Oliver Spencer has big designs on the Canadian men's-wear scene. With one outpost in Toronto's West Queen Street West neighbourhood, which opened in 2010, the 47-year-old designer feels our style savvy guys are ready to embrace even more of the natty sensibility he dishes out. Spencer is eager to open more Canadian stores, likely starting with Montreal.
The wily fashion entrepreneur, who hails from Coventry, England, started selling clothing out of a stall on London's Portobello Road while he was still in art school. Frustrated by the teaching process he encountered, he decided to take things into his own hands and two years later, opened his first store. He admits it was a struggle until the day a stylist walked in and bought a waistcoat for the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Suddenly, business picked up.
"You need that bit of luck," Spencer says.
Luck, vision and drive have all contributed to the success of his eponymous label, which he founded in 2002. Spencer is adamant about telling a lifestyle story with his brand, and cites the importance of bricks and mortar for retail, even though online sales are soaring; during its show at London Fashion Week last September, the brand partnered with the app platform Vero for a shoppable runway experience.
Spencer visited Toronto recently to show off his wares, and I caught up with him at The Drake Hotel to talk about his garments, the difference between men in Toronto and Montreal, and how they will all dress in the future.
The business of fashion and retail has changed so dramatically since you first entered into it. There are so many other ways of getting product out there now.
Five years ago my largest customer was Selfridges or Liberty worldwide. Now my largest customers are [online retailers] Mr. Porter and MatchesFashion. I mean, it's really changed. But I still think if you have a brand, you've got to have bricks and mortar. You've got be a shopkeeper, you've got to understand the shop floor, and the factory floor. We deliver a lifestyle in a certain environment. Two years ago, I bought a financially troubled distributor out here in Canada, and I said, "I want to make Oliver Spencer work in this market. I believe it's an untapped market."
So talk to me about this particular market and the Canadian man.
I believe the Canadian man has an great sense of style. I always see Toronto as being the bridge between London and New York, though I'm going to say something even better than that right now, because I think New York's fallen by the wayside in quite a major way. Very sadly now, you've got streets with shops to rent everywhere in New York. The people only shop on sale, so the east coast mentality towards shopping is difficult. Meanwhile, Toronto seems to have all these creative types descending on the city. What I want to do is to open more shops in this country, but Montreal would probably be my first stop. I flew straight there from Europe yesterday. And that's always a great city, just that feeling I get there: It's passionate, the food is great, and I'm astonished by the Frenchness going on.
Did you notice a difference between men in Toronto and Montreal?
A Montreal man is slightly more European than a Toronto guy. I really got a picture of that straight away. Toronto guys have always been good to me because they're reasonably straight-up dressers. They're conservative but always want to not be that conservative. I think the amount of black clothing that you see in quite a few stores is going to turn a lot of men off. I think they want some colour, some texture and again, something with a story.
With fashion being such a great barometer of our times, how do you think what's going down politically in North America and in the U.K. is going to translate into the way men want to dress?
I always find that in times of a recession, men actually start to dress up and pay more attention to the way they look. In 2008, there was a massive turning point for men's wear in general. The 1990s were just horrible for clothing, and the early 2000s were a wasteland as well. The one thing I can credit the Internet for is that men started to have a look at stuff. They started to ask questions about what they were wearing and where it was made. Men like to make investments in pieces. I like to deliver the kind of clothing that a man can go to a wardrobe and not even think about what he's going to wear, because these pieces automatically become his best friends. It's speaking to the customer, and it's lasting. That's really important. Once you get men hooked into that, they'll stay with you forever.
So much of style is attitude and the guy who wears the clothes really making the silhouette work. What I love about what you're doing is that it's so eclectic.
That's the point. I'm not telling everybody that they need to walk out in an Oliver Spencer uniform. I think they should be wearing Oliver Spencer with other brands and dressing it up in their own little way. I like individuals. I want that style to come through in people's character, people's form. I design for what I love and how I feel, which doesn't make me necessarily a great designer. I'm not like the genius designer Harley Hughes, head designer at McQueen, and head designer at Margiela before that. He doesn't look like a McQueen customer, and he doesn't wear McQueen. But this guy goes out and designs this amazing collection every season.
What about ethical consciousness and caring about the planet? You go to the stores and the racks are just jammed with product. What do you suppose is going to happen?
There is too much. There's no doubt about it. But people like me are responsible for what we're making. I go and look at factories. I talk to people at work about looking at the way clothing is made and you can tell when it's been lovingly made – it will have that feeling about it. So looking at the factories, looking at the way they're making things, understanding what the workforce is like are all really important. Sweatshops in Sri Lanka are not good and these guys are getting paid 50 pence an hour, living in a village owned by the factory. I think it's all awful, and it's what fast fashion in the High Street has become.
What do you see coming down the pipes in terms of the way men are going to want to dress in the future?
I see a total change in workday uniforms. People will start to wear things that they feel comfortable in to work. It'll be deconstructed and easy to get into in the morning. The suit itself will become something that is worn to special occasions and needs to be treated in a special way. In the U.K., there's massive trending towards working at home – 3.5 million people work at home and for themselves in the U.K. That's my customer.
This interview has been condensed and edited.