A little more than two years ago, Houston’s fashion and society worlds were forever changed with the sudden passing of Tootsies owner Mickey Rosmarin. The beloved founder’s sudden death in June of 2016 sent shockwaves through the industry; the resounding question, as CultureMap noted at the time, was, “What will Houston's fashion and social scene be like without Mickey?”
And what of his landmark store? While the loss of the gregarious and charismatic Rosmarin has left a void in the society zeitgeist that will never be filled, the good news for fans and devotees of Houston’s most-celebrated fashion house is that Norman Lewis, a 21-year veteran of the store and its president, has recently purchased it from Rosmarin’s heirs.
The sale (for an undisclosed amount) assuages fears of an outside takeover and ensures Tootsies — a 45-year Houston institution with a 25-year presence in Dallas and Atlanta — maintains its status as a true family business.
Fresh off the news of his purchase, Lewis catches up with CultureMap to share his plans for the city’s most celebrated fashion palace.
CultureMap: Congratulations on the purchase, which is obviously very exciting. No doubt Mickey has been on your mind?
Norman Lewis: It’s very exciting. But yes, when I joined Tootsies 21 years ago, I spent most of every day with Mickey learning retail through his eyes and his vision. When he passed away a little over two years ago, it was obviously a huge shock to me — and everybody in the community. We were all devastated.
CM: And scared for the future.
NL: Yes, and the first question was, is the store going to close — what’s going to happen? So, I moved into the role of president of the company upon his passing for a stability situation and to work with everybody and let them know there was a future at Tootsies. For the last two years, I’ve been in that role of taking the business aspects of the company.
CM: You’ve been working on this sale for a while now.
NL: About six months ago, I started into discussions with the heirs and took a committed stance of wanting to purchase the company from them. Obviously one of the options was a national comes in and purchases the company. That was never the intention — one of the motivating reasons was wanting the company to remain family-owned.
CM: You’ve made it clear all along that you’ve had your employees in mind with this purchase.
NL: Obviously, I’ve been in a position where I didn’t have to make this commitment. But in my heart, I felt I had to make the commitment. In my head, I thought, “Gosh, I have a role here that’s meaningful.” But I wanted to step up to that next level because we have such a great team. We have about 140 employees and many, many of them have been here for 30-plus years, in some cases.
CM: What’s something that you learned from Mickey that you’ll take to work with you each day, as owner?
NL: I learned from Mickey what this business really should be about, which is making decisions with the customer in mind and everything they want and need. I believe we’re in a position to do that and provide exceptional experiences for our customers that they’re not getting and may not be getting from other retailers.
Also, opportunities are coming along at a different pace due to the ever-changing world of retail. If Mickey was here — and I wish he were — the way he and I would be dealing with things today would be different than even two years ago because of the pace that retail is evolving.
So, we’re always going to be different, but that’s not due of me or my new role. It’s because Mickey taught everyone here that things need to move forward.
CM: Mickey was a fixture on the society scene. How will you follow that?
NL: I would say I’m not going to follow in Mickey’s footsteps — because those are huge footsteps and no one can replace what he represented and did. My exposure will be more than it has the last 21 years, but I do not see being the one who’s out there at every event.
So, I would say everybody’s not going to see me at every event, like they often did with Mickey [laughs]. But where appropriate, I will be there.
CM: Speaking of events, Tootsies has a stellar reputation for hosting and partnering in key events.
NL: Absolutely. We know that our commitment to giving back to the community by hosting in events in-store or participating in events that are not in-store are an important part of our history and legacy and we will certainly continue to be a great corporate partner out there.
CM: You’re very big on evolution. Can you elaborate?
NL: We’re constantly evolving, coming up with new brands and new looks and new experiences. It’s not like someone’s going to come to Tootsies and think, “This is just the way it was 10 years ago.” We want it to be a new, evolving experience going forward, which is going to keep things fresh and have a lot of people want to be introduced to Tootsies for the first time or to continue their existing relationship with us.
We have a very strong buying team that started when Mickey was here and learned from him. They’re constantly in the marketplaces in New York or LA or Paris or Milan and looking for the latest fashions and trends. That’s happening every day and has been happening every day for the last 45 years in the Tootsies world.
I don’t see a major shift in things, but it’s not going to be the same today as it was yesterday, just through the natural progression of what we needs to go on to be a successful fashion retailer and provide that fashion-conscious woman.
CM: What do you think Tootsies means to Houston?
NL: I think it means longevity. It represents for Houstonians who are young, and not-so-young, a place that they’ve experienced in various stages of their life that was very meaningful to them. I think it will continue to be that — a special place for special events.
But it’s not just about special occasion. It’s about that woman who loves fashion and wants to be fashionable at special events, at work, or at play.