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Gentle - A Look Behind The Scenes

by Caspar Wintermans in Lifestyle & Fashion , 04 september 2012

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

One of the most beautiful shops in Haarlem, a city teeming with beautiful ones, is Gentle, the men’s underwear store in Anegang 25, in the centre of town. The premises date from about 1900. Cotex opened its doors there in 1945. They sold old-fashioned lace corsets — the merchandise was downstairs, the ladies could go upstairs to try on —, but the demand for this breath-taking article decreased, and when in 1988 Elly Koelman took over Cotex, it was clear to hear that things should change.

Elly owned a women’s underwear shop, Jolie, that has been flourishing in the same street for almost thirty years now. She decided to transform her new business into a “male counterpart,” Gentle. That was in 1990. A store selling men’s underwear was still comparatively unusual at the time. The idea proved successful. The collection was even appreciated by criminals: in 1995, during “Lingerie Week” if you please, they more or less emptied the shop. The sleeping tenants of the upper house heard nothing. It would have been impossible for them to have interfered anyhow, for the burglars had carefully barricaded the door leading downstairs. Elly was deeply upset by this nocturnal visit. Her suppliers were extremely helpful and the shop was in full swing again within a week; but although the thieves got arrested and part of the stolen stuff was recovered, Elly did consider to leave off, not least because of the huge bother with the insurance. One of her employees, Martien Bosman, then suggested he and his partner would take over. Elly (who is still running Jolie) thought that was a great idea.

Encouraging Pat On The Butt

Martien energetically supervised the shop until his death last year. “He had a prodigious memory,” remembers Jenny Verheul. “He always knew the exact measure of his regular customers.” Jenny was 63 and looked back on a long career as a saleswoman in a bag shop when Martien called her six years ago and asked her to work for him. “I thought: ‘What on earth should I be doing in a men’s underwear store?’ I had to get used to it, really, to strings, for instance... which are not only bought by the young ones, by the way. It’s fun when people are treating each other to something nice. It’s my habit playfully to pat my husband on his bottom sometimes and it happened now and again that, when a customer emerged from the fitting room wearing a beautiful pair of pants, I gave him an encouraging pat on his buttocks, exclaiming: ‘Those briefs suit you very well!’ The customers didn’t mind, but Martien didn’t like it, so I chucked it...”

Bosman was a great boss, says Jenny. He allowed her to go on holiday with her husband in December - the busiest time of the year. In return Martien could count on Jenny, for when he got seriously ill she took over more and more work from him. “We kept in touch by means of the telephone. He occasionally called me in the night. That shows how much he cared about his business.”

Additional support was given by Frits van Dijk. He had trained as a butler and was employed in a hotel in Zandvoort. He was given a half-year contract that was extended three times; he is currently to be found behind the counter on Thursday evenings.

Another pillar was Martien’s cousin, Jan Retèl from Amsterdam. He nursed Martien who urged him to take over the shop.

But Jan had his doubts. “It was not really my line of business. I did an economic-administrative training and became a window dresser. My parents owned a furniture store where I worked for many years. I then became a facility employee with an Amsterdam advertising agency. I was its trouble shooter, but gradually the atmosphere got less pleasant, everything ‘Americanized’ and when numerous jobs were at risk in the wake of a merger, I accepted a golden handshake and took my leave. I was 52 at the time, which is pretty old for someone working in advertising. That’s why I failed to find a similar position. I did some voluntary work. When my cousin got ill I began working in Gentle on Saturdays. Martien died last year, on 23 June. We then thought that the store would be closed on 1 January 2012. The customers were not pleased. ‘If Gentle disappears, where can we go to?’ they asked. I continued to hesitate... until suddenly ‘I saw the light.’ It was on a Sunday, a few months after Martien’s decease. I was seated on a bench when I was given a sign from Martien in Heaven, or so it seemed: ‘Take over the business!’ I cut the knot, I thought: ‘I’ll do it.’”

More Colour, More For Younger Customers

There is ample reason to applaud Jan’s decision, for it would have been a great pity if this cosy store had vanished. The premises are a feast for the eye. The art nouveau facade has been restored recently and is listed as a monument. City guides with throngs of tourists regularly make a halt in front of the shop and deliver a short lecture which neither Jenny nor Jan have ever been able to hear (they would like to, but so far there has been no opportunity!). A visit to Gentle is a feast. Most people who cross the threshold really buy something, remarks Jenny contentedly.

“My cousin was a bit conservative,” says Jan. “He sold lots of Björn Borg and classical brands such as Mey, where business men swear by - tight shirts to be worn under made-to-measure suits, not cheap, but of high quality. I shall certainly keep it in stock, but it’s time for a fresh start: more colour, more garments for a younger audience.”

Retèl, who learned the tricks of the trade from Jenny and Frits van Dijk, visits the Body Fashion Fair at Amersfoort twice a year. The autumn collection is ordered in the spring. He primarily trusts his instincts, but he is happy if someone gives him a hint. “A friend of mine drew my attention to a French brand that is yet unknown over here, Pull-in. ‘You must try it!’ he said. As it happened, Pull-in was looking for suitable retailers in Holland. Roij van Koolwijk, a former surf champion, employed by Mañana-Trading, recently paid me a visit to show Pull-in underwear; it will be available in the shop in a few days. It’s available in cotton and in a more smooth variation: synthetic fibre which ‘breathes,’ which wears comfortably and which doesn’t ‘sweat’ as synthetic stuff used to do. I am very enthusiastic about it.”

Gentle has many loyal and satisfied customers. The assortment is large, both traditional and modern; the service is very good indeed. If you are looking for something that is difficult to obtain, Jan will go the extra mile to get it for you. What’s known as the “kinky corner” is great fun. Martien had started it. Not just homos but heteros as well (including the category of swingers) value an exciting string. Gentle is the only place in Haarlem where you can find these.

“Many retailers are having a difficult time,” says Jan. “The economic crisis is not over yet. But I need not complain; the last two years were quite good. And we are looking at the future. We shall get a new floor covering and I have found someone who is going to design the website.”

We spoke to Jan and Jenny shortly before 7 July, Pink Saturday, when the shop window will get an appropriate “pink” outlook. It is to be hoped that straights, bi’s and gays will be able to go to Gentle for many years yet to get beautiful, seductive and very fine underwear.



In the New Issue of Gay News, 323, July 2018

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