Clothing brand that helps men reclaim their swag
Renaissance men’s clothing boutique is tucked away in St. Paul’s Maplewood Mall, on the first floor close to JC Penny, across the hall from Foot Locker. The entrance to the store is through door #5, where men can find an array of suits, hats, and accessories.
Owner Marques Armstrong (MA), who is in his 50s, opened Renaissance at its current location in March of 2022, after a string of pop-ups beginning in fall 2019. His boutique caters to men of all ages and cultures who want a custom look and style, and have a certain sartorial swag.
MSR: What inspired you to start your business?
MA: My wife. She’d get invited to different balls and galas and all sorts of things where we had the opportunity to dress up. She noticed that I’d get a lot of compliments. She said, “Marques, you get compliments wherever we go.
“And you’re getting compliments from people from different backgrounds, and different cultures—both men and women. You should do something with that—I’m talking about some type of business.”
I said, “I have my mental health practice. I’m helping you start your law firm. We have the consulting firm. We have the Racial Justice Network and all of the community work that we do. When do I have time to start a clothing brand?”
She suggested that I just focus on accessories, because that was what attracted people. “It’s the way you put it together,” she said, “You wore that same suit to the last three galas that we went to. But because you dress it up differently, it looks like a brand-new suit.”
So that’s literally where I got the idea from. Most of the things that people were complimenting me on were things that I would buy during our travels out of state or out of the country. I’d find nice little boutiques and haberdasheries that I used to go into, trying to find some unique things.
So when they would ask, “Where did you get that, I’ve been looking for something like that,” or “I’ve been looking for something like that for my husband,” I’d say, “Unfortunately, I got it out-of-state.”
Initially, I just started with accessories. As I traveled, I would mention to those business owners that I was thinking about opening a boutique. I would ask, “Would you or do you sell wholesale? Or would you be open to a distribution contract?” To my delight, they all said yes.
I started to collect accessories, storing them in our home office. One day, I came home and I looked around. I had too many boxes of products. I didn’t have space and I didn’t know where to sell it.
I called my pastor and asked him if it was okay if I set up in the foyer with my new business. He said, ‘Marques, you’re in leadership. You didn’t have to ask me that.’ That Sunday, I set up after church, and in an hour I had made $500. So that’s when I started to look for other places to sell. And that’s what turned into popup shops.
MSR: Who designs your clothes?
MA: Carlos Muñoz is the designer. Carlos designs a lot of our newer products, and also many of our clothes. I have suppliers in LA, New York, and some suppliers from overseas. Sometimes we just order the product and Carlos tailors it to the customer.
MSR: Where do you get your clothing from?
MA: I have about five main people that I go to in LA where I can call and place orders. My wife grew up in California, so we visit there a lot. What I would do is go down to the Fashion District, getting products by myself. But then I started to ask them if they did wholesale. They’d give me the card with the address and the phone number, and I just start contacting them.
In New York I initially had one supplier, and I have many suppliers outside of the country—China, Istanbul, Turkey, Italy, different places like that where I’m able to get materials and supplies.
Because of COVID, and then the war in Ukraine, transportation was negatively impacted. Initially, ordering stuff from overseas was about two weeks. But then when supply chain problems happened, it was a month, two months, three months. Stuff was stuck on cargo ships. It was slowing down my business.
My wife was doing her book release for a book called “J is for Justice.” Her book release was in Brooklyn, New York. So, I tagged along and told her that I needed to find some new suppliers. The next day, I woke up early in the morning and got out here and started my search.
Carlos has also impacted my casual style 100 percent and I was rocking that style. As I’m moving through SoHo in New York, I recognize and realize that I blended right in, because he’s from New York and he’s had a huge influence on my casual style.
I was able to find three more suppliers by just me walking in the garment district, walking in the stores, and explaining myself. I started placing orders on that trip from suppliers to get the products that I needed. Now I’m able to get products when I order from California in three days to a week, versus three months.
MSR: How did you guys manage COVID?
MA: Honestly, I didn’t think about it because the business had just started. I didn’t think that it would really get off the ground, because the world had shut down. This is a clothing business, and you need [customers with] somewhere to go. Whether you’re going to work, or you’re taking someone out on a date, or a business meeting—you come in and get your outfit together. Well, there’s no way for people to do that because the world was shut down.
I honestly didn’t think that it would continue, especially because I had just started. But to my surprise and delight, we were still able to make some sales. Nowhere near what my projections were, but it was about $20,000 in 2020, which, to me was incredible.
No one had anywhere to go, but they were still patronizing the business. In 2021, when things started to open up a bit more, I began to do pop-ups because I didn’t have a brick-and-mortar location at that time. Those pop-ups turned into me getting invited to become a part of a multi-vendor market.
I did that the entire summer—every Saturday and Sunday—waking up at 5:30 in the morning to get down there at 6 a.m. and set-up by 7 a.m. I did really well there. So, it was really pop-ups and my network just being supportive. I’d share the things at the places that I would be, and they would show up. That’s really how we survived the pandemic.
MSR: What was the multi-vendor pop-up called that you were a part of?
MSR: How does your business impact the community?
MA: We have parents, mostly mothers, bringing their sons. In most cases, it is their very first time purchasing a suit, which means that they’ve never been measured and never had clothes designed to fit them directly.
They come stand right here, and when they look in that mirror you can literally see their bodies change. Their shoulders straighten, and they stand up tall. It changes them immediately when they see themselves. And then Mom says, “Oh my goodness, look at my baby boy.” Then I lean into Mom and say, “He is no longer your baby boy. He is becoming a young man.” One mother began to tear up.
I’m heavily involved in social justice work and being of service to the community. So, everything that I do, whether it’s my mental health practice, whether it’s the activism and advocacy that I do, even here at Renaissance—everything is focused on how do we advance community.
As you walk into the store, you’ll see I have messages that come from the movement on the wall. One of the goals of Renaissance is to grow, so that we can create employment opportunities for young brothers and sisters. It’s well-known that businesses that are owned by people of color are more likely to hire people of color.
I want to be able to get to a point where we have multiple locations and we’re able to hire more people. We’ll look within the community to try to find those individuals. And we want to help build those individuals up as well.
MSR: What would you consider your most popular product?
MA: To my surprise, it’s the fedora. I didn’t carry them initially. One day Carlos walked in and I’m behind the register and I’m doing some stuff. I looked up, and said, “Yo! That’s kind of a Renaissance hat. Where’d you get that hat?” He said, “Oh, I got it from the store down the hall.” I was like, show me.
We went there. I bought them out. I bought all of their hats. They said they weren’t able to sell them. I asked what kind of deal are you willing to give me if I buy all of them from you? We purchased them all and brought them down here and they became a bestseller. After we purchased them, Carlos customized them.
MSR: What has been your biggest challenge in owning a business?
MA: My biggest challenge is developing the right team. As I mentioned earlier, one of our goals is to create employment opportunities. We’re in a place now where some of those opportunities are presenting themselves as we get busier, and as we begin to grow and get more products. I need help. I’m very busy. Carlos is my guy. He’s my right hand, man. So he’s here. But he also needs time off.
I began to hire some young men and women part-time, and it was disappointing because there seems to be a different kind of work ethic going on right now. I’m a 1970s baby. Carlos was born in the 1960s. We have a work ethic that was instilled in us to get to work on time, be respectful, do what it is to please your employer so that they keep you. There may be an opportunity for growth.
Unfortunately, what I have been experiencing is that the young people I’ve tried to hire—when I say young, I mean 18-25—I’ve had to let each and every one of them go. It’s the lack of a strong work ethic.
My biggest challenge is finding the right people that fit the brand, but also having good character, and showing up on time. If you can’t make it, call and give us a heads-up. No-shows don’t work in any business.
That’s the biggest challenge I’m facing right now.
MSR: What has been the most rewarding part of owning your business?
MA: Seeing young men, and even adult men, who don’t really dress up, want to step their game up.
MSR: What advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur?
MA: Develop a strong business plan and develop a strong team. None of us are islands. It takes teamwork to make the dream work. Those are the two pieces of advice I would give any aspiring business owner or entrepreneur. Have your plan mapped out and begin to develop a very strong team of people.
Not everybody thinks like you. But you need some people who think the opposite of you or in a different way than you, because that helps challenge you. And it’s through challenges that we grow.
MSR: What would you like to add?
MA: I think we’ve carved out a niche, and it’s weddings, concerts, and other events like that. When we first opened up, we were trying to drum up business and attention to get people to come into the store. We would plan these Saturday meet-and-greets for customers to learn about Renaissance. We would pay for charcuterie and good champagne. And you know, we’re spending money to try to get people to come into the store.
A couple came in, and they were looking at tuxedos. I asked the question, “What’s the occasion?” And they said, “Oh, it’s our wedding.” Of course, I congratulated them on their wedding, and in that moment I thought to myself, “Let me try something.”
I said, “Hey, how big is your wedding party?” It’s huge, actually. I said, “Okay, I have a deal for you, and I made it up right there on the spot. I said, “If there are five or more men in your wedding party, your tuxedo will be free.” And so they agreed.
We sat down, we went over their color scheme, the type of tux that they wanted for the groom, the tuxes that they wanted for the groomsmen. Then I said, “Okay groom, get with your best man, and I want you to get everybody together. I want to schedule a consultation so all the men can come in and we can get their measurements. Then we can show them what you guys picked for them, what they would be wearing.”
The day that they scheduled I thought to myself, “You know, we’ll bring out the charcuterie board and champagne and pull out all the stops in the hopes that it would produce sales. This is a wedding party. They’re gonna buy suits, so why don’t we give them that five-star treatment?” They absolutely loved it. We closed the doors, but we were still open. We closed the doors to give all our attention to the customer.
To my delight, what I discovered was that other people walking by saw all of the people and heard the excitement. It made them want to come in and find out what was going on. It helped to generate even more sales outside of the wedding. So that has become one of the top things we do. Right now, we have about five weddings coming up that we’re preparing for.