SEMINOLE HEIGHTS — Daryl House never would describe himself as a trendy dresser, swayed by fads. But from elementary school through Jefferson High School, classmates knew him as a young man with style.
He quietly stood out in crisp slacks, shirt and sometimes a sweater or vest. They never were expensive threads; sometimes they were hand-me-downs or whatever his mother could afford living in the College Hill public housing complex.
“It’s classic with a little edge on it,” said House. “Today I still like saddle oxfords.”
Two months ago House and business partner Ricc Rollins opened Classic Gentlemen Boutique in a Seminole Heights bungalow at 5407 N. Florida Ave. The men’s haberdashery offers suits, shirts, custom tailoring and accessories.
It is a new plateau for House, 53, who as a teenager never envisioned clothing as a possible career path.
After 20 years in the U.S. Navy, however, mentors and unexpected opportunities brought him back to his passion — clothes and designing.
He began by working more than 12 years as a merchandiser, initially for Superba, a leading manufacturer and distributor of neckwear. It was bought by Phillips-Van Heusen in 2007.
“I started from the trunk of my car. I started with just neckties,” House said. He drove to customers’s homes, churches and special events.
When his business outgrew his car trunk, he moved to a station wagon, then a van.
A friend told him customers were having trouble finding him; he needed to settle in one location.
For more than two years House operated his own shop in the East Tampa Business Center, a strip mall on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard created nearly 15 years ago by the nonprofit Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa to nurture new businesses.
Then, nearly two months ago, he moved Classic Gentlemen Boutique to a 1920s bungalow in Seminole Heights. The haberdashery is the newest retail business in an area trending with restaurants, micro-breweries and specialty shops.
The new location, House said, is an opportunity to attract new customers in a diverse, up-and-coming community. “There’s no other shop like us in this area,” he said.
Rollins, who is stylist and social media guru for Classic Gentlemen, is a former television talk show host. He met House at his shop on Martin Luther King about 18 months ago.
Rollins wasn’t sure what to expect when a friend urged him to check it out. But the boutique character of Classic Gentlemen made an immediate impression. “I fell in love with it as I stood in the doorway,” said Rollins who once owned a men’s clothing store in Bradenton.
They found unexpected connections. Both attended Morehouse College in Atlanta at the same time but had not met; House was class of 1978 and Rollins, 1980. “We both love interior design. We both love fashion. And we both have daughters,” Rollins said.
They also share a business goal.
“It’s our purpose to make men dress again,” Rollins said. “People became so casual at one point, we forgot to bring style with us.”
The people who helped House along the way also inspired him to give back. “It’s not just about selling clothes,” he said. “There’s a lot of young black men who need role models.”
His first role model and inspiration was his mother, Emma House, who taught him how to dress well; to not to let a lack of money stand in the way. “I had a lot of hand-me-down clothes,” House said. “My mother always taught us how to take care of our clothes.”
Perhaps because of his modest beginnings, he never has focused on selling expensive designer suits. Instead he scouts trade shows to buy quality items that resell for modest, affordable prices.
Classic Gentlemen offers personalized service, similar to what department stores once routinely offered, House said.
“There is nothing like working for yourself,” he said. “I enjoy people. I enjoy clothes. I enjoy what I do.”