March 12, 2006 — Le Baron Men's Clothier has long been synonymous with style and quality men's wear.
Owner Arnold Helenese, who many identify simply as "Mr. Le Baron," identified a niche more than 18 years ago and stuck with it – even after one of the island's most devastating hurricanes struck a major blow.
Helenese's resiliency is among the factors that the store is a St. Croix mainstay years after Hurricane Hugo essentially destroyed the island in 1989. Unlike many business owners who simply gave up or have since closed their doors with the subsequent economic downturn, Helenese did not. He reopened within a matter of months, and the rest is fashion history.
Today, when the man with eclectic taste is looking for that one-of-a-kind-evening or dressy-casual ensemble, it is to Le Baron he turns.
"People come here to shop because we have the finest men's clothes on St. Croix and a large variety of accessories. At Le Baron, we outfit you from top to bottom," said Velma Joseph, who along with Sheila Joseph, no relation, have stuck with Helenese. The two have worked at the store since 1990 and 1991, respectively.
Indeed, the store carries merchandise that runs the gamut from dressy casual wear, in linen and silk, to tailored Italian suits.
The suits, for example, can be accessorized in-house with a number of items ranging from shirts and ties to cuff links, tie pins, belts and socks. Le Baron also carries a line of fine quality leather shoes with name brands such as Giorgio Brutini and Sevasta Italiano. Tuxedos, leather briefcases, wallets and skin care products for the man who cares about putting his best face forward round off the merchandise array. Le Baron even carries cologne bearing the store's name in five different labels.
One label, Le Baron Signature, is the top-of-the-line cologne, according to Helenese. There are other sporty scents like Le Baron Sport or Le Baron Blue Label.
Helenese said that he was attending a retail clothing seminar in Chicago and was headed to dinner one evening when he came upon what he later learned was a perfumery.
"There was this sweet smell coming from this building, and I went in and the gentleman said I could make you your own line' and that was it," Helenese said.
The Le Baron line of cologne has been one of the store's best sellers, especially with tourists.
"I've had to ship packages of cologne back to the states to tourists who bought it and wanted more," Helenese said.
Helenese says he got the store's unique name after tossing around a few ideas with fellow church members of St. Anne's Catholic Church, which is located near Barren Spot. He said that the area was "barren and desolate," and the idea to name his store "Baron" was born.
"Someone was French and added the Le' and it became Le Baron," he said with a laugh.
Business, Helenese said, has gone from good to bad and continues to get worse, so much so, that he's considered bringing less expensive brands of clothing in order to stay afloat.
"The average consumer is not clothing savvy," Helenese said, explaining why he's had to consider moving away from what makes Le Baron Clothier a cut above the rest in clothing establishments. "A customer may come in and ask for a pair of pants and asks how much it costs rather than recognize the quality of the merchandise. It's like having a Volkswagen [buggy] and a Volvo. You pay less for the Volkswagen and that's the same concept in clothing. You pay more for quality."
Helenese remembers a time when business was so good that he turned down an offer to reapply for a Small Business Administration loan. Helenese, who migrated from Trinidad to work for Hess (now Hovensa) said that the job became too demanding, physically, and he decided to venture out on his own.
"I always had the urge to own a business, and I always loved clothes," he said, adding that he approached the SBA for a start-up loan.
He was told that he needed a five-year business plan and he did get one. In fact, he said, SBA personnel described it as "a very good business plan," but in the end the money wasn't forthcoming. Thus, like many others who start small businesses on the island, Helenese invested his own money using stocks and bonds and other savings.
A year and a half later the SBA representative entered the store and suggested that Helenese could reapply for the loan now because he essentially had name recognition.
"I turned it down. I realized I could do it on my own," Helenese said in a recent interview.
Hurricane Hugo never cracked his confidence.
Le Baron opened in June 1987 in Sunny Isle, and Hugo struck two years later.
"I lost everything," Helenese said, adding that he could not recoup losses from the insurance company because it had gone belly-up.
Once again, Helenese dug into his own pockets. The store was reopened in 1990.
"Business has always been tough in a sense. You have to give it your all for it to be successful," he said. "The economy has been on a downward spiral and so this has made it doubly hard. People with money would rather spend it on groceries and medicine rather than buy clothes and that's understandable because times are hard."
Velma Joseph said she too has noticed the trend.
"I've seen that as the economy slows down, people tend to buy less and with the war now being everybody's focus, it has gotten worse," she said. "We usually have heavy traffic during Christmas, but last year sales were a bit slow because there's not enough money circulating."
Helenese said he continues to hold on and credits his loyal employees' personal touch, more so than the local discounts he gives to customers, as another mainstay of his store.
"They have been with me for so very long and so they know the merchandise," Helenese said. "A customer comes in and they will make suggestions and pretty soon he will leave with something [a selection] that fits him very well."
Sheila Joseph lives for those moments.
"When customers walk in here it's my job to make them feel comfortable, whether it's a man looking for something or a woman doing the shopping for the man. My job is to help pick an outfit that will make them feel good," she said. "I enjoy what I do. I ask where they're going and I take it from there. They like that service."
Le Baron Men's Clothier is located in the Sunny Isle Shopping Center. For more information, call (340) 778-5800.
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