Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Subterranean Blues

When you step down into the cavernous basement warehouse of Jeans Jeans Jeans, owner Borys Fridman is there to greet you, like a maître d' at the front of a crowded bistro.

"How we doing?" he says, and to his legions of returning customers: "Good to see you! What can we do for you today?"

This is no generic Gap-style greeting. Borys gives you his full attention, pinpoints your size exactly, and with his jeans ESP, reads your needs.

Then he calls out to his staff: "Maria/Vanessa/Fatima, can you show her something dark and simple, no bling on the pockets, straight leg?"

Here your eyes widen and he tells you, "I also read minds."

And this is how, from the fluorescent-lit cave of a million jeans, they bring you the ones you'll probably want.

"He's the Jeans Guru!" says my friend Merrianne, a long-time customer. "At first you don't understand why this older mustached guy is telling you what jeans to wear – but then you realize, he really knows!"

People come in and ask for him by name. One customer says that if she went into the store and Borys wasn't there, she'd come back later. As she puts it, "You want his stamp of approval on the jeans you buy."

Borys seems to know all there is to know about his chosen field. He started the business 35 years ago, when he was 21. In the 80s, he had 16 stores all over the city, including this one that he's kept, in a rue de Gaspé warehouse at the east end of St.-Viateur.

The garment district is being redeveloped and with plans in the works to extend St.-Viateur East, it's not yet clear what the future holds for Jeans Jeans Jeans. Borys, who grew up on Durocher and Van Horne, and has seen the neighbourhood through plenty of changes, says with a shrug, "We'll deal with what we have to deal with."

Once he announces your requirements to his people, Maria, or one of her fleet of helpers, squeezes between the racks of jeans and hops on a stepladder to pull down the right size from colour-coded hangers.

If Jeans Jeans Jeans is a three-ring circus with ladders, acrobats and jeans in every ring, Borys is the ringmaster. He juggles a dozen customers at once, reading their perfect and not-so-perfect bodies with his mind, funneling them into fitting rooms, chatting, charming, and kneeling at the foot of strollers to talk to toddlers.

"I multi-task," Borys says, as his eyes dart around, tracking clients. "I pay attention, make sure everyone is taken care of, that customers are happy, having a good time."

His father, Izak Fridman, who is 82 and works in the store five days a week (dressed not in jeans but in dress pants), says proudly, "He's very good with people."

"It's just a matter of paying attention," says Borys.

When he notices a red-headed employee searching through the racks with an energetic focus, he calls: "Talk to me, Vanessa!"

For a minute they confer about a customer who has so far rejected all the jeans she's been offered. "Try Miss Me," Borys suggests, naming a brand. "It's a little bit louder but it'll be nice on her." Vanessa climbs the ladder to do his bidding.

Most of the time, Borys gravitates to the front of the store where he can keep an eye on all comings and goings. The cracked concrete floor is covered with a strip of indoor/outdoor carpeting duct-taped at the edges. Overhead, a sign explains that zero spending on carpets and fixtures keeps prices low. All the jeans here are heavily discounted, often selling for half of what they'd go for in other stores.

It's not fancy, but the service is attentive.

"It's the opposite of the uninterested fashionistas at a posh place," says Merrianne. "You feel special the whole time!"

This kind of attention can be disconcerting if you're used to regular store clerks who traffic in indifference or the other extreme – the hard-sell. At his place, Borys insists, "We don't sell jeans, we make customers." You can try on jeans all day if you want, leave without buying, and come back the next day to mull over the decision some more.

The store is open six days a week and Borys is there every day. Mornings he visits suppliers to get the brands customers are asking for that week. At night, he's a barfly with a purpose.

"I go out to see what's going on and what people are wearing. I drop in or stand outside to get an idea of trends, of what moves the market."

Wherever he goes, Borys is recognized. He once ran into customers on a beach in Mexico. "They said, 'Hey, it's the jean guy!' I always get a little embarrassed. Outside of business, I'm a shy person."

I notice that he doesn't want to talk about himself. He would rather talk jeans, and this he does with moxie and innuendo:

"You try on a pair of jeans that's right for you, you come out with a little smirk on your face that says, 'Yes, I'm hot!' When it's right, it's right."

"Your assets are perfect," he says, when a guy turns to check the view in the mirror. To a woman, he'll say: "Your attributes look great," or, "You need to go a size smaller in those;" or sometimes even, with what he refers to as 'tactful honesty': "They don't look good on you."

People value his frank response – the confidence he's acquired through years of experience tends to give him the last word on the subject.

Borys tells me about Nudies, the expensive "dry denim" jeans you're supposed to wear for six months before washing (!) and True Religion, another pricey brand, with a Buddha on the label. He says his own personal preference runs to Rare Jeans or Edwins made with Japanese denim. "Guys are touchy-feely about that perfect pair of jeans. They're also brand-whores more than women."

All this makes me reminisce about the bygone era when all anyone had to do was buy new Levi's once a year.

Borys tells me that Levi's are back, big time, with young hipsters.

I get excited. "Really? Levi's are back? Can I get some?"

"Hm. Not at your age," he advises gently.


"You've done that," he tells me. "It's like old boyfriends. You see them, you want to be with them again, and within 30 minutes you know why you broke up. It doesn't work to do it again."

I try to argue this point, but he is unmovable, even smug, as if to say: go against my advice at your own peril, you'll only embarrass yourself.

On a grey Saturday afternoon at Jeans Jeans Jeans, the women's changing rooms are full. A small crowd is lined up and waiting as more people clomp down the stairs. The woman hidden at a sewing machine behind a clothes rack hems jeans non-stop.

Girls rotate in front of the mirrors, trying get a good look at their backsides.

"Tu les aime pas?" a slender young woman asks her boyfriend as she revolves in a skin-tight pair of dark jeans that are sparkly with rococo stitching.

The radio blares "Young Hearts Be Free Tonight," and I watch the teenagers with the dazzling back pockets. I imagine a day in their far-off future, when they ask about the jeans with bling and Borys, still on the job as the denim authority, tells them: "You can't go back. It's time for something different."

p.s. November 2010
Jeans Jeans Jeans moved out of the basement and around the corner to:
5575 Casgrain