ToBox, the latest menswear haunt on Chestnut Street, is quite the man cave.
Nestled between Boyds Philadelphia and Hats on the Belfry, the 3,000-square-foot cerulean-hued store specializes in guys' shoes. So it stands to reason that the hardwood-trimmed showroom space is front-loaded with dozens of styles of spit-shined footwear, including Carlos Santos double monks and Crockett & Jones loafers.
But, as fashion would have it, in this era of internet shoppers and experience-seekers, shoes just aren't enough.
There is space dedicated to shining and refurbishing shoes, so if you've grown weary of your chocolate Allen Edmonds, they can be stained navy. (Ladies, this also holds true for your Christian Louboutins.)
Hidden behind the dressing rooms is a full bar To plans to make a man-friendly event space he'll call a speakeasy. (Think bachelor parties and boys' nights out.)
"I had to diversify," he said about his new concept store, an expanded version of his 1,000-square-foot space at 19th and Ludlow. "I wanted to create a neighborhood space Philadelphians could be proud of … and I didn't want it to be full of runway brands."
The concept of a concept store is in no way new. In fact, by offering a wide variety of lifestyle products — from candles to coffee-table books — successful women's shops like Anthropologie, Joan Shepp, and Bryn Mawr's Kirna Zabete have been able to stay relevant in a cluttered post-recession retail space.
What's ironic is that the same forces that are causing women's fashion to fight for its brick-and-mortar life — our addiction to online shopping, the never-ending search for individuality, shopping for purpose over sport, and a demand for better customer service — is what's fueling menswear's retail growth. That's because the way menswear is bought and sold creates an experience that results in good, personal service.
Retailers we once considered too big to fail, like Ann Taylor, Michael Kors, BCBG — and, shoot, even Payless — have spent the first half of the year announcing store closings. And, sadly, our city's favorite independents — Knit Wit, Coeur, and, most recently, Third Street Habit — have bowed out of the game.
"My little retail model had become a bit of a relic," Third Street's owner, January Bartle, recently wrote me in a Facebook instant message.
At the same time, Walmart bought Bonobos — a menswear showroom/retail space in Center City and King of Prussia — for $310 million. And a little more than a week ago, on the same day ToBox celebrated its new Chestnut Street location, Philadelphia Eagle Malcolm Jenkins officially opened his made-to-measure men's store, Damari Savile.
"Men have been starving for this for a while," said To. "They want custom, custom, custom. It's their time."
To, 49, definitely seized his time.
In the mid-1980s, when he was 14, To arrived in New York from Vietnam. In the following decade, he moved to Philadelphia and attended Temple University for one year before leaving to take a job in the women's shoe department at the then-new Nordstrom in King of Prussia Mall.
It was a time of label-conscious shoppers and discretionary income, so with his innate knack for matching women with the shoes of their dreams, he was a top seller. A few years later, he began working in the men's department. And even though the shoes at the time were pretty boring (except for sneakers, of course), To worked his way up to assistant manager, then manager, and ultimately to regional manager and Northeast men's buyer for Nordstrom. During those years, he commuted from his Berwyn home to the department store's northeast headquarters in Paramus, N.J.
In 2009, and so finished with the commute, To took a job as a buyer in the Boyds men's shoe department. And, in 2013, just as young, well-dressed men were starting to move beyond pocket squares to bespoke, he decided to open ToBox. The name was a play on his last name, his desire to think outside the box, and an actual toe box — the part of a shoe that covers and protects the toe.
"I figured I had all of the connections," To said. "I worked with the factories, I knew the vendors, and I wanted a space that was friendly to local designers."
ToBox's first spot started with only men's shoes, many from Italian designers. But after a series of well-placed pop-ups, charity events, a robust Instagram account, and relationships with local athletes including Eagles Jenkins, Brandon Brooks, and Najee Goode, his business grew.
Last year, shortly after Seun Olubodun closed Duke & Winston, To decided to go for the bigger space. And this month, after a year and more than $100,000 of remodeling, the new ToBox is open, with prices starting at about $250. Later this year, To hopes to open a shop-within-a-shop dedicated to the Italian leather accessories brand Scarpe di Bianco.
"Why would a client want to shop with me? How do I challenge myself?" To asked. "How do I get people to shop and hang out at my store? I think I'm coming pretty close to figuring it out."