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SILVER LINING Donnell Enns has overseen the shift of Toronto shop Uncle Otis from offering street wear to more refined, sometimes rugged, heritage pieces. (Titus Chan)
SILVER LINING Donnell Enns has overseen the shift of Toronto shop Uncle Otis from offering street wear to more refined, sometimes rugged, heritage pieces. (Titus Chan)

How the man behind Toronto’s Uncle Otis keeps the men’s-wear shop fresh Add to ...

In 2003, a screech owl stealthily entered Uncle Otis, the popular contemporary men’s-wear boutique in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood. At the time, Donnell Enns, the shop’s owner, was talking to his brother about renovating and expanding the store. Enns believes its appearance was a good omen, and he was inspired to incorporate feathers into all of the store’s logos moving forward.

This year, Uncle Otis celebrates its 25 anniversary and to commemorate the occasion, the store unveiled limited-edition collaborations with Canada Goose, Maharishi, Oliver Spencer, Tanner Goods and Universal Works.

“Uncle Otis has always done exclusive designs with local brands,” says Enns, who bought the business from its second owners, Jimmy and Jacky Chan, in 2000. “But to celebrate our 25th year we wanted to go international.”

The sleek and inviting U-shaped boite carries streamlined military and American work wear and Japanese-inspired designs; simple, functional garments and accessories that suit a clientele looking for slick but unfussy pieces. Roger O’Donnell, the keyboardist for British band The Cure, founded Uncle Otis in 1991. Hailing from East London, O’Donnell moved to Toronto and lived there until 1994; he brought in sought-after London subculture and street-wear fashion labels to stock his shop’s shelves. The name Uncle Otis stems from O’Donnell’s huge love for musician Otis Redding.

Enns and O’Donnell are still in touch. “Uncle Otis was always the go-to spot in Toronto for upper-tier niche street-wear,” Enns explains. “The store was the first to carry international exclusive brands like Stussy, Silas, Union and Supreme, which would only open their catalogues to one store per territory, so we really broke a lot of ground.”

Enns joined Uncle Otis as a sales clerk in 1998 when the store had a secondary Queen Street location, and moved up to manager and buyer in 2000, the same year he would buy the Yorkville shop. Despite having minimal experience, Enns’s strong eye for emerging trends moved Uncle Otis’s offerings away from the high-end street-wear aesthetic to more of a heritage men’s look in 2008.

“When I took over, I did the same thing [as O’Donnell] but with U.K., U.S. and Canadian brands,” Enns explains. “The renovation in 2005 inspired a contemporary direction with labels like Maharishi, Duffler of St. George and Wings+Horns [a Vancouver label with a Japanese approach to detailing].” In 2008, Martin James, Enns’ current buying partner, joined Uncle Otis and introduced contemporary brands like Rag & Bone, Red Wing and Surface to Air. “It was about offering products that would keep my customer base attentive. The direction moved towards a focus on better fits, finer fabrics and higher attention to detail. That’s where the heritage theme stemmed from.”

Uncle Otis gained exclusive access to the Canada Goose’s Japanese series of outerwear in 2008, and was the first to sell a slimmer-fitting parka outside of Japan. The store is credited with inspiring Canada Goose’s more urban Black Label collection.

The anniversary has also introduced a handsome new logo, a striking coat of arms designed by Enns’ brother, Tony, who has managed the store’s branding since 2000. “The logo breaks all the rules in a traditional coat of arms in that it is asymmetrical,” Tony says. “It represents the ownership, uniqueness, heraldry and achievement of the store. The silhouette of the coat of arms is the unique shape of the owl that prophetically flew in the store that summer afternoon in 2003. To both [Donnell and I], it signified the advent of change for Uncle Otis.”

The logo’s new design matches the continually novel offerings that Uncle Otis provides to a diverse repeat clientele, including the late Robin Williams (who shopped there for 15 years and would offer impromptu comedic skits for “his favourite store”), Eric Clapton, Geddy Lee, Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene, and Drake. “Our goal is to help our customers find and define their own personal style. We strive to make our customers feel at ease,” Enns says. “The Uncle Otis man is a man of adventure, one who is confident and comfortable in his look.”

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