The first time Julia Gignac met Jeff Rustia, she was walking into Toronto’s Shangri-La Hotel when a stranger approached her and exclaimed: “You look fabulous! Look, we’re wearing similar jackets! And you look like Glenn Close! We’re going to be the best of friends!”
And they were, said Ms. Gignac, a hair, fashion and makeup artist who would work alongside Mr. Rustia for six years. She would come to know the former media entrepreneur and founder of TOM*, or Toronto Men’s Fashion Week, as determinedly happy, even when things didn’t go his way – a flamboyant whirlwind and party giver who spoke in exclamation points, went to church every day and was wont to wear a glitzy, gold-sequinned jacket because he loved how it sparkled.
Mr. Rustia died on May 17 while sitting beside his brother, Mike, on a bench outside the Toronto hospice that in his last days became his home. That morning, frail and wasted from the pancreatic cancer he was diagnosed with the year before, he insisted on taking a shower and donning a T-shirt that had TOM* printed across the front before venturing outside with his walker to turn his face up toward the sun. He was 50 years old.
“Jeff lived more in his 50 years than most of us would live in a hundred of them,” Ms. Gignac said. “He didn’t stop until he had to – and even then, he had a smile on his face.”
Jose Jeffrey Rustia was born in the Philippines on April 22, 1968, the elder of Armando and Melinda Rustia’s two sons. The family moved constantly when the children were young, as the father worked for a multinational company that stationed him in various countries throughout Asia. Then, one day, when they were living in Bangkok, a world atlas was placed on the dining room table.
“[My father] pointed at Canada and asked all of us what we thought about living there,” Mr. Rustia told the Philippine Canadian Inquirer, a newspaper, in 2015. “My brother, Mike, and I asked if there was snow and upon his resounding yes, we all screamed for joy and happily agreed to move there.”
The family officially immigrated to Canada in July, 1982, the same year the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enshrined. It was one of the things Mr. Rustia loved about his adopted country; he was an ardent banner carrier for multiculturalism and for reaching out over cultural divides.
In 1992, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto, then moved to Japan to work as an English teacher. It was there he discovered MTV Asia and his media calling, producing prime-time TV programs that were broadcast throughout Asia, Australia and Arabia.
Three years later, he moved to Singapore to become a producer in the broadcast advertising promotions unit of HBO and Cinemax. In 1997, he returned to Toronto for good, making it his sometimes-snowy base as he established his name as a creative consultant and marketer. And, in 1999, he founded Front TV, a branding agency that leveraged the very concept of multiculturalism for an international list of clients that included Nickelodeon, the Discovery Channel and Global TV Indonesia.
“Canadian multiculturalism is our staple resource,” Mr. Rustia told this newspaper back in February, 2006. “When we hear about a contract to rebrand a TV network anywhere in the world, we can be almost certain we can hire people here at home to help us decode the culture of that place for the client.”
In 2014, Mr. Rustia, whose collection of custom-made hats became a signature for the many figurative ones he wore throughout his career, turned his attention to men’s fashion, creating TOM* to fill a perceived void in the market and promote Canadian fashion on a global scale. There was controversy from the get-go, when a menswear designer accused organizers of homophobia after they cancelled his show at the last minute, allegedly because the clothes were too feminine.
“Ridiculous,” Mr. Rustia countered. “The workmanship needs to be improved. He needs to work harder on his collection.”
In 2016, he started TW, or Toronto Women’s Fashion Week, again to fill a void left when IMG announced it was pulling the plug on the event, which it had operated twice yearly for four years.
Roger Gingerich, who was recently appointed to take over as executive director of TOM*, said that where others in the business are exclusive, catering to a select clientele, Mr. Rustia was the most inclusive person he’d ever met, hands down. He celebrated difference and he celebrated having fun, no matter the circumstance.
“Fashion weeks in general have changed, marketing themselves to the industry more than anything else. But Jeff wanted to make the fashion week he created a joyous party, where the public is able to buy tickets, get their hair done, drink fabulous cocktails and watch as a designer is being interviewed on the stage,” Mr. Gingerich said.
Each fashion week was put on, not with the help of provincial or federal monies, but through the contributions of private sponsors and a cadre of dedicated volunteers, whom Mr. Rustia would toast in speeches so long that his friends would sometimes have to cut him off. And the last show at each TOM* fashion week was always a celebrity fundraiser for a cause dear to Mr. Rustia’s heart: the Kol Hope Foundation, named for his son, who was born with a fatal genetic condition called Trisomy 13, and given only a few months to live. Against the odds, Kol, who was never able to speak or walk and had to be fed through a tube, lived until he was 14 years old, passing away in October, 2011.
The boy lived alternately with his father, Mr. Rustia, and mother, Lisa Miyasaki. When Kol was at Mr. Rustia’s house, they would dance around and around in the living room, the son held close in the father’s arms.
Mr. Rustia’s faith sustained him and he believed that “444” was his “angel number,” a combination that would turn up whenever something good in his life was happening. It could be a licence plate on a car after getting a positive phone call from a potential sponsor or the address of a beautiful fashion week venue at what Mr. Gingerich called an “insanely good price.”
Even when he was sick, Mr. Rustia didn’t complain. “If we ever ventured to say something negative about the cancer, he’d tell us it was part of his journey,” Ms. Gignac said. “And he never failed to say ‘I love you.’”
Mr. Rustia leaves his mother, Melinda Rustia; and his brother, Mike Rustia.
Special to The Globe and Mails