Allan’s Formal Wear, Blue Hill Ave. mainstay, to launch city’s initiative on Legacy businesses

Allan’s Formal Wear owner Allan Edwards – known fondly to all as ‘Mr. Allan’ – shows Mayor Wu around the storage area of the 54-year-old Blue Hill Avenue formal wear shop. Seth Daniel photo

Peddling fruits and vegetables on Blue Hill Avenue in the 1960s for college money, Allan Edwards had dreams that he thought would come true when he was sitting in a university classroom. But after he was told that he wasn’t college material, his dreams instead came true beginning with a set of five three-piece black ensemble tuxedos.

Last Thursday, Mayor Michelle Wu, Segun Idowu, the director of the city’s Economic Development, Inclusion and Opportunity program, and the Edwards family came together on Blue Hill Avenue across from Franklin Park to celebrate the story of the 54-year-old formal wear business, which has outfitted generations of folks from near and far for weddings and proms and other occasions and also to highlight the news that the city has chosen the store’s location to launch its new Legacy Business Program that will run throughout September as a way to identify businesses like Allan’s Formal Wear.

Edwards, his wife Joycelyn, and his successor, his son Hameen, welcomed everyone to the store, where they shared the history of the iconic shop.

“I was in high school [at Boston Tech], and they told me I wasn’t college material,” said Edwards, a native of Monserrat. “I had saved $1,000 for college by selling fruits and vegetables and so I took the money and instead bought five complete black ensembles and five black formal jackets…I bought them in 1966 and registered with the IRS for the business, then kept the suits stored in the closet until I graduated high school. After graduation in 1967, I started the business.”

He recalled how he would keep suits in his mother’s closet in the early days on Geneva Avenue and when he saw people booking a nearby function hall, he would grab the suits and run down to the hall.

“I would stand right there and show them these great new suits and let them know they were for rent if they needed them; that’s how it started,” Edwards said.

The early days in business weren’t easy, he noted, sharing how he would return to his old school to get lunch in between renting suits.

“I had no money in those early days, so for three years after I graduated, I would return to the Boston Tech cafeteria and get my lunch there because it was only 25 cents,” he said. “I couldn’t afford lunch out here.”

Getting the suits was makes for a lively, if racially unfortunate, story. One of Edwards’s friends, Richard West, had the idea for the formal wear business on Blue Hill Avenue, and Allan was ready to run with it. Yet they didn’t know where to get the tuxedos and formal suits they needed. He said they went to a formal wear store and memorized the phone number on the catalog so they could call it later to place an order.

“There was a problem, though,” Edwards recalled: “Richard said I couldn’t call because I had an accent and they would know I was Black and he couldn’t call because they would know he was Black and wouldn’t sell anything to him, either. We knew they wouldn’t detect anything with Richard’s wife, so we gave her the number and she called, and we were able to get the suits.”

Those first ten suits have blossomed over 54 years into hundreds of suits and tuxedos of all sizes, from children’s outfits to stylish ensembles for grown men. Allan and Jocelyn have passed the family business onto the next generation within the family, and it continues to find great success.

In its role as a launching pad for the Legacy Business Program, Allan’s Formal Wear will be one of 25 businesses that have been in operation for more than 10 years in one location that will have access to several resources. The city will form partnerships with external stakeholders to promote each business as well as provide targeted technical assistance with a focus on succession planning and employee ownership, a commercial lease toolkit, and free legal consultation. 

Qualification as a Legacy Business also means that the business is a contributor to the cultural, historical, and societal assets of Boston’s community or neighborhood (e.g., the business is in the Little Saigon cultural district); and that it will maintain its business in the city after being designated.

Ed Gaskin, director of the Grove Hall Main Streets program, said Edwards is a model businessperson in the area because he started something from nothing and stayed on Blue Hill Avenue through tough times.

“He was here in the 1960s when we had the riots and things here were burned down, and he actually stayed,” said Gaskin. “He didn’t retreat to another neighborhood.”

Said Wu, referring to an idea she talked about for legacy operations when she was at-large city councillor: “We need to make sure as the city grows, we are growing around the deep roots of legacy businesses that have got us to this point in our history.”

At the gathering, Idowu produced a photo of himself outfitted in a snazzy white tuxedo, which he said he rented from Allan’s Formal Wear for his junior prom in high school. “This young man has been styling generations of people in Boston more than 50 years now,” he said. “We are here right now to honor that investment in our communities.”

Said State Rep. Liz Miranda, “These immigrant businesses are very important because folks like Mr. Allan are building from the ground up, usually without much but the hustle and hard work they brought with them.”

Edwards said he was proud of his business and thanked his customers from the neighborhood.

“This community was known as the worst community in the state, and nobody would patronize the businesses … but for some reason they patronized Allan’s Formal Wear and we survived,” he said.

The Legacy Business Program will launch on Sept. 6 and nominations will continue through Sept. 30.

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