Well that obviously worked out.
It was a big risk. A lot of people sort of thought I was a little crazy, they were like, ‘You’re going into food stores and selling at such low prices?’ and, ‘That’s kind of goofy what you’re doing… you know it’s like you came from Club Monaco and it was kind of this It brand, and had this cult following and now you’re doing this?’ But I had this vision, an end game in mind [for us to be this global brand]. We’re still working towards it, hopefully we’ll reach it, but we’re not there yet.
Speaking of Club Monaco, you’ve obviously had a long career in fashion. Were you always interested in fashion–even when you were a kid?
Yeah I was. I mean my mom was a couturier. So that’s where it all started from. She worked super hard. It was immigrant parents: My dad had two jobs and my mom made dresses at night for people, and she also worked at Simpsons, which was a department store, doing their high-end alterations. So in my household there was always a ‘Judy’ or a mannequin, sewing machines, and straight pins everywhere–and it was a really tiny apartment. I always got jabbed by straight pins growing up.
Did you always want to work in fashion?
Well, art was really what I loved [first] and I had an art gallery when I was 18 years old on Scollard [street in Toronto] and worked two jobs so I could afford to have the gallery. I worked in a clothing store because again, clothing was just something I was good at it. And then I worked as a door man at one of the clubs, Colonial. I was a door man–a bouncer, if you can believe it.
I kind of can’t!
Yeah, so I did all that, and then I got my accounting degree, because, coming from a sort of poor family, you really are interested in being successful, you really want to perform. So I got that degree so I could mix business and art at the same time. And the minute I got that accounting degree, I decided I wanted to go into the fashion business. And… I just got into the fashion business.
What were those early times like?
I started with my mom and brother. That was a company called Ms. Originals at the time, and that morphed into Alfred Sung which morphed into Monaco Group. I really started on the manufacturing side. We had six sewing machines, and I had to sweep the factory floor every night, learn how to fix the button-hole machine, learned about every single machine, learned how to lay fabrics, learned how to do it all from the ground up.
How did that first small business morph into Club Monaco?
I was looking for a white shirt, and I went out shopping on the busiest day of the year. I was watching everybody buying all this stuff and I couldn’t find a decent white shirt anywhere. I thought to myself, here we are killing ourselves making these really high quality garments when there isn’t a 100% cotton shirt I want in stores. So we created a line, it was a unisex line at the time, and it was all about 100% cotton, really casual clothing. It was about great pricing.
And did the idea just take off?
Well, I thought I could sell it to the department stores because we were really connected at the time. And they looked at it and no one wanted to buy it. They didn’t get it at all. I’d bought all this product thinking it was no problem, we’d just go in they’d love it and we would sell it. And obviously that didn’t happen and now we had all this product.
So what did you do?
Well that forced me to open up a store. And that’s actually why the stores opened because we had to sell it somehow. And when all of a sudden we became retailers we thought, ‘Well, what can we do that would be really great as a retailer?’ And that’s when vertical retailing, one thumbprint in the design, came into play. At the time vertical retailing was unheard of–everything was a boutique that carried multiple brands back then, so we were obviously different.
When the buyers first shut down your idea, did you ever have any doubts, like ‘What have I done??
You know what, I never thought of it that way. I was so certain that what we were doing was needed in the marketplace that I was willing to bet the farm on it. And we did bet the farm. We opened three stores at one time. The bank was not happy with us for doing it and we just did it. And then it turned into this huge success.
Did taking that kind of big gamble help you, in terms of how you take risks in your career today?
I think in any business, there’s a point where you have to be a bit of a risk taker. I don’t think you can analyze everything, particularly with the fashion industry. And so I think you may as well make your risks big, because it’s the same amount of work at the end of the day.
What’s your advice for a budding entrepreneur?
I would say really make sure you understand the market you’re going after. Try and project your thinking as to where it can ultimately be, the business, and work backwards. So really think about where is it that you want to end up–visualize the shot, visualize the end game–and work your way back.
Have you learned any hard lessons to pass on to entrepreneurs?
I think for me it’s about always controlling. You have to control the brand and you gotta control all the elements that go into it. The minute you lose control, the minute you are not true to the brand or true to an aesthetic, I think you can run into trouble. I think you just have to have an amazing amount of tenacity to still allow people to play around with all the elements that make up what people see, but still control it. It’s a contact sport: Day in day out, you gotta be involved in a lot of decisions.