By Peter Saltsman
on 5.2.14
Photo by Garrison

I
n early 2013, at an event named after and celebrating himself, Drake popped up at Toronto’s Air Canada center and took off his jacket. Then he held it up so everyone — mostly fervent sports and entertainment reporters eager for a glimpse under the coattails of superstardom — could check out the lining, a vintage Vince Carter jersey stitched into the premium fabric.

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For those with an appreciation for Toronto sports, this was a cool tip of the hat to the glory days of an increasingly irrelevant basketball franchise (never mind this year’s unexpected and almost definitely short-lived resurgence). For those with an appreciation of menswear, it raised the question: where’d he get that jacket?

It turns out the jacket came from Garrison Bespoke, a tiny shop on the fringes of Toronto’s financial district that has, in the six years it’s been open, become the tailor of choice for the city’s most influential people, including various Toronto Maple Leafs, Bay Street lawyers, CEOs, and even the guys in Suits, which is filmed in Toronto.

There’s good reason for Garrison’s success. The shop takes a decidedly new school approach to a very old school business — and that’s struck a chord with a clientele that’s younger, hipper and more adventurous than you might expect from a shop that sells suits for the price of a used car.

Bespoke clothing is the next logical step in the renewed interest in menswear. It’s pretty safe to say we’re in a golden age of men’s fashion, a time when bloggers, stylists and retailers have turned their collective attention to how men are dressing. What started with street style — with sneakers and raw denim and five-panel hats — has transitioned into office culture and formal wear. Bespoke is all about creating your own look. It’s identity curation and looking good on the next level. It’s street style all grown up.

The shop takes a decidedly new school approach to a very old school business — and that’s struck a chord with a clientele that’s younger, hipper and more adventurous than you might expect from a shop that sells suits for the price of a used car.

Take me, for example. I decided to give bespoke a try, and Garrison, as my home-town shop, was the obvious choice. A freelance writer and editor with a taste for high-end menswear would’ve been shit out of luck twenty years ago, or homeless with a great wardrobe. To be fair, even today I’m by no means a typical client. I’m only a tourist in this hyper-tailored world, indulging in their services for sheer curiosity and with an impetuous disregard for the health of my finances. That I can (kind of) afford a piece of Garrison clothing speaks volumes for the range of clients they cater to.

Garrison’s trademark is being ahead of the curve, responding not just to trends, but to their clients’ every imaginable need and want. Michael Nguyen, the impossibly dapper gentleman who owns the shop, stakes his reputation on that.

He’s the first person you’re likely to encounter when you enter the store, and he makes every effort to get to know you in the time you’re in his shop. His memory must be near-photographic, because come in again months later and he’ll resume your previous conversation right where you left off, have a shirt waiting for you, and know exactly which knit tie you were passively eyeing the last time.

Nguyen trained on Savile Row and his tastes are pretty conservative, at least on first glance. On a wintry afternoon in Toronto, the shop is awash in swatches of tweeds and plaids and corduroys and everything in various shades of navy. Mannequins wear perfectly fitting sport jackets with the subtle hallmarks of expensive suits: kissing buttons, surgeon’s cuffs, felt lining on the collars, hand stitching.

We’re talking about a fully bespoke, impeccably tailored three-piece suit that would be at home in any executive suite in the country save for the bulletproof Kevlar embedded into the vest.

Nguyen asks if I want a Scotch (yes, please) and if I want to see something cool (yes fucking please). He goes into the back room and brings out one of Garrison’s special creations, which falls somewhere in the spectrum between weird and downright ballsy.

For example, there’s the bulletproof suit. We’re talking about a fully bespoke, impeccably tailored three-piece suit that would be at home in any executive suite in the country save for the bulletproof Kevlar embedded into the vest. Nguyen and his team worked with suppliers for the U.S. Special Forces to build this thing, which goes for about $20,000 and really does stop bullets. Why? Turns out Garrison has some highly discerning diplomatic types as clients, who find traveling to war-torn countries (or into dubious circumstances in those countries) no excuse for not looking their best.

Sure, that’s an extreme example. But it’s the same principle that led Nguyen to develop a fine mesh fabric that wicks sweat without looking like a compression tank top for wearing in the summer (or in sweaty, sweaty dance clubs), or why they made that special jersey-lined suit for Drake, or a diamond-encrusted suit for David Foster, or any number of other truly custom suits. For Garrison, unlike more traditional tailors, the name of the game isn’t just looking good — it’s looking like yourself, whatever that ends up meaning.

They’re just a few young, well-dressed guys trying to make people look good — not look the same.

For me, it meant a raw denim shirt with details I couldn’t have even thought to ask: a slightly looser left cuff to make room for my watch, a low collar that I can wear open without a tie, a cut that felt good on the first fitting but got slimmer and slimmer the next three times I went in. Each fitting was increasingly exciting, the anticipation building as I got closer and closer to the possibility of owning something so personal, made and fitted just for me. On the last fitting, though, I froze in the change room, sweating too much in the armpits of a shirt I hadn’t ever worn outside this door.

Having something made especially for you is a little bit terrifying. It’s not just the price tag or the seemingly endless choices, it’s the questions you have to answer, the probing insecurity that none of my plans for the next year could possibly be worthy of this shirt. It occurred to me that bespoke isn’t just something you buy — it’s not a direct alternative to any other suit shop. It’s something you accomplish. It’s a lifestyle. And as such, you really have to own it, or the whole thing falls flat.

Like I said, I’m not a typical client. But I understand how, in a slightly different world where freelance writers made Drake money, I could be. There’s something atypical about Garrison, despite the craftsmanship and the attention to detail. And that’s the whole point. They’re just a few young, well-dressed guys trying to make people look good — not look the same. And if that means stitching an old basketball jersey into a grey suit, so be it.

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