Ernest James Brown: Birmingham’s Hardest Working Man in Clothes Business
By Javacia Harris Bowser The Birmingham Times At a time when many brick-and-mortar clothing stores are shuttering as customers opt for online shopping, JB’s House of Fashion in West Birmingham has found a way to survive and thrive more than four decades after opening its doors. Ernest James Brown, owner of JB’s House of Fashion, […]
By Javacia Harris Bowser
The Birmingham Times
At a time when many brick-and-mortar clothing stores are shuttering as customers opt for online shopping, JB’s House of Fashion in West Birmingham has found a way to survive and thrive more than four decades after opening its doors. Ernest James Brown, owner of JB’s House of Fashion, makes no secret of his staying power.
“You’ve got to have what people want, when they want it, at the price they want to pay,” he said, adding that you’ve got to present it all with class and style.
“We view everybody that walks through the door as a king and queen,” Brown said.
Through the years, Brown’s royal treatment has helped the business owner build a loyal clientele—customers who know if they need something for work, church, a special occasion, or a night out on the town, they can call JB’s for help. Brown also takes pride in offering his customers high-quality merchandise.
“People always love to talk about how long they’ve had garments that they bought here,” he said.
For more than 20 years, Brown carried both women’s and men’s clothing. Today, JB’s House of Fashion is exclusively for men, offering formal, professional, and casual wear. JB’s also sells garments for clergy, and nearly half of the shop is devoted to the store’s extensive line of footwear—JB’s House of Shoes.
“We dress you from head to toe,” Brown said, adding that that includes stylish hats and accessories, such as jewelry, cuff links, pocket squares, and tie tacks.
The age range of Brown’s customers tends to be 27 and up: “We have 80-year-old men who still want to look good,” he said.
The Runway to Retail
Born and raised in South Alabama near York, Brown moved north after he finished school. In the 1970s, he worked in the entertainment industry in Ohio, ran a recording studio and booking agency, and worked as a promoter and talent manager. He worked with actors like Jimmie “JJ” Walker, who starred on the “Good Times” television series, and musicians like Isaac Hayes and The Ohio Players. But just as Ohio’s rubber industry began to decline, Brown grew weary of the entertainment business.
“I had to depend on other people in order to get things done,” he said, adding that the entertainment world was “cutthroat, dog-eat-dog.”
“You had the big guys at the top trying to hold the little guys down,” Brown said. “So, I decided I wanted to get involved in something I had more control over.”
In the late 1970s, Brown moved to Birmingham and decided to venture into the world of fashion.
“I had to come up with something that I knew I was good at and that I could enjoy doing,” Brown said. “Fashion was one of the things I could appreciate because I was a well-dressed guy when I went through high school in [South] Alabama. My dad was a dresser, so I had a good eye for fashion, and I decided that that’s what I wanted.”
Brown got his start in fashion in wholesale but quickly found that white-owned stores didn’t want to buy from a Black man.
“In 1981, [I said to myself], ‘Since y’all won’t buy from me, I’ll take it directly to the public, and I’ll just bypass you,’” said Brown.
Once he decided that he wanted to open his own retail store, he knew location would be important.
“I didn’t want to go head-to-head with them downtown,” he said, adding that he set up shop on Third Avenue West, so he could grab the attention of customers in West Birmingham before people made their way downtown.
JB’s House of Fashion was born.
The early years were tough, Brown recalled. The store suffered several break-ins, which resulted in Brown losing valuable merchandise, but he stayed the course.
“I was determined not to let anything detour my plan,” he said. Click to view slideshow.
Ministry, But Make it Fashion
During the tough times, Brown’s faith kept him going. “It was God-inspired,” he said of JB’s House of Fashion. “It’s not just a business; it’s a ministry.”
Brown loves hearing his customers gush about the compliments they’ve received on their outfits and seeing how their couture boosts their confidence. He uses every customer interaction as an opportunity to share an uplifting word, and he hopes JB’s House of Fashion encourages aspiring entrepreneurs, too.
“People can see not only that you can have a business but also that you can have a first-class business that is respected by the community,” said Brown.
In addition to having a large Birmingham-based clientele, JB’s attracts travelers visiting the Magic City. Brown has had customers from as far away as California and even a few White House officials have shopped at the store.
“We’ve been able to attract people from all different walks of life, from upstanding attorneys to pastors of big churches,” Brown said.
A Lasting Legacy of Style
When he’s not working, Brown spends most of his time at Bethel Baptist Church (Berney Points), where he’s a member. He loves to travel, as well. His passport boasts stamps from London, Paris, Mexico, and the Caribbean, and he also enjoys a trip to New York or out to the West Coast.
“I just love traveling because it helps me to learn and be more informed about what I’m doing,” he said. “Wherever I go, I always keep an eye on what the fashion industry is doing in that area.”
Though Brown, 73, still spends a lot of time at his shop, he considers himself “semiretired” and said he’s ready to pass the torch. He has two children and four grandchildren, but he is also open to an outside buyer or a faithful, hardworking employee taking the reins. No matter who is at the helm, Brown hopes the legacy of JB’s House of Fashion will live on for years to come.
“God spoke to my heart at the conception of the business that He wants His people to present themselves a certain way, that they are representing Him in this earth as kings and queens,” Brown said. “He put it upon my heart to stay with that in order to try to keep folks encouraged and inspired.”
JB’s House of Fashion is located at 1630 3rd Ave. W., Birmingham, AL 35208. Contact the store by phone at 205-788-4491.