The guy standing outside the Green Shag shop on Toronto's funky Queen Street West strip seems to say it all: Wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, his arms multicoloured sleeves of tattoos, he's checking messages on his iPhone. And whether or not he's about to walk in, Green Shag's ability to convince someone like him that he should add a bespoke suit to his wardrobe has made the company a vibrant new force in the menswear business.
Beautifully finished, custom-made garments "have made a comeback," says Green Shag president Neil McPhedran. "During the dot-com frenzy we saw such sloppiness creep into the work environment, but how you show up for work and how you dress really affects your attitude and how you're going to perform. You feel good about what you wear, and it gives you what we like to call 'your swagger.'"
Green Shag's clients can certainly afford to swagger, and not just because they've paid upwards of $1,900 for their stylish duds. They can also expect the kind of detailing – anything from brightly patterned silk linings to custom-made buttons – they won't find in their grandfather's closet.
Yet Victoria McPhedran, Green Shag's designer, says she was inspired in part by her own grandfather when she came up with the idea of starting the business. A proper English gentleman who moved to Victoria, B.C., in the 1950s, "he wore things like plus-fours and had an outfit for everything," she recalls. "He was a major dandy, and I just loved it."
Originally a fashion writer, Ms. McPhedran noticed that, while there was a plethora of designers in womenswear, almost no one was offering high-quality, exclusive menswear. She started Green Shag in the couple's Vancouver apartment in 2002, then moved it to Toronto when her husband's job took them there a year later. After three years in a Richmond Street studio, with sales growing annually, she felt it was time to open a storefront.
"We have excellent craftsmanship," says Mr. McPhedran, who quit his job in 2005 to devote himself to the venture full-time, "that's the table stakes, if you will, plus sourcing quality fabrics from around the world. But it's the design side of it that's our point of difference."
Clients work with Ms. McPhedran in choosing a look they like, and integrating it into their existing wardrobe.
Perhaps one of their more famous clients, renowned architect Will Alsop, said he finds the whole process – and the place – fabulous. "You sit down, they give you a beer, discuss what sort of shirt," he says. "Sometimes you feel you're being subtly guided toward a certain direction, but who cares?" Even though he lives near London's so-called golden mile of tailoring, Savile Row, Mr. Alsop has a Green Shag jacket and several shirts, he says, "and I'm threatening another jacket now."
"A lot of our clients know exactly what they want," says Mr. McPhedran, "but the majority want the guidance. That's really what makes us different, sitting with our clients and designing everything. We really forge relationships with our clients. We see them a number of times, especially for a special event like a wedding."
Eschewing traditional advertising, sales are driven largely through word of mouth, he said. And along with a public-relations consultant, the company relies on social media. About to launch its fourth version, Green Shag's website " is huge for us," he says, "and that drives traffic. Having search engine optimization is huge for us. Then our e-mail list is very important. We send out anywhere from six to eight a year."
While bespoke defines the company's brand, their eclectic array of accessories, from shirts and ties to jewellery, accounts for a major percentage of Green Shag's business. Right now Ms. McPhedran's cufflinks anchor the jewellery segment, and are sold in the shop and across North America at art galleries and through retail websites.
The company offers exclusive lines licensed from three major sports leagues, and another for the W hotel chain, with the Fairmont hotel chain soon to follow.
For Mr. McPhedran, "there is a huge opportunity in the market right now for men's jewellery, so we're really pushing that."
In fact, he wants to increase what he called their "retail footprint," expanding into new retail outlets in Toronto and across Canada. The company is already looking for investors, and Mr. McPhedran envisions an entire line of Green Shag branches offering ready-to-wear shirts and trousers, ties and jewellery. Only the bespoke tailoring will be done at the Queen Street flagship store.
Yet the company does face some challenges. Chief among them is the fact that while a whole new demographic of younger men are opting for bespoke clothing, the people who actually do the tailoring work are, by and large, elderly.
"Our youngest tailor is in his early 60s," says Mr. McPhedran. "This summer, two of our other tailors had to have cataract surgery. Trade colleges don't offer the right programs, so we have to work with other folks in the industry to solve this and move forward."
The company's other main challenge is the economy, and its dampening effect on consumer spending. Nonetheless, Ms. McPhedran says when she looks at old photographs from even tougher economic times in the 1930s, she notices the quality of the suits men wore back then.
Today, she adds, a bespoke suit can "just sort of change your outlook a little bit. Having something that's made for you, in the fabrics you've chosen, with all the little details, and time you've invested in fitting it," she says, "is a huge uplifting thing to put on."
Join The Globe's Small Business LinkedIn group to network with other entrepreneurs and to discuss topical issues: http://linkd.in/jWWdzT