15 September 2023

Ken Nash recalls 50 years of Goulburn's menswear industry

| John Thistleton
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After 50 years in the menswear business, Ken Nash, who retired in 2021, says the quality of clothing and personal service have left the industry. Photo: John Thistleton.

For more than 70 years the name Nash has been synonymous with menswear retailing in Goulburn. Brothers Len and Perce Nash began their business after returning from six years of service in World War II. Len was a pilot and Perce was a sergeant in New Guinea. They hailed from the southern side of the Murray River at Yarrawonga.

Perce met and married Una Wright from Marulan who was working in munitions in Sydney, while Len married Dot Gillet of Goulburn.

Moving to Goulburn, the brothers first ran the Trims department store where the Paragon Cafe stands today before opening Len Nash Menswear opposite the Hibernian Hotel.

When Len retired Perce opened his own shop in Goldsmith Street, where his son Ken joined him in 1971, in the final years of quality Australian manufacturing, when every man wore a suit and hat.

“They all dressed up to go down the street in their nice woollen suits, tailored shirt and tie and Akubra hat,” Ken said. “I remember my uncle Len and Dad had about 200 hats right up the side wall of the shop.

“All our suits came out of Melbourne, the home of fashion,” he said. “We had all the colours, the checks, plains, stripes, whatever you wanted, beautiful wool suits,” he said.

The Nashes measured their customer and engaged a tailor to make their suits.

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“Everyone wanted to look dapper and they did, they all had quality clothing,” Ken said.

Typical of the Australian-made quality were the Akubra hats which they bought directly from the manufacturer at Kempsey.

“Everything was Aussie-made from top fabrics, it was 90 per cent Australian, now that’s turned around and [the clothes] are 90 per cent from offshore. It is just rag, cheap cotton, they cut them out with an axe, there’s no shape, no tailoring,” he said.

Perce and Len took pride in correctly measuring their customers, all of whom were known to them personally. It was something drummed into Ken from the word go.

“Number one is customer service,” he said. “Whatever you were doing, if someone came in you would look after them, talk to them, have a yarn. We used to see customers down the street and acknowledge them. That is one thing that has always stuck in our minds. My dad and uncle knew everybody because we were in the public eye.”

All in cardigans in 1958, Perce Nash (centre) Len Nash (right) and staff member Jim Arena at work at Len Nash menswear, at the time located at 302 Auburn Street, Goulburn. Photo: Nash family collection.

Having that profile meant they were always at work, even when they would close up and go to the Empire Hotel or Golf Club for a beer. “Nashy, have you got any Levis that would fit me?” a customer would ask him. “Good, I’ll come and pick them up tomorrow.”

A big part of their trade came from the man on the land, wearing dungarees and Akubra hat.

Ken said the relationship side of the industry, knowing how to measure a man and remember his size began to subside when Australian manufacturing began to wane under the weight of cheap clothing from overseas.

After Perce retired in 1980, Ken took over as the shopping strip along Auburn Street began to change. The blue ribbon retailing block opposite the Post Office and Town Hall lost its premier standing to a new shopping mall opening on the site of the former Phillip Court Hotel two blocks away.

The era of speciality shops, like the Nashes and Sid Laws, were under threat from bigger department stores like Kmart. “People wanted the bottom-end price,’’ he said.

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“I kept the business going until 1987 and then Greg Allen asked me to come and join them [Allens clothing store],” Ken said. “If you cannot beat them, join them, so I did and was there for 19 years.”

A good fit for Allens, Ken was well known and competent in buying stock with the essential skill of picking what customers wanted and ordering from the manufacturers a year in advance.

He was soon second in charge, and then manager, overseeing about 30 staff. He did so from the floor rather than retreating to an office and poring over figures and filing reports. The paperwork had to wait until after hours. Customers came first.

Perce Nash during World War II while serving in New Guinea. Photo: Nash family collection.

When Harris Scarfe acquired all Allens stores Ken left for Goulburn Country Workwear for 17 years, working for Jim Hughes, but never lost touch with his customers.

“Everyone would come in and say, ‘Where’s Nashy? He knows what size I am’. I wouldn’t even have to get the (measuring) tape out. That’s just the way it was,” Ken said.

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The good old days. Some owner operated country stores still give good service. Not so much the cities.

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