End of a Shepparton menswear era

By John Lewis

Plans to close Matt O'Keeffe Mensland in Shepparton's Maude St Mall will bring to an end 64 years of family-run menswear retailing in the city. JOHN LEWIS spoke to Brendan O'Keeffe about his father Matt's legacy and the revolving door of men's fashion.

Brendan O'Keeffe stands among rows of coloured shirts, slimline pants and narrow leather belts all neatly arranged and labelled according to size and price. Pairs of fine leather dress shoes are balanced for display on boxes.

Only a big red sign with white lettering that shouts SALE everything 1/2 Price indicates anything unusual.

Brendan is about to end more than six decades of dressing Shepparton men in sensible, good quality, affordable clothing — a tradition begun by his late father Matt who opened his Shepparton menswear shop in Gray's Arcade, High St in 1956.

The shorts era - Brendan O'Keeffe with menswear styles of the 1980s.

In 1956, Robert Menzies was Prime Minister, Prince Phillip opened the Melbourne Olympic Games, men wore sports jackets and trilby hats and all was right with the world.

When Brendan joined his father in 1977 things were a bit different.

“The ‘70s were a terrible fashion decade — huge flares. I had these really high heels — I was six-foot-one when I wore them,” Brendan says.

Nevertheless, the 1970s and following decades were boom times for Matt O'Keeffe menswear.

“We were selling so much more stock,” Brendan says.

“The ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s were really good years.

Brendan O'Keeffe worked with his dad Matt for 15 years - learning the trade and building the business until Matt's death in 1992.

“We had five full-time staff and it wasn't that expensive to run a business. Wages weren't that high, there wasn't much WorkCover or superannuation.

“Prices were the same as your K marts and Targets — but people came to us because of the service.”

Brendan was lucky enough to learn from, and work with, his father for 15 years before Matt died in 1992.

So when online shopping hit the bottom line of bricks and mortar stores in the 2000s, Brendan was ready.

Shepparton News articles from the late 1950s and early 1960s featured Matt O'Keeffe and his menswear store.

He knew the giant retailers are like big ships and would take a while to turn around and respond to market demands.

“Suit fashion changes very quickly, and that's something we're good at.

“We jumped into that about 10 to 15 years ago and changed the business from a general menswear store into more formal attire.

“We've had a really good 10 years because of that.”

But kitting out blokes for weddings, valedictory dinners, debutante balls and funerals comes with unique challenges.

“The ones that come in on a Friday with plans to get married on Saturday — they get your attention, and they put the pressure on a bit.

“Or someone comes in and says we've hired a suit but they stuffed up — can you help us out? That's happened a few times.”

Kim and Brendan O'Keeffe will close the family business after 64 years.

Brendan says he's been lucky to have worked with great staff.

“Your staff and the relationship you have is crucial.

“Personalised, friendly customer service has always been the culture of the business, as well as quality affordable clothing.

“I believe that is why our customers supported the business for so many years.”

Brendan also paid tribute to the support of his wife Kim — whose keen online business talent has complemented his own real-world skills.

"She's rarely worked in the business on the floor, but she has worked on the business and helped me along the way,” he says.

To prove his point, Brendan sends his wife off to help a customer who has just walked in, attracted by the big SALE sign.

“This'll be interesting. She's never had any real training,” Brendan says under his breath.

Of course, Kim's natural charm wins over the elderly customer and he continues browsing.

Brendan says while COVID-19 restrictions had undoubtedly hit suit sales, it's not the reason for the shop's closure.

“I decided in the middle of last year, before COVID arrived, that it was a good time to go.

“When you're debt-free your mind changes and you think, do I really need to work six days a week?”

Brendan O'Keeffe will end 64 years of family menswear retailing when his Maude St Mall store Matt O'Keeffe Mensland closes.

At 62 Brendan is looking forward to more cycling, perhaps a bed and breakfast property, and seeing his two daughters more often.

Kim thanks the Shepparton community and their customers for their support over the years.

“It's the end of an era, it's been a successful business and it's been good to us,” she says.

Brendan fondly remembers the man who started it all.

“I am so very proud of my dad, and people still mention him to this day,” he says.

After shutting up shop, Brendan and Kim will lease out the building to a "national brand" the name of which will be announced soon.

“We're excited for the new changes coming to the mall and we hope it continues to be successful,” Kim says.

Matt O'Keeffe Mensland's retirement sale starts Wednesday with between 50 per cent and 70 per cent off everything.

Roll up for a wide variety of bargain shirts and pants in sensible and affordable styles — but flares are out this year.