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Dhanji Patel, Men’s Outfitter

July 9, 2021
by the gentle author

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‘I love my shop,’ declared Dhanji Patel with a beatific smile, standing behind his counter at Omram Menswear in Sicilian Avenue, before confessing ‘sometimes I even come in on Sunday for a couple of hours just to tidy up.’

When I remind you that in Hinduism ‘Om’ is all encompassing, the essence of ultimate reality which unifies everything in the universe, you will appreciate this is a very special shop. Indeed, for the last forty-one years, Dhanji has been coming every day to maintain it in a state of perfection.

Not so long ago, Sicilian Avenue was a favoured destination in which Omram Menswear nestled between the celebrated Onion Cafe and Skoob Books, where I have whiled away more hours than I care to admit. Yet now it is mostly vacant, pending refurbishment by the corporate owners prior to the introduction of upmarket chains, and Dhanji has been given only a few months notice before he must depart.

When I arrived Dhanji was sheltering under an awning, contemplating the rain falling upon the emptiness in Sicilian Avenue. The West End is a quiet place these days and most of the offices are closed.

Despite the melancholy of the circumstance, I was overjoyed to meet Dhanji and encounter his miniature temple to menswear, filled with high quality garments all manufactured by British companies at breathtakingly cheap prices. In a more just world, Dhanji’s tiny shop would be cherished for the charm, the individuality and the civility that it brings to this otherwise soulless corner of Holborn, where traffic clatters past to get to somewhere else.

Once upon a time, Dhanji worked at a menswear shop in Bayswater where – he confided to me – he was too shy to serve the customers and hid in the basement. But this admission only makes his story all the more remarkable, as a testament of success won through hard work, honesty and perseverance.

“In my whole community, I am the only one working in clothing. I am a qualified book-keeper and I can do it really nicely. I live in Harlesden and I come each day to work by bus, it is a forty-five minute ride to Euston and then I walk here to Holborn.

In 1979, I worked for Unique Boutique menswear in Queensway. I was their book-keeper but there was a shortage of staff so they told me to help out in the shop. I was too scared to serve customers, I used to go downstairs when they arrived. I was very shy. I thought I was going to get the sack, but instead I got promotion to chief accountant.

My luck turned and my boss, Mr Mirchandani, was very nice, he said, ‘Please try to serve the customers.’ So when he went away, I used to go on the shop floor and try to sell to customers and I became the top salesman. Once I got used to it, I liked serving customers. Whenever I had any free time in accounts, I went into the shop, tidying up the shirts and jeans. The customers loved me because I was so small. When they came back, they asked for me to serve them! My boss told me I was one of his best salesmen and I was very happy. Even now, my ex-boss comes to see me because he really admires me.

Unique Boutique had quite a few shops until they went into liquidation. My boss told me to go into partnership with the man who ran this shop in Sicilian Avenue, he was my boss’ driver and his name was Manji. We had two shops, here and in Knightsbridge Underground Station but this shop was not doing very well. So then we got another shop, in Leicester Sq Underground Station. Both those shops in stations did well.

After three years, Manji told me he wanted to break the partnership. I agreed, saying ‘Give me one of the good shops and you can have the other two.’ He went to a solicitor but I did not have money to do that, so I ended up with this shop. It was difficult, until one day a gentleman from Double Two Shirts came in and advised me to sell better quality clothes. I grew in confidence with that and attracted more customers too. One day, the chairman of Ben Sherman was having lunch at Spaghetti House in Sicilian Avenue, he came in and told me to open an account with them. From there, trade started picking up. I was doing more business and getting better customers.

It was busy and there were really nice shops in Sicilian Avenue when I came here, a bookshop, a travel agency, a stamp and coin dealer and a regimental tie shop. Now I am longest tenant in the avenue. I love this shop and I have been here forty-one years. I have always paid my rent on time. I had a tough time when I started but I have had good times too. I have the loveliest customers. I have emailed them and they are all upset that I have to go. I do not know much about the internet and all that, so I am looking for somebody who might help me set up an online shop.

I have too much stock because last December before the second lockdown I bought a lot of winter stock, believing that there would not be another lockdown, so I got stuck with a lot of Harris tweed jackets and masonic clothing. Now the landlords are telling me that they want this shop back and it is very difficult for me to get rid of my stock. I cannot fit it all into my home.

The landlords are saying I have to go in August but I am begging them for a couple more months to sell my stock, otherwise what will I do? I am hoping they will be nice and give me time to clear the stock when everyone comes back. There are so many empty shops in the avenue, one has been empty for fifteen years. Hogarth Properties are billionaires so they are not bothered about it, but I do not want to vacate my shop and see it empty for a couple of years while my stock is dead. What can I do? I would love to stay here. I am crying inside.

I have a really nice customer base. I have so many overseas customers – from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Nigeria and Uganda – who are coming to see me in the autumn. I am sending them clothes by post. They are supporting me and trying to help me out, which is really very kind of them.

I love this job and I love talking with my customers. As soon as anyone walks in the door, I can guess their size. They like it and they tell their friends. I want them to feel at home. If the customer is happy, he is going to come back.

Honesty is very important in business. There are certain things which are very cheap in this shop and I will tell the customer ‘This is what it is.’ A regular customer bought some trousers and there was a cheap shirt that he liked, but I told him ‘I had one customer complain that one of those shirts shrank.’ When he came to collect his trousers after alteration yesterday, he said ‘Whether it shrinks or not, I will buy the shirt.’

I do all the alterations myself by hand without a machine. If somebody wants a pair of trousers and they need to be altered, I will do it in half an hour.

My longest standing customer is Prince Apugo of Nigeria, he has visited me three to four times every year since 1982. We have become so friendly and, whenever he comes to London, he has to come to my shop.

A judge from Australia is a good customer of mine. He first came here on a Saturday, at five o’clock fifteen years ago, to buy one shirt from me yet I convinced him to buy another and a suit. After six months, he came back for another six shirts and he told me, ‘I’ve bought so many suits at other places but yours was the best!’ He cannot come to London because of the pandemic, so we have been swapping emails and he ordered £800 worth of things from me recently.

There was a black woman who used to pass my window every day on her way to study at the London School of Economics. One evening at five o’clock I was standing outside and she asked ‘Can I enter the shop?’ She explained she wanted to buy something for her fiancé. When she spoke, I asked her if she was from East Africa and she said ‘Yes.’ So I asked, ‘Which part?’ and she said ‘Uganda.’

I told her I had one of the nicest customers from Uganda. A lovely gentleman who came every year until he passed away. She asked me his name and, when I told her, she started crying. I did not know what was wrong. She said, ‘That was my dad.’ I showed her the handwriting of her father in my order book. She was so surprised. She never knew that her father came to my shop, and now she was in the same shop.”

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‘As soon as anyone walks in the door, I can guess their size’

‘If somebody wants a pair of trousers altered, I will do it in half an hour’

Omram Menswear, 5 Sicilian Avenue, Off Southampton Row, London, WC1A 2QH

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18 Responses leave one →
  1. Georgina Briody permalink
    July 9, 2021

    I’m so sorry to hear Dhanji’s shop must close in Sicilian Avenue, again another unique shop and owner gone. I have known Sicilian Avenue since the 1960s and remember the lovely, individual shops there, buying a necklace in the jewellers when I first started work in 1965 and which I still have!!

    Saddens me to hear about the action of the landlords and that many of the shops remain empty.

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    July 9, 2021

    This is really sad – his lovely and much loved shop is exactly the sort of thing which makes London special. And my heart sinks whenever I hear the words ‘upmarket corporate chains’…

    I do hope that the landlords give him the extra time to sell his excess stock, and that someone can help him take his shop on line. It would be even better if it could be done in such a way that Dhanji could interact virtually with his customers so that he could still use his special sizing and selling skills to everyone’s advantage.

    Good luck Dhanji!

  3. July 9, 2021

    I know the shop and having been working in th film industry as a costume designer since ‘Don’t Look Now’ today feel that such articles as this reveal the deep problem we all face when it comes to finding a voice to protect and nurture a planet which addresses the importance of such stories as this one.

    The films I’m making actually are at least a voice to address why ‘Spitalfield Life’ has led us to this point so discuss further

    Andrea Galer

  4. July 9, 2021

    A beautiful story. Omram Menswear will be an address when I visit London. Thanks for the tip!

    Wonderful anecdote about the nicest customer from Uganda! I wish Dhanji Patel and his shop all the best.

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  5. July 9, 2021

    It is so sad to hear of more corporate greed. I sincerely hope that Mr Patel manages to find the help he needs to get his business on-line. I wish him well for the future.

  6. KeithB permalink
    July 9, 2021

    Put me down for one of those Harris tweed overcoats!

    43″ chest, 34″ waist, 6′ 2″ tall chap.

    I agree with a commenter up the page that major cities are in danger of losing the very things that make them interesting places to be.

    At the strategic level there needs to be some kind of understanding that not all the streets in the centre need to have ‘leading brands’. Just as farmers have recently worked out that it is a really good idea to leave the field edges and corners with rough grass, plants and hedges, so perhaps city centres could have ‘no big development’ zones? Small streets where small businesses can run?

    On a tactical level, I hope that Mr Patel gets an online shop set up and can remain in the business he knows so well.

  7. Meg Howarth permalink
    July 9, 2021

    Interesting to see that Dhanji’s landlord, Hogarth Properties, is recorded Companies House as having been ‘dissolved’ in March this year, and apparently ‘struck off’. Dodgy dealings?

    https://find-and-update.company-information.service.gov.uk/company/01865504

    Wishing all best to Dhanji – what a lovely bloke! Will pop in to his shop very soon.

    Meg Howarth

  8. Cherub permalink
    July 9, 2021

    What a touching story about the lady from Uganda who didn’t know her late father had been a customer. Dhanji seems like a lovely man, I hope he has a secure future.

  9. Milo Bell permalink
    July 9, 2021

    Once more we hear the tale of the corporate fat cat and his stone cold heart. What is wrong with these people? Can’t they see what they are doing? Why don’t they care? How much money do they need? I wish Dhanji all the best and hope someone can help him. I wish i could.

  10. Malcolm permalink
    July 9, 2021

    I’ve bought quite a lot of clothes from Dhanji, his shop is a wonderful, old-fashioned outfitters and he is a lovely man. Always smiling and always helpful. He doesn’t sell rubbish either. His clothes are very good quality and last for years. It is such a shame that shops like his are being erased from London by corporate landlords who care only for profit. Rents in London are disgracefully high and only affordable by the faceless multi-nationals who sell cheap Chinese made tat for high prices. My beloved London has been hollowed out and is now a sad, soul-less place, destroyed by the ugly carbuncles erected by greedy developers, aided and abetted by idiot seagull politicians who make a lot of noise, crap everywhere and then are gone. If I can get into Holborn I’ll definitely be paying Dhanji a visit before he closes forever.

  11. July 9, 2021

    What a lovely man with a delightful story. I sincerely hope that someone steps forward to offer him another shop to continue his life’s love.

  12. Jared permalink
    July 9, 2021

    A wonderful article and a terrible shame that Mr Patel is being obliged to give up his shop. It seems like it has been such a labour of love.
    Be wary of ecommerce companies that will charge an arm and a leg to set up a shop though – it’s actually very inexpensive – if not exactly free then just a couple of hundred pounds to set up.
    I would be happy to help him set up a webshop – I have built several using the WooCommerce platform. It is very straightforward these days and can be managed easily even for one unversed in all things internet.
    By all means put us in touch.

  13. July 9, 2021

    “The end of an era” is a trite phrase — and yet it seems to be just the right phrase here.
    Somehow/somewhere we lost our appreciation for “small”. Insidious advertising has convinced us that bigger is better. Any brand that is omni-present must……surely…….be
    better? Alas. No.
    As we navigate our lives and make choices, let’s recommit to support our local businesses and the intrepid people who put so much individuality into these efforts. The independent book seller. The local coffee stand. The car mechanic. Etc, etc.
    I am so impressed with Mr. Patel, and salute him for his accomplishments — and inspiring
    attitude. And thank you, GA, for always shining a light.

  14. Claire D permalink
    July 9, 2021

    I am so sorry to hear that your shop must close Mr Patel, I hope that your landlords behave with decency and give you a bit more time to sell your stock.
    Best wishes to you for the future.

  15. Ann V permalink
    July 9, 2021

    Corporate greed once again! I sincerely hope that Mr Patel can continue to trade, and no doubt there are people who will help him. This has made me realise once again that we must use our small local independent businesses, as long as we still have them.

  16. July 10, 2021

    For 30 years I have been buying gifts for the men in my family from this delightful small gentleman in his enchanting small shop, and my son has been a customer since he was a teenager – and treated with as much courtesy as if he were a bank manager. Dhanji’s shy smile for every passerby lights up the greyest day, and the fate of his shop is an example of the corporate greed which is sucking variety and interests out of our streets

  17. Cynthia McNair permalink
    July 10, 2021

    So many comments here that I agree with. Corporate facelessness is a blight of society and the soul sucking chains are just as bad. I cannot understand why they want to take the life and soul of an area and make it bland.

    I wish Mr Patel all the best and wish I had known about his shop when I lived in London .

  18. July 11, 2021

    This really is a sad tale. Sicilian Avenue is (was?) a wonderful part of the West End. Mr Patel’s shop sounds great, a real testament to his skills as a shopkeeper and business person. Don’t you just hate what the billionaires are doing to London? (A truly rhetorical in your case, GA).

    The irony of the developer’s ‘upgrade’ is that no one really gives a fig for ‘high end shops’ anymore. Hogarth will be turning in his grave.

    A few years ago, I had the pleasure of a drink and conversation with a curator from the Whitechapel Gallery who said he felt London was ‘Eating itself’. Maybe someone should eat the billionaire property developers?

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