Well-dressed gentlemen in Toronto and beyond have been answering the phone to some upsetting news. The voice on the line belongs to Terry Beauchamp, proprietor of Walter Beauchamp Tailors at 145 Wellington St. West.
His establishment has been making custom suits, coats, military uniforms and other fine garments since 1908, when Mr. Beauchamp’s grandfather, Walter, opened the first store on King Street. He ran the business for 35 years; his son, Walter Jr., ran it for another 35; Terry has run it for the last 35.
Through more than a century, Beauchamp (pronounced BEE-chum) has clothed prime ministers and high court judges, bank presidents and lieutenant-governors, generals and captains, not to mention hundreds of regular guys who just needed a nice suit for a wedding or business meeting. It even made white flannel double-breasted suits for Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Clients are fiercely loyal to the store and its master tailor, Alfonso Prezioso, an Italian immigrant from Naples, now age 77, who has been measuring and cutting in the back of the shop for close to 50 years. Beauchamp’s computerized records show that one Bay Street executive has spent just short of $190,000 at the store over the years.
Mr. Beauchamp reckoned that they deserved to hear it from him: When its lease runs out at the end of October, the store will close its doors for good. He has made hundreds of calls over the past few weeks to break the news. He doesn’t want to sell the business and his three grown sons, all living out West, aren’t inclined to take it over, so it is time, he says, to “graciously wind it up.”
Even with its devoted following, Beauchamp has been struggling to cope with changing times. Most young men buy their suits off the rack or online. Few want to pay the $1,800 to $3,500 it costs for a Beauchamp suit or wait the six to eight weeks it takes to finish the garment. Many of the British and Italian mills that furnish the bolts of cloth found in the store are going out of business. Skilled custom tailors such as Mr. Prezioso are a dying breed.
“We’re an old-world company in a new world and I’m just being realistic,” says Mr. Beauchamp, 62, whom I have known since we grew up together in North Toronto.
Writer and broadcaster Pedro Mendes, who has become the store’s unofficial historian and even blogs on the subject, calls it a huge loss for Toronto. “It’s the closest thing we have to the Savile Rows and that kind of tradition and legacy,” he says, “and it’s going to disappear.”
But Mr. Beauchamp insists he isn’t bitter. How many stores, he says, can boast of 106 years in business under one family? Besides, Beauchamp Tailors has enjoyed a great run, its progress tracking the evolution of its hometown.
Toronto was growing rapidly when Walter Beauchamp set up shop on “Tailor’s Row” with Irish tailor Alf How. His business got a boost when it landed the contract to make uniforms for the Toronto Railway Company, forerunner of the Toronto Transit Commission. Walter’s wife, Viola, happened to be the niece of Sir William Mackenzie, who helped found the railway. After several moves on King Street, the store eventually shifted to 18 Adelaide St. West in the 1960s, then, in 1986, to its current spot on Wellington.
Apart from clothing the good and great and making soldiers’ uniforms through two world wars, Beauchamp has catered to a few sartorial whims. One swashbuckling young man wanted to get married in a pirate suit. Beauchamp made him one, with brocaded silk and ruffled cuffs that could be pinned back to keep them from falling into the spaghetti sauce at his Italian wedding. Another bridegroom, a fellow from Ethiopia, had Beauchamp fashion him a suit based on the uniform of Ethiopia’s emperor, Haile Selassie. It had gold braided rope and gold buttons.
In an age of mass production and throw-away goods, Beauchamp is especially proud of the long lives its garments can enjoy. One officer in the Governor General’s Horse Guards came to Beauchamp to get a men’s frock coat refitted for her so she could attend a military ball, which she was to enter riding a horse. Beauchamp staff admired the quality and workmanship of the dark blue doeskin coat. When they looked in the breast pocket, they found the following label:
Beauchamp & How, Limited
91 King Street West, Toronto
Lieutenant D.A. Fitzgerald
December 14, 1938
The coat, made by Beauchamp more than seven decades earlier, had returned home. Like the firm that made it, it lasted long and served well. Beauchamp may be going out of business, but its Toronto century leaves a lesson for the city: quality counts.
Editor's note: Walter Beauchamp was married to the niece of railway magnate Sir William Mackenzie, not the daughter as originally published. This version has been corrected.