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JewishJournal.com

March 21, 2002

Clothes Call

The man behind Sacks SFO speaks candidly about the ups and downs of retail.

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/clothes_call_20020322

There was a time when the retail clothing industry was thriving.

"In the '80s, my customers spent almost 8 percent of their disposable income on clothing," said David Sacks, owner of Sacks SFO apparel stores.

However, time and a change in consumer habits have eroded this reality. Over the last decade, Sacks, 53, has had to close several of his outlets. He watched his retail miniempire dwindle from 20 stores nationwide to two local outlets: one in Studio City (12021 Ventura Blvd.) and a new location in Culver City (9608 Venice Blvd.).

"We're going back to our roots," Sacks said. From the onset, Sacks' intention was accessibility.

"My mission goal is to provide people who work for common jobs to dress in uncommon wardrobe," Sacks said. "To make a guy who makes $30,000 dress like a guy who makes $100,000. I'm very value-driven, not label-driven. I don't care what labels I stock, as long as they look good and are of good value for my customers."

That accessibility is not only found in the merchandise sold. It also extends to Sacks himself, who runs a hands-on business, where he enjoys schmoozing with his customers at his stores.

"I've never been in it for the money," he said. "I didn't want to work for someone else, but I don't want to lose money. My employees will see a raise before I do."

Sacks retreated into a back office, where he offered what he jokingly calls "my Horatio Algerstein story" -- the origins of a hometown boy who grew up in a Conservative kosher home in Cheviot Hills and attended Hamilton High School and UCLA.

Sacks' parents met at Indiana University. His mother, of Lithuanian descent, came from a well-to-do family that ran a department store in Terre Haute, Ind. His father, of Romanian and Ukrainian heritage, put himself through medical school selling sandwiches. He moved his wife to Los Angeles, where he became a prominent pathologist and later built the pathology department laboratory at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Sacks was something of a rebel during his school days.

"I went before the principal for buying candy and selling it on campus," Sacks said.

That was in the second grade. A few years later, when the new pennies were released in 1959, Sacks made some pocket money selling two pennies for a nickel. By the fifth grade, he was winning poker games.

"I didn't need an allowance again," Sacks said. "I was lending money to my brother [Phillip Sacks, now practicing general dentistry in Woodland Hills]."

During the 1960s, Sacks continued hustling.

"I sold unreleased Bob Dylan recordings before bootleg tapes were deemed illegal."

Then Sacks became a phlebotomist, one who draws blood for transfusions.

"That was rather boring," he said.

The boredom ended the day when he accompanied his bridge partner downtown to the garment district. Sacks convinced a supplier to give him a dozen items to sell. Sacks sold them off his arm in office buildings.

"I was originally thinking of calling it 'Lost on Horizon,'" Sacks said, referring to the original Horizon Street location of his first store, next to the Sidewalk Cafe on the Venice Beach boardwalk.

But instead, he called his clothing outlet Sacks Fifth Off, and Saks Fifth Avenue didn't share his amusement. After two years of legal wrangling, an agreement was reached between the two parties, and the chain's current moniker, Sacks SFO, was born.

Twenty-five years later, Sacks now resides with his wife, Nikki, in Cheviot Hills. He has two grown children -- Anthony, 26, a technical theater apprentice, and Andrew, 24, a substitute teacher.

A few years back, Sacks started a Giver's Club, giving customers a 10-percent discount off of store items in exchange for clean clothing donations. The donated clothing goes to shelters that help battered women and AIDS hospices.

Sacks takes the clothing business in stride.

"I never had the foresight or the money to buy the buildings. My last big downsize came after the Northridge earthquake," said Sacks, who had already been stung by the Los Angeles riots.

Despite its ups and downs, Sacks wouldn't trade his experience for anything.

"The best part is that I've made friends with people all around the world," Sacks said. "It's an immigrant's business. People are very bright, but may not have formal education. I've met people from every continent, and every religion."

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