Good Life

3rd-generation clothier tailors timelessness with something new

Brian Cohen, owner of Harper’s, stands for a portrait on Dec. 23 inside of his West College Avenue store.
Brian Cohen, owner of Harper’s, stands for a portrait on Dec. 23 inside of his West College Avenue store.

Brian Cohen, a third-generation clothier, wears many suits as the owner of Harper’s in State College.

Even the figurative jumpsuit.

“There are plenty of days when I’m the janitor,” he said, laughing. “When you run your own business, you really do a bit of everything.”

It runs in the family. The downtown custom tailor and menswear store celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2016. Year 91 will bring a new store, a reintroduction of women’s apparel and several new stitches in the fashion industry. But suiting up remains timeless, Cohen said, a staple of men’s closets since Cohen’s grandfather, Joe, opened the then Young Men’s Shop in the time of speakeasies and slicked hair.

After merging Jack Harper’s State College fixture with his grandfather’s old shop in 2000, Cohen has seen sartorial savoir faire shift into the digital space. But when getting a bespoke suit, he said, nothing beats walking into a shop, getting fitted and meeting with your friendly neighborhood tailor.

“When a guy comes in and looks at a suit, we measure them and then we find the garment that’s right,” he said. “When you get the fit down, then you can talk about what you want.”

In the current store, tape measures stand in for tinsel during the holidays. They hang by folders of fabric and sharp cuts from places, such as Italy and Canada. Cohen, who travels to menswear shows to plan each season, said Harper’s will soon carry a line from Sweden.

Cosmopolitan, yet a hometown favorite, Harper’s dresses everyone from recent grads to working professionals, some of whom come back after leaving for bigger and better things.

“Even with a college kid, with the experience they have, they come back as an alumnus,” Cohen, 53, said. “We get all different ages in our store.”

Q: What went into the decision to move into the new store?

A: In my retail career watching my father and my grandfather before me, I’ve noticed that they always kept improving their store. From their original location in downtown Altoona in 1926, they’ve remodeled that store multiple times. Then they moved to a new location a couple blocks away from that store when I was 10. Then they moved again. So I’ve always seen progress in our business, whether when we built the store on Calder Way to when my father opened the store here to when we merged in 2000, and then I remodeled it again four years ago. So I think having that opportunity to move to a new space and create that new environment is good for us.

Q: What does it feel like being in the family business for all your life?

A: It’s pretty cool. My grandparents were fantastic. I worked with both my mom and dad for a long time before they got out of the business. And I’m fortunate that I had grandparents and parents who all worked together well.

Q: How does your style, either business or fashion-wise, differ from or remain similar to your parents and grandparents?

A: I think I have a lot of the same things they have. My grandfather was a real man of the town. Even though the store was called “Young Men’s Shop” in Altoona, they all said, “I’m going down to Joe’s.” Nobody ever called him “Mr. Cohen.” It was always “Joe.” I relate to both my grandfather and father in that way.

Q: What do you like to wear?

A: I like wearing tailored clothing. Today I’m kind of casual because afterward my son and I are going to a Penn State basketball game. A lot of my suits are custom suits. So I like that aspect of picking fabrics, matching the lining, thinking about what shape I want the garment, how I want the lapel, button details and so on. Which when you’re making a garment for yourself, you can do. Once a guy does a custom garment, he almost never wants to look at pre-made clothes off the rack again.

Q: Do you have a favorite suit?

A: Right now I like wearing a blue windowpane suit that I made.

Q: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

A: I think it’s working with people. My father would always say “products are secondary, it’s all about people.” And I think he’s totally right.

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy