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Toronto fashion designer Cy Mann in his Avenue Road shop with coat maker Rolando Rambaldini. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto fashion designer Cy Mann in his Avenue Road shop with coat maker Rolando Rambaldini. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Toronto tailor Cy Mann dressed celebrities Add to ...

With a celebrity clientele that included Nat King Cole, Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis Jr., NBC sportscaster Ahmad Rashad and NFL hall-of-famer Bruce Smith, you’d think custom tailor Cy Mann must have hung his shingle in New York, Beverly Hills or maybe London’s Savile Row. In fact, he spent his entire career based in his native Toronto, including 20 years at the same little shop in Yorkville: Mr. Mann Tailor and Shirtmaker. If the stars wanted one of his impeccable bespoke suits, they came to him – or, more often than not, flew him out, expenses paid, for a fitting.

Mr. Mann, who died on Aug. 25 at the age of 88, did consider moving to Los Angeles more than once, according to his youngest daughter, Freda Mann. “But in the end, he felt that Toronto was a much safer and better place in which to raise his family.”

“He was a dedicated family man,” concurs his cousin, former clothing retailer Lionel Robins. “He’d walk through walls for his kids.”

While his loyal customers, both famous and not, remember him as the meticulous men’s tailor who could make you look sharp no matter what your physical flaws, those closest to him recall a loving husband and father who was totally devoted to those he called “my girls.”

Ms. Mann and her sister Pamela Tuttelman speak of an easygoing, jeans-and-T-shirt dad who delighted in helping with homework and telling bedtime stories. And they describe a sweet man who, every now and then, would work his tailoring magic at home. “He’d do that for my mother,” Ms. Mann said. “If she’d gained a pound or two and felt badly about herself, he’d say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll make you something nice to wear and you won’t even be able to tell.’”

Perhaps Mr. Mann’s appreciation of family stemmed from the tragic loss of his own parents when both were still relatively young.

Cy Mann was born Seymour David Glicksman on April 9, 1928, in what he liked to call “the heart of the ghetto” – Toronto’s Spadina Avenue and College Street, then the city’s Jewish neighbourhood. He and older sister, Dorothy, were the children of Louis and Freda Glicksman, immigrants from Kielce, Poland. Louis, a shoemaker, suffered a paralytic stroke at the age of 29, shortly after his son was born, and eventually died of leukemia in his 50s, in 1956. Freda followed him exactly a year later, dying of a heart attack. “My father always claimed she died of a broken heart,” Ms. Mann said.

Young Seymour had health issues himself, battling rheumatic fever at the age of 12, which left him bedridden for a year. When he recovered, he helped support the family with odd jobs, including a stint as a newspaper copy boy at what was then the Toronto Daily Star. It was there that one of the editors first dubbed him “Cy.” After dropping out of high school in Grade 9, he spent time in the Royal Canadian Navy before heading out to California, where his artistic talent landed him work on the animation assembly line at the Walt Disney Studios. But even then he didn’t like factory-made products and soon quit.

Back in Toronto, he found a new outlet for his artistry as an apprentice tailor. After spending more learning time in retail, at the age of 26 he went into business with a cousin and acquired a new surname. It was 1954 and white-bread Toronto was a far cry from the diverse and tolerant city of today. “He wanted a very non-sectarian name,” Ms. Mann said of his choice. But the partnership soured and in 1959 Mr. Mann walked away from Cy Mann Clothiers – in the process, forfeiting the right to use “Cy Mann” on any future stores.

Undeterred, he created The House of Mann, which opened in the early 1960s at 377 Yonge St. It was here that he began to build his reputation, in what was known as “the shop with the carriage on top.” A full-size, iron McLaughlin carriage was affixed to the roof of the building and Mr. Mann decided to make it part of his identity. “He adopted that slogan,” Ms. Mann said. “At Christmastime, he’d rig lights that looked like the wheels were moving on the carriage and he always did very creative window displays that utilized it.”

Around this time Mr. Mann also befriended a young, unknown stand-up comic named Bill Cosby. Mr. Mann caught Mr. Cosby’s act at the Fifth Peg, a coffeehouse on Church Street, liked what he heard, but thought the comedian could use better threads. He made Mr. Cosby a sports jacket that the fledgling entertainer paid for on the instalment plan.

Within a few years, when Mr. Cosby hit it big, he began sending his famous friends to Mr. Mann. More remarkably, he insisted that Mr. Mann continue to make all his clothes for him. Aside from Mr. Cosby’s personal wardrobe, Mr. Mann also created the ice cream vendor suits he wore for his popular Jell-O Pudding Pops commercials and the sleek, chocolate-brown tuxedo he rocked as host of the 1970 Emmy Awards.

“We grew up thinking it was normal to have Bill Cosby over to the house for dinner,” Ms. Tuttelman recalled. Today, in light of the many sexual-assault allegations made against Mr. Cosby, she has taken his picture off the wall in her Boca Raton, Fla., home. “But he was very loyal to my dad.”

In the 1960s, the dashing Mr. Mann was running with a less celebrated, but no less colourful, Toronto crowd – Mr. Robins calls them “Damon Runyon types” – and had been through two failed marriages. He met his third wife, Reta, on a blind date in 1965. They were set up by a mutual friend, restaurateur Tony Amodeo, owner of Mr. Tony’s in Yorkville. “They were both divorced and Mr. Tony thought they’d be a good match,” Ms. Mann explained. He wasn’t wrong. Right from that first date, they clicked. The couple were married in January, 1967, and Mr. Mann adopted Reta’s daughters, Pamela and Andrea. They had a third child, Freda, before the year was out.

With his new family came ambitious plans to expand The House of Mann into a full-service retail store. But the new venture, relocated in the Sheraton Centre at 88 Richmond St., proved, in Mr. Mann’s words, “a bad mistake” and closed within five years. Mr. Mann went back to square one, working as a custom tailor out of his car, and continuing to serve his faithful clientele. Finally, in 1984, he opened Mr. Mann Tailor and Shirtmaker at 41 Avenue Rd., which he ran with great success until his semi-retirement in 2004.

Ms. Mann worked alongside her father in that store and witnessed his consummate skills as a designer and a salesman. “My dad always said, ‘Men don’t like shopping. They want to get it over with.’ My father knew what they would need, and they loved that. That’s really what his customers adored. He made it easy for men.”

To design a suit or sports jacket, Mr. Mann would take 21 measurements, assuring that the customer got a piece of clothing tailored specifically to his physique. Even while selling off-the-rack apparel as president of Fairweather and Dylex, Mr. Robins would have his own suits handmade by Mr. Mann. “I have suits from him that go back 17 years at least, that I still wear,” Mr. Robins said. “His attention to detail was remarkable and if it wasn’t 100 per cent perfect, it wasn’t good enough.”

After Mr. Mann closed his Yorkville shop, he continued to do some tailoring at home – Ms. Mann said his clients refused to let him retire completely. Away from work, his hobbies included playing tenor drum in the Toronto Signals Trumpet Band and amassing a museum-worthy collection of military memorabilia.

Mr. Mann was devastated when, in 2007, Reta died after a protracted struggle with breast cancer. Not long after, he began to show the first signs of the dementia that would cloud his final decade. Ms. Mann lived with her father and cared for him until this summer, when his loss of mobility forced her to move him to a long-term care facility.

Mr. Mann suffered from congestive heart failure, a legacy of his childhood bout with rheumatic fever, and died of a heart attack at North York General Hospital. He leaves his daughters; son-in-law, Dr. Ronald Tuttelman; granddaughter, Ilyssa Tuttelman; sister, Dorothy Zlot; sister-in-law, Annette Oelbaum; and many nephews and nieces.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail in 1996, Mr. Mann succinctly summed up what set him apart. While many tailors can fit the body, he said, few can enhance it. A perfect suit, he said, shouldn’t make people say, “What a suit!” but, “You look great.” It was this genius that had his customers shelling out the big bucks, but it also suggests an essential selflessness on Mr. Mann’s part: He wanted to bring out the best in people.

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