A feisty handful of local merchants are stepping up their personal service game to meet the challenge from mega retailers soon opening their doors in Canada. Sydney Mamane, a passionate tailor and designer who fell into fashion when he first moved to Toronto from Montreal, is one of these shopkeepers putting up a fight. Initially a student of communications, Mamane eventually found himself styling wardrobe for films. His keen eye for style blossomed, and he soon mastered the art of tailoring. Ten years ago, Mamane opened an ultra-hip men's-wear shop on Queen West, featuring a coveted cache of cool European, Japanese, American and Canadian labels. In 2012, he launched his own denim label, United Stock Dry Goods. Mamane's minimalist esthetic and good taste has won him legions of devoted fans who appreciate great fabrications, interesting cuts and outstanding fits. I dropped by Mamane's eponymous emporium, Sydney's, recently to chat about retail's changing landscape, a man's optimum wardrobe, and the mission he's on to celebrate local talent and production.
Why this particular space in this particular part of town?
When we first moved here it was more affordable, so we moved here because it was a little bit easier but I was also able to identify with the demographic in the area. And it was, at the time, changing quite rapidly. I saw the potential in having a store on Queen West when really there weren't that many shops. There were definitely no men's stores down here. I saw the opportunity to develop my custom business and then slowly pick up new brands and expose up-and-coming designers and provide a platform for them to show their work. Similar to an art gallery, if you will. We were curating the shop along with our own merchandise to provide something fresh at the time.
Online retailing is red hot these days. What are your thoughts on that?
We have an online component, but it is definitely not our strongest suit. We're more grassroots; we really love to interact with our clients. It's much more helpful to describe what the products are, and the goods you're selling when you're actually feeling it, and trying it on – and there's that sensual interaction with the garment. The connection you make is very difficult to achieve when you're viewing online or on a blog.
Plus you can offer a point of view that is also quite helpful.
Exactly. So the curation comes across when people are seeing merchandise in a store and they're seeing that the palette and the story develop in the store in relation to the space itself. It's really a narrative that we try to build from the very beginning, and hopefully people understand that.
I cringe when I hear discussions in the women's arena about "ageappropriate dressing." What's your philosophy about age-appropriate dressing for men? Is there such a thing?
I don't believe there is such a thing. What is age appropriate? If someone feels comfortable in what they're wearing, then it's age appropriate. I've seen people who peacock and they do it very, very well at an older age. Some people believe that it's garish when you're younger, and as you get older you're eccentric. Some feel that there's more license to explore as you get older, or it's just wacky when you're younger and you're just a hipster or fashion kid. But what is really the difference?
It's the fit that I think is really key. These days, when some people opt for bespoke tailoring and others are lucky enough that they can just buy stuff off the rack, what do you think men have to keep in mind?
We work with a specific silhouette here – a slim silhouette. It doesn't mean that someone has to be slim to wear a slim silhouette. People have been wearing tailored garments for hundreds of years. In the Edwardian period, gentlemen still had guts. A lot of people were drinking heavily back then, but regardless, they were still wearing suits that had a high arm hole, a slimmer sleeve, and definitely slimmer through the body. There was a leaner silhouette even though it accommodated for a larger gut. So it doesn't necessarily mean that you have to wear oversize clothing to be comfortable. You just need clothing that fits you well to be comfortable. And it simultaneously looks sharper, so you are winning on both ends. It's just finding the person who's able to fit you properly. And that's part of our personalized service.
How big a wardrobe does the average guy need? Do you think less is more for some?
We encourage people to start with a foundation wardrobe. I think where some people go wrong is potentially buying a lot of editorial-type pieces right away and then it ends up being a costume or caricature. If you have foundation pieces, such as just the right navy or charcoal suit – one suit to start if you're not a suit guy – a nice cashmere sweater, a nice pair of raw jeans, the perfect black or white T-shirt depending on your preference, a nice button-down collar shirt, a structured, collared white shirt as well, a black suit… these are all staples in a man's wardrobe. I believe once people have that foundation then they can start exploring with different colours and patterns and textures. Then it's a lot easier to integrate those patterns and textures with the foundation pieces so it makes it really easy to dress. I am a firm believer that people shouldn't think too much about what they're going to wear in the morning. It should be natural. They should just be able to pull out almost anything in their wardrobe and it should go together pretty easily. We have better things to do with our time and our lives then to think about what we're going to wear every day.
What do you think is the prevailing feeling right now, when it comes to attitude in men's dress?
I think it's a combination of attitudes. I don't think one is completely dominating – not in our shop at least. I know there's been a huge push towards the sartorial aesthetic. There's no question that suiting has become a little bit stronger for us. Men are enjoying wearing suits again, and not just in a business environment. Quite frankly, a wellfitting suit is quite comfortable and there's a way of styling it so it isn't that stuffy either. It is quite sharp.
Yes, a suit can be dressed up or down in wonderful way.
Absolutely. And likewise, a pair of jeans can be dressed up. I know it sounds crazy but it can be. And people are mixing things up with sport jackets. It's not strictly about suiting in the tailored world.
The retail landscape, in this country particularly, is changing so dramatically, so radically, so frighteningly. But there's a sincerity that I find coming from you, from your shop and from what your brand is emblematic of. How tough is it?
It's extremely difficult because I feel the industry is shifting. It's becoming corporatized essentially from the lowest levels to the highest levels. So there's less and less room for independents. But the advantage of being an independent is that we're quite nimble and we can shift very, very quickly. We developed our own collections to become more competitive in the market place. We do made-to-measure to be more competitive in the marketplace as well, and we're shifting more toward a private label scenario. At the moment we're approximately 80 per cent private label, and by the end of 2016, we're going to be about 98 per cent private label. But it makes it all even more difficult, because all our private label is produced locally, and there's a human element to that. We're looking at local factories, and local people, and a lot of those who work at these factories have families as well. So we don't feel that we're just producing clothing for a store to make money. We feel like it's our responsibility, as an independent retailer, to support local production as much as possible.
You're trying to keep the identity and the integrity of this country intact when it comes to offering services. In this age of globalization, when we are getting overshadowed so quickly, that's admirable.
Yeah, absolutely. And where does the bottom line end? There's always more room to squeeze out margins, but a lot of it has to do with greed. And if people continue on this road to greediness, then it really is going to strip any type of culture out of this industry and many others.
Besides running your shop, buying merchandise and designing your collections, you still relish sitting at the little sewing machine at the back of your shop sometimes, helping with alterations. You have your fingers in all these pies. Why is it so important to you, after all this time?
I believe in it. I always believed in what I was doing. I suppose I'm on a mission. And it's a quiet mission. It's a small mission. But I believe in supporting what happens locally. I believe in supporting local factories. I believe in designing and producing locally. And I believe there's something to be said in doing that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.