 1986, our 56-year-old London transplant calls Charleston home, a hillbilly by choice.

 

"I was born in London. Most people say I have a cockney accent, but when I go back to England, they say I sound more American. Most people think I'm from Australia now. I've been over here so long, I have bastardized the British accent.

"I was in Hazard, Ky., one time, and I cut somebody off, and they were not pleased with me. So I put on my best British accent and apologized profusely. I told them I had just arrived here from London, a little white lie. They said, 'Oh, don't worry about it.' I use the accent when I need it.

 "About 1960, my parents moved outside of London to a small village, like a subdivision. My dad worked for a ball-bearing factory and then for General Motors. We were a working-class family.

"Back then, you could leave school at 15 but nobody knew what they wanted to do at 15, so I stayed until I was 16 when I went into an apprenticeship as a tool-and-die maker.

"I did a four-year apprenticeship and then worked three years outside my apprenticeship.

"One day, I was home reading a local newspaper, and it had an advertisement for a tool-and-die maker in Charleston, W.Va. I asked somebody where Charleston was and they said, 'Oh, that's where the Confederacy was born.' They thought it was Charleston, S.C.

"I applied for the job with five other guys. Four of us got the job. I was 22. I moved here on April 21, 1979. Volkswagen flew us over and put us up in the Ramada in South Charleston for two weeks and paid all our expenses.

"They took 12 of us to Car City Motors owned by Paul and C.E. White. They sold 12 cars in one day. We would say, 'How much is that?' Paul would go, 'Oh, about $3,500.' We'd say, 'We'll take it.' No negotiating. We didn't have Social Security numbers or anything. Paul White took a huge risk.

"People were nice to us and fascinated. Back in '79, there were not too many British people here. We were a little bit of a novelty.

"Coming from England, I always liked clothes and fashion. I grew up in that punk rock era where you dyed your hair. When I came over, I had about five earrings, and that freaked everybody out. I was an oddball. No one was dressed like we were.

"On Memorial Day, we went to Myrtle Beach. Before we left, we met this guy who said, 'If you go anywhere and there are a bunch of people having a good time, there will be someone from West Virginia in the center of it.'

"So we go to the beach, and there is this guy with a boom box and a cooler sitting on the beach in a deck chair having a giddy-up good time. He asked us where we were from. We said, 'We live in Charleston, W.Va.' He said, 'So do I.'

"My plan was, if I didn't like it here, I would stay two years, earn as much money as I could, tour the states and go home. But I worked for Volkswagen for eight years. When they moved their operation to Mexico, I was left unemployed. I was dating a girl from Florida, so I went there and worked for a fashion-accessory company.

"The guy had a handbag company. He was embossing them. Tool-and-die is kind of like embossing. He made that connection. He hired me in October of '87.

"By November, I was in Bombay and Calcutta. He sent me to India to build a product line for him. I came back with what he said was the best product line he ever had. The company went from doing $3 million a year to $18 million.

"I went over with a lot of ideas and worked with the vendors. The bags were hand-painted and printed. I took a lot of prints and postcards. I would say, 'I want this. Put the state of Texas on the handbag.' In Texas, they loved it.

"I opened a company in India for the Mediterranean Trading Co. and hired about 30 people over there, which essentially put me out of a job. That's how I made the leap into sales.

"I started selling handbags to Wal-Mart, JC Penney, Claire's Boutique, the mass market, and we did very well. You still see some of them today, especially in Texas. They loved that Texas bag.

"After eight strong years, the company wasn't doing well. It went out of business. The guy who owned it wanted to go into politics.

"A friend found this job for me. The timing was perfect. I got laid off in December of 1994 and started working for Tom James in January 1995.

"A guy who worked out of Lexington had a little office in Huntington and hired me to work the Charleston area. He moved to Puerto Rico, so I just moved the whole office here. I opened this store Thanksgiving of '95.

"Tom James was formed in 1966. We are the largest custom clothier in the world and the largest wool importer in the U.S. We used to make clothes for royalty. So we've been in business a long time.

"We sell custom and ready-made clothes. The whole concept is, we come to you. I call my clients and go to their office or home. I measure them and show them fabrics and take pictures of them. I went into training to learn how to measure and fit. A custom suit can go anywhere from $599 to $24,000.

"I had a guy come in who said he had no dress clothes. He bought five or six suits and sport coats. It came to about $40,000. When he put the clothes on, his wife cried. She said she had never seen him look so good.

"There was a guy who had been in an accident. He had no movement in his elbow. And he was very large. He couldn't stand up very long. Stores didn't treat him well. So he called me. I went to his house. The suit was for his son's wedding. He said it was the only suit he would ever own. He said he would be buried in it.

"I'm as busy as I want to be. Last year was the best year I've ever had with Tom James. I got into the President's Club, a level of leadership with Tom James.

"I think I have a great work ethic. I'm in here at 7:30 and work until the job is finished. Referrals are the best source of business. But starting out, I made a lot of cold calls.

"Most men don't like to go shopping. I called this one guy, a cold call, and he was very aggravated. He told me nicely but firmly that he was going to hang up. I asked if he would give me 10 seconds to tell him what I do and if he didn't like it, he could just tell me to stop. He said, 'Fine. You have 10 seconds.'

"I went through the spiel, and he said, 'Richard, Richard, stop, stop.' I thought, oh, no. He said, 'The one thing I hate worse than cold calls is shopping for clothing. You've bought yourself two minutes. Slow down and tell me what you do.' And he has become a client.

"It takes from four to six weeks for a suit, six to eight weeks for a shirt. But there's something to be said for a suit or shirt made especially for you.

"I'm a high school soccer referee. I was voted state referee of the year in 2009. I used to coach a little, but there was a shortage of referees. I'd been around soccer -- we call it football in England -- all my life. I'm a huge Manchester United soccer fan. My license plate is Man UTD.

"Coaches and players don't know the rules. It can get pretty intimidating. The parents are dreadful sometimes.

"I love this valley. I try to stay involved. Beth Wallace, my girlfriend, has a daughter, Jordan, who goes to UC. I go to a lot of her functions.

"Charleston has given me a good living twice. This is my home. People here are fantastic.

"I go to England once a year. Last Christmas, I took my dad to see a James Bond movie. That was our thing when I was young. I must have seen 'Goldfinger' at least 20 times.

"When I was 20, I would never have envisioned me doing what I'm doing now. But I will be here until I retire.

"I want to expand this business, maybe open up in the Morgantown area and train somebody who can carry the torch when I leave here." Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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