This article originally appeared in the Dry Cleaning Institute "Fabricare" magazine, November 2012
Bruce Gershon's grandfather, Joseph, started Gershon Tailor Shop in Kansas City, Mo., in 1914. Through nearly 100 years and three generations of ownership and a gradual shift in focus to more wholesale and specialty cleaning work, the family business - then known as Arrow Cleaners & Dyers, Inc .- has prided itself on quality.
Joseph Gershon's middle son, Mel, worked in the business on-and-off when not pursuing his first callings, chemical, and mechanical engineering and inventing. Mel's tinkering produced a patent on the first foam rubber press pad, as well as other innovations that were adopted without fanfare by major manufacturers, according to family legend. After serving in World War II, Joseph's youngest son, Bob Gershon, joined the business, and became an early Kirk's Suede-Life licensee in the mid-1950s, when Arrow began to hone its leather-cleaning skills. After his father died in an automobile accident in 1963, Bob became sole owner.
Arrow's business was largely retail and focused on high-end dry cleaning until Bob's son, Bruce Gershon joined the business in the early 1970s. "I started doing more with the wholesale arena," Bruce Gershon says. "I started with servicing local cleaners, and then leather manufacturers and soliciting them to recommend Arrow. We wanted to let them know that there was someone who could clean leather."
At one point, a manufacturer sent Arrow several black-and-yellow lambskin jackets as a test. "They thought they would send us something impossible," Gershon says. After sending them back without any color bleed, "he started putting our label in them" - as did many stylish brands of the era, including Ralph Edwards Sportswear, In Transit, and Begedor Italia. "Our growth was accelerating, and part of it was national growth," he says. "We were right in the middle of the country, which was good for servicing mail order. Once manufacturers understood what we had to offer, they would recommend us to stores, and they, in turn, would recommend us to their customers."
Another big breakthrough happened in 1993 after Bruce Gershon had visited the New York office of Ralph Lauren. The all-American clothing company was looking to capitalize on a growing trend for vintage apparel, and one of the people in the meeting later called Gershon. "He said, 'This is going to sound crazy, but I want to come and work with you for a couple of weeks,'" Gershon recalls. “‘We’re going to make a vintage clothing line, and I want to replicate these leathers and make them look old.'"
Antiquing leather garments turned into a year-long project, with Arrow inventing techniques on-the-spot. "They turned out incredible," Gershon says. 'We found a rock that's indigenous to Missouri, and took old laundry tumblers and filled them with these rocks to tumble the leathers. Then we had to have new baskets made, because the rocks were too heavy for the tumblers. Necessity was the mother of invention."
Arrow ultimately produced 12 styles of vintage leather garments and more than 20,000 individual items. The company moved on to jeans, inventing additional processes to produce more than 450,000 pairs of stone-washed and antiqued jeans. "The year after we ended our project, manufacturing went to China and they tried to replicate the things we were doing," Gershon says. "They could never figure some things out, including our patented denim antiquing, but a patent means nothing over there."
Arrow still operates its retail business and routes out of its main 26,000-sq.-ft. plant, and also performs fire restoration, reweaving, and luxury French laundry service. The company recently bought out a drapery cleaner, getting all of its equipment and added a new facility with 22,000 more square feet of space. But its commitment to a range of quality cleaning services and customers large and small has never been stronger.