Mirror, Mirror: Mettlers American Mercantile focuses on homegrown talent with homemade products

Robert and Jan Chevalier opened the Mettlers American Mercantile store in 2012. "We are about curating a collection of great things made in America," said Robert Chevalier of the Phila. store, which includes high-end curios as well as clothing. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Robert and Jan Chevalier opened the Mettlers American Mercantile store in 2012. "We are about curating a collection of great things made in America," said Robert Chevalier of the Phila. store, which includes high-end curios as well as clothing. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 17, 2014

In a world where most J. Crew cashmere sweaters, Banana Republic khakis, and Nautica polos are made overseas, putting together an all-American look made all in America can be all but impossible.

Enter Mettlers American Mercantile.

At the men's and women's specialty store, everything - and we mean everything - is made in America. And the racks of tattersall plaid shirts, tables of folded denim, and mannequins in flowing eyelet blouses or one-of-a-kind leather motorcycle jackets is right on fashion point, too - far from corny and outdated.

But it's more than the store's Lilly Pulitzer-meets-Ralph Lauren vibe that drew me to peek into every nook and cranny of the 2,500-square-foot, lemon-scented store.

I was taken by the endless supply of high-end bric-a-brac and art - from varsity letters and vintage storage trunks, to oil paintings of landscapes by Roland Renaud and a 4-foot sailboat model.

"We are about curating a collection of great things made in America," said Robert Chevalier, who along with his wife, Jan, opened the Philadelphia Mettlers in November 2012. "In the time we've been open, we've gotten more vendors, and there has been much more made-in-America interest. Everybody is jumping on the bandwagon."

The Chevaliers are well-known in Philadelphia's business circles for CFI, their corporate firm that outfits companies such as Comcast with sleek, modern furniture.

Design is in their blood, yes. But like many postrecession fashion entrepreneurs, the Chevaliers weren't drawn to retail because of the glitz, glam, and runway. Although Jan, 54, fancies herself a fashionista, this was strictly a good opportunity. Two years ago, Michigan-based retailer Lou Mettler asked Robert to go into business with him.

"We put this all together in a matter of weeks," said Robert Chevalier, 67, looking around at his store that's housed, along with CFI, in the deconsecrated Church of the New Jerusalem, a 19th-century Swedenborgian abbey. "The idea was that this would be fun for me."

On the other hand, Mettler, once co-owner of Tommy Bahama and proprietor of several Florida Ralph Lauren stores, is a fashion veteran. In the business since 1975, Mettler took some time off to take a stab at the real estate industry in the early 2000s. Then he opened the first Mettlers in 2009 in Charlevoix, Mich.

Mettler gravitated toward made-in-America mainly because he was tired of dealing with fashion conglomerates that required large orders to help them make manufacturing minimums. He also had no interest in selling big brands in his store because of competition from discounters. Why carry Ralph Lauren when Macy's carried it on sale?

So he decided to look for unique, well-made items by American artisans. Customers caught on. Mettler made a profit his first year in business, and sales have increased 25 percent each year since.

There are other factors at play when it comes to Mettlers' success. More designers like Brent Celek, the Philadelphia Eagle with a line of leather accessories called Revist, and Blue Claw Co., with its grouping of rugged handbags, are building brand loyalty with good-quality items. Also, lagging employment here and tragedies in Third World manufacturing plants pushed shoppers to consider where things are made. If jobs and ethical treatment were important to them, they gravitated toward the made-in-the-USA tag.

While the Mettlers Michigan stores are all near lakes and mostly sell resort wear, the Philadelphia store is geared toward the seasoned businessperson in their casual - but chic - off-hours.

The collection of tailored yet colorful clothing seems to be selling well. Within the first year, Robert said, sales exceeded half a million dollars.

The Chevaliers shop in High Point, N.C., for furniture and peruse the Las Vegas and New York markets for apparel. It's getting easier to find designers, Jan said, but it's still tough sourcing knits and outerwear.

Don't think made-in-America is the only attribute the couple looks for. For example, recently a salesperson from Jacob Davis - named for the tailor who was the first to use copper rivets to reinforce seams and pockets on jeans - stopped by so the Chevaliers might carry a line of selvage denim. Slam dunk, right? Nope. The jeans featured a button fly - a hard sell to the older business executive.

Despite the difficulty of the hunt, they are able to fill their store with unique goods. And the stories behind the brands - like Armstrong & Wilson, the Philadelphia-based pocket square makers, or Reading-based Bills Khakis - have American entrepreneurship at their core.

"What we've seen in fashion - especially when it comes to young people - is very encouraging," Robert said. "We want to encourage them. They have the passion. We have the outlet.


Mettlers American Mercantile,  2129 Chestnut St. Information:  215-587-2129 or www.mettlersamerica.com.


ewellington@phillynews.com

215-854-2704

@ewellingtonphl

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