Co-owner of Soca Clothing and Soca Girl
Written and styled by Tracy James
Photography by Chuck St. John
“The fashion industry can be a pretty superficial place to live,” says Jeff Tenner, reflecting upon his years as co-owner of Soca Clothing. When he and wife Kathleen first opened the boutique 15 years ago in Southside, they wanted to build their business on the foundation of providing great customer service and building relationships with people and the community. “It sounds cliche and cheesy, I know,” Tenner admits. “But we’re not just selling clothes. We have the opportunity to positively impact people’s lives—whether that be our employees or our customers.” While the retailer’s presence has grown—there are locations now in Tuscaloosa and Nashville in addition to the flagship store in Homewood and the tween store, Soca Girl, across the street—the community vibe and customer appreciation is the same. The Tenners believe their loyal customers hold a large part of the responsibility for establishing Soca’s reputation as “the” place to go for jeans.
Soca actually began as a juniors store, targeting high school and college-aged girls. No other boutique in Birmingham was focusing on this demographic, as this was before Forever 21 and other large junior market chains came to town. Eventually, Soca evolved into carrying “young contemporary,” a higher quality of clothing with a broader age appeal. Soca also added designer denim to the mix, and as Tenner says, “This was a game changer.” Over the years, Soca has solidified its spot as a premier denim destination, not only by carrying a variety of lines, but by educating their employees on the attributes of each pair: fit, wash, durability, and the like. In high season, Homewood stocks about 2,000 pairs from brands such as AG, DL 1961, Paige Premium, Citizens of Humanity, J Brand, MOTHER, James, Hudson, and A GOLD E. As a personal shopper and stylist, Soca is my go-to for clients seeking jeans, and I will often send them in for a “fitting.” The infamously sweet and adorable employees take the pain and complexity out of finding the Cinderella-slipper pair. Tenner, with his exuberant personality and salt-and-pepper beard (which he tames with Honest Amish Beard Balm), can be a contrasting sight among this bevy of young women.
After college at the University of Alabama, Tenner lived in NYC for a couple of years and, in his own words, “Dressed like a poor New Yorker: ragged jeans and T-shirts with black boots. No real style of my own.” He tended bar and road managed bands, both endeavors carrying the same “uniform.” Tenner admits that it wasn’t until they opened Soca in 2000 that he realized he should probably start thinking about his wardrobe. “I mean, I am the guy in the store trying to sell you clothing, so I should probably dress like I know something about it,” he says with a laugh, confessing that his wife was integral in helping develop his personal style. “I also started paying attention to how other men in our industry dress,” he notes. Now Tenner describes his personal style as hip, trendy, and casual, citing Owen Wilson and Ryan Gosling as celebrities he admires, referencing their effortless panache. For trend updates, Tenner turns to fashion blogs FashionBeans and Effortless Gent. For shopping guidance, he pops over to Soca Homewood’s next door neighbor, Shaia’s, seeking the expertise of long-time sales associates Greg and Carl. And of course, Tenner still relies on his wife, trusting her to shop for him when she is on buying trips for the store. Favorite brands have been determined by comfort as much as for appearance, and include AG Jeans, Billy Reid, Vince, Velvet, and Rag & Bone. “Working in the fashion industry has given me an appreciation for the thought and quality behind designer brands and why they fit and feel better,” says Tenner.
With Christmas around the corner, I asked Tenner if there were any special clothing or accessory items on his wish list. “I’d love a 1967 Lincoln Continental Convertible. That’s an accessory, right?”