Les King in gray suit surrounded by family, former employees, customers and friends.
Les King lavishly dressed the bodies, from head to toe, of the famous, rich and famous, the not-so-famous and the infamous since 1968, via his King Shoes, later called Rhetts Men’s Wear. The first, only and last Black business in the plaza at Euclid and Superior in East Cleveland, he said. A retirement party, held last summer, marked his last day in business and brought many faithful customers who reminisced and congratulated King for his many years of maintaining their debonair persona.
“This is the number one clothing store. He’s (King) been dressing us for years. I don’t know what I’m going to do now. There’s nowhere you can find the stylish and colorful hues, matching from head to toe and” said Ron Evans, faithful customer of over 20 years.
A wall covered with photos of former customers include celebrities, Muhammed Ali, Larry Holmes, Charles Oakley, Nelly, Bryant Gumbel and O.J Simpson along with Cleveland dignitaries like former Cavs players Austin Carr and Jim Chones, ex-Browns Reggie Rucker, political icons Carl and Louis Stokes and national recording artist Eddie Levert.
“I sold all the big time men their shoes. They represent Rhett’s tag line, Men of Distinction. Steve Harvey shopped with me in his early years. It shook me up when Ali came sometime in the 70’s. He left his old pair of shoes. Too bad I didn’t have him sign them, a size 13, San Remo brand. A hole in the bottom showed he was a warrior,” said King, as he held Ali’s shoes.
King said he experienced the ups and downs like any other business yet survived mainly by the support from the local, average guy or girl customer, good friends and great family.
King’s offspring, all college graduates, daughters, Kara and Angela and a son, Leslie, nicknamed Rhett, the store’s namesake, East Cleveland Mayor Brandon King, a nephew who Les says is more like a son and the ‘designated hitter’, the late Miles Franklin, Jimmy Fleming, long term employees, RG Newton, Cotton, Derek and Harvey, and many more have aided in the business’ success.
In community involvement, King sponsored little league baseball and bowling teams, contributed to Shaw High School band’s trip to China and some political endeavors.
“I am so proud of my dad for 47 years of excellence as a successful black businessman. He made an important contribution to East Cleveland and I will be forever grateful to everyone who helped support him over these years. He worked hard to ensure that everyone who came to the store felt important. He has a way with people. I was always fascinated by how people gravitated to see him, shop and spend time there chatting it up,” said Kara.
King, who opened the business at age 23, said his dad taught him and his brothers to be entrepreneurs. His father was a shoe dyer in the 1940’s when shoes didn’t come with color.
“It’s emotional. I’ll miss the camaraderie, the neighborhood, and mixing it up with people. But, people are not dressing up like they used to. It’s hard to find second generation guys who want to really look nice, they have their pants dropping,” said King.
“It’s a very sad day. We’re losing a landmark, an icon in Black Cleveland,” said Corey Watson, Watson’s Funeral Home.
The national chain, Pizza Hutt, recently opened in the Men of Distinction’s old spot.