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Stefanie Wong/The Globe and Mail

Disruption has blazed through the retail landscape over the past several years, leaving many casualties. But for two fearless disruptors, Christopher and Lia Casuga, the future looks bright.

The couple own Cntrbnd, (pronounced contraband), a cutting-edge men’s-wear business with locations in Toronto’s Yorkville shopping district and Vancouver’s Yaletown.

At the shops, high-fashion brands such as Dries Van Noten and Thom Browne hang beside $100 T-shirts, an idea that was unthinkable in 2011 when the Casugas were plotting their business strategy.

“Every bank we went to turned us down,” Christopher, 40, says. “They didn’t understand the concept.”

He had studied fashion management and merchandising at Seneca College in Toronto and was working in loss prevention for Hugo Boss, J. Lindberg and Nike. But, at the age of 32, he had no sales track record, men’s interest in fashion hadn’t yet exploded and Lia, who would be in charge of buying, was a 21-year-old art history grad from the University of Toronto.

But as a student from China who wore “a lot of Louboutin, Gucci and Burberry Prorsum” mixed with tanks, tees and sneakers, she had a firm grasp on Cntrbnd’s target market.

“I know them because I was one of them,” says Lia, now 28 and dressed in a men’s leopard print velvet jacket by Wacko Maria, an orange Off-White x Chrome Hearts pullover and Balenciaga jeans. “We [international students] spend a lot of money on clothes.”

The Casugas invested $30,000 of their own cash into a handful of streetwear brands, started logging 50 to 60 hour work weeks and listened to their friends – a circle that includes some of today’s buzziest fashion names: designer, DJ and stylist Virgil Abloh; hip-hop artists Kanye West and Travis Scott; artist, creative director and sustainability advocate Heron Preston; and Matthew and Jen Williams, whose 1017 Alyx 9SM clothing label has a cult following.

But back then Abloh hadn’t yet founded Off-White, the red-hot luxury streetwear brand. West was just into his second Air Yeezy collaboration with Nike and Preston was designing Been Trill with Abloh and Matthew Williams.

“This is before they became who they are today,” Christopher says, recalling a Been Trill event held at The Hoxton, a Toronto nightclub, around the same time. “It was one of the most epic parties in Toronto ever. Virgil was DJing, Kanye was literally swinging off the ceiling. We were just a bunch of guys enjoying a moment.”

In that moment, the old-school fashion system was on the brink of disruption. Young people in Asia and Europe were mixing designer looks with Nikes – a merging of two worlds that was just beginning to bubble up in North America. The Casugas convinced the gatekeepers at Raf Simons, Kris Van Assche and Thom Browne to let them carry those brands. They embraced pop-ups and small midseason capsule drops to give consumers a reason to make regular visits and used social media to get out the word.

And where traditional retailers are, as Christopher puts it, “numbers-driven” and “limited in the risks they can take,” Cntrbnd is guided by Lia’s nose for what’s hot, such as the Travis Scott x Ready Made T-shirt pack that sold out this spring before ever hitting the sales floor thanks to an Instagram post.

“I hunt for something till I get it,” says Lia, who points to the Travis Scott Jordans on her feet, scored through an insider connection – or “plug” – in Hong Kong. “That’s why I understand my client’s mentality.”

And they find corporate secrecy laughable, posting images from showrooms in Paris and New York, while buyers from big department stores hide what they are purchasing for their racks. “The retail industry has become paralyzed with fear,” comments Nicholas Mellamphy of Cabine, an innovative luxury retail concept around the corner from the Casugas’ Yorkville location. “Cntrbnd has fostered a concept that is fearless in idea and product assortment.”

In 2016, Abloh entrusted the duo to open one of his first Off-White stores, also on Yorkville Avenue. “Everything Virgil touches, people are interested in,” says Christopher, citing the success of Off-White, his collaborations with IKEA, Nike and luggage-maker Rimowa, and Abloh’s maverick position as artistic director for Louis Vuitton men’s wear. An exhibition of Abloh’s oeuvre is running at The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago until Sept. 22, a sign of street culture’s move away from its roots in the skateboarding and surfer worlds to the mainstream.

“That genre of clothing was unknown for so many years and done by people who weren’t accepted in the fashion world. But it’s all fashion now,” Christopher says. The tipping point, he believes, was when Kim Jones, now artistic director of Dior Homme, orchestrated the 2017 Vuitton x Supreme collaboration when he was a men’s-wear designer at Louis Vuitton. “That was when streetwear became accepted by the fashion community. That was a moment that will go down in fashion history as bringing these two worlds together. Now you see really big CEOs wearing Jordans with their tailored suits. Everything’s acceptable.”

Next up for the Casugas is turning a 1017 Alyx 9SM pop-up in Toronto into a permanent shop and they have discussions for more branded stores in the works. A third Cntrbnd will open in Montreal this fall. And they consult, having helped retailers open similar concepts in Istanbul and Dubai.

“People love the way we operate businesses,” Christopher says. “It’s not the norm. Obviously we have our structure on how to make things work and run. But the way we talk, the way we move and the way we represent these brands is what everyone is looking for. It’s new, fresh, current and young.”

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