When he dons his white lab coat with the words “Clothes Doctor” embroidered on one side of the chest, Ken Rimell projects an extra level of professionalism on behalf of Marquard’s Cleaning, a St. Louis-area drycleaning company he co-owns with his brother Steve.
He often refers to his garments as “patients” and he definitely practices more than a little patience with the attention to detail he applies to every garment that makes it on his operating table. Most arrive in critical condition, oftentimes victims of fires or floods and in dire need of salvaging.
“I take it very personally,” Ken admitted. “They get mad at me sometimes at the store because I’m not really interested in what it costs. I just want to get it done right. That’s a fault I have.”
While his employees might
“I should charge more, yes, but I find it a great marketing tool when you are able to do those things because the customers will tell many people,” he said. “I want that to happen… to be the place to go to and I think we’ve created that.”
While Ken doesn’t possess an actual medical degree, he is armed with two Bachelor of Science degrees in Chemistry and Zoology.
He has also spent most of his life learning to remove stains and repair damaged garments. It’s all part of an ongoing effort to maintain Marquard’s commitment to visual perfection and impeccable quality on every finished item.
In the beginning, the company was founded in 1931 by John Marquard, a man who started the tradition of quality. He insisted on handling every item personally.
“John Marquard originally went door to door to solicit business,” Ken explained. “He actually took great pride in that he marked in and examined every garment that went through here. That way he could put the proper instructions on them. He knew exactly what should be done with every piece.”
Rimell’s family entered the picture in the 1950s when his father, Harvey, began working with Marquard. Harvey had begun working in the industry at a very early age.
“His father passed away when he was about 13 and he became the breadwinner of his family,” Ken explained.
Harvey wanted to be a businessman. Eventually, he figured out how, but he had to stretch the truth a little.
“He bought a drycleaners knowing very little about it. His mother thought she was signing papers for a loan to let him get into Washington University when, in fact, she was signing papers for a loan so they could get this little store down in the city,” Ken said.
The family owned Rimell Cleaners, which worked for a while. Harvey worked with his brother Albert, but the two often did not see eye-to-eye in business matters. Eventually, they parted ways and Harvey teamed up with John Marquard who sold him Marquard’s outright in the 1960s.
Harvey Rimell was a spotting whiz, having learned the art at a young age from a man who sold stain removal chemicals. He did have one disadvantage, though.
“My father was colorblind and he was recognized as, really, the best spotter in the St. Louis area,” Ken noted. “I would stand at the board (when I could just barely see the board) and he would ask me what color something was and what this did to that color.”
Ken’s father worked out a system and he passed along his knowledge to his son, who spent many long hours at the plant while growing up.
“My first job was to clean toilets and not complain about it,” he said. “I’d clean the muck out of the filters... pretty much the worst jobs you could choose, not to punish me, but just to understand that you have to earn your way up.”
Despite an in-depth drycleaning education, Ken still chose to study chemistry and zoology in college and worked in a central testing lab for General Motors in Michigan. While he enjoyed analyzing things, he missed socializing with people. Late in the 1960s, he realized he could do both at Marquard’s.
It wasn’t long before Harvey turned over the restoration portion of the business to Ken. It turned out to be a good fit and an even better learning experience.
“There’s a great advantage of being in the fire restoration end to experiment with things because the pieces, unless you can salvage them, are already destroyed,” Ken said.
He enjoyed tinkering with different temperatures and chemical combinations to see which formulas worked best for each fabric and garment type. Some jobs were more interesting than others.
“A gentleman had shot a bengal tiger legally in the 1930s and still had it on the floor. He said, ‘What can you do with this?’” Ken recalled. “Being a bit of a risk-taker, I knew how not to harm it. I pretty well knew how to clean it by common sense methods. We took it out and we cleaned the skin and brushed it and polished it (for want of a better word). He was thrilled with it.”
The job consisted of more than solving puzzles in an experimental environment, however; it also required a delicate balance of communicating with customers who were often emotionally compromised.
In fact, Ken periodically works now as a CEC instructor on a course of his own design called “The Emotional Dynamics of Fire Restoration.” In the past 20 years, he has taught over 50 classes to insurance agents and adjusters on the subject.
“To me, if you talk to a psychologist or psychiatrist, you’ll find that the greatest addiction that any human being has is significance. They want to feel significant,” he explained. “They’re not really interested in how tired I am or how late the hour is or that I’ve had a rough day. My job is to show them that they’re the only thing I’m interested in.”
A big reason Ken is able to understand the perspective of those who have dealt with a devastating fire is that he has gone through the experience himself. In 2000, his 10,000 sq. ft. restoration facility burned down.
“A light bulb from a ballast went falling into the floor and bounced into something. It was just a freak accident. It set some pillows on fire,” he said. “You can imagine with that many textiles from that many families… it was an inferno. I wanted to get into the building and do something, but there just wasn’t anything I could do.”
Within two weeks after the accident, the Rimells were back in business relying on rental properties.
“It took all of the imagination in the world… warehousing and putting up racks. We were pretty much 24-7,” Ken said.
In time, the restoration facility returned, although with an additional 2,000 square feet. Still, Ken never forgot the lesson he learned from the fire.
“When I walk into a home, I’m able to say to someone, ‘I know how you feel. We were out of our place for 18 months and 200 families were affected.’ I have a tremendous amount of empathy because we have been there,” he said.
While the restoration side is back up and running today, Ken and his brother Steve have put back a lot of emphasis on the retail drycleaning side of Marquard’s. Like their father and uncle before them, they don’t always agree on every business matter, but the brothers have found a solution.
“I love my brother to death, but we don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, so we have a consultant that we use and that works out quite well,” he said.
About seven years ago, an adamant female customer kept calling Marquard’s seeking to speak with a specific person but she did not know his name. Eventually, she called him the clothes doctor. Since then, Ken adopted the moniker.
“My brother had a picture taken of me in a lab coat and I began to wear it,” Ken said. “We put a sign up front. Every Saturday from 11 o’clock until 2 p.m., people bring in strange pieces and I discuss with them in person.”
He added the “Clothes Doctor” name to his business cards, along with his cell phone number, so people can contact him with garment emergencies anytime. Most of the time he meets people at Marquard’s, but he’s also willing to make house calls.
The persona has really caught the imagination of the public. He’s been invited to appear on a few television shows to discuss things like avoiding oxidizing stains and not rubbing spots deeper into fabric.
“I really believe it gives a bit of professionalism. It’s worked well,” he said. “It’s so hilarious when real doctors and physicians walk in, they say, ‘Doc, how are you today?’”
If the reaction seems over the top to outsiders, it’s only because people might not understand Marquard’s high-end niche market where some customers refer to their expensive and fashionable clothing as their “babies.”
“We don’t give receipts at the counter,” Ken noted. “They just lay their clothes there — Sam Cavato suits, Prada, Versace, Valentino. They just leave their clothes there and they come get them when they’re done. That level of trust has been built up over many years of producing what is a very superior product.”
Such service has helped Marquard’s earn the title of “Most Trusted Drycleaner” in the region for five years running, a source of pride for Ken.
“Our mantra is each customer must know that we care more about customer service and proper care of their fine garments than anyone else.”