During the last week of October, Fashion Group International (FGI) Toronto honoured Harry Rosen, the founder and executive chairman of the upscale menswear company Harry Rosen Inc., with the fourth annual Fashion Visionary Award.
Following the event, we met with the man of the hour at his store on Bloor Street, in the heart of Toronto. In spite of his legendary status in Canada and his multiple honours, he is a humble gentleman and a fascinating conversationalist.
During our exclusive interview, Rosen shared the memories of his childhood, his business, Canadian culture and his contagious passion for menswear.
DARINA GRANIK: You have received the FGI Toronto Fashion Visionary Award. What does this award mean to you?
HARRY ROSEN: I’m flattered because [FGI] is an international organization that, I believe, has a membership of various types of retailers. And to be singled out as a menswear retailer is a rather nice gesture.
I am flattered, you know. I’ve met a lot of very nice people. It was a busy week for us.
Harry Rosen is a truly Canadian brand, but can you tell us about Harry Rosen himself? How was he brought up? What were his childhood and family like?
Oh boy! Well, my mother was an immigrant. She came over in 1925. My father came over, I think, in 1928. They came from Poland. It was an arranged marriage. They married, but they were not a good match. My father was gregarious and outgoing, and my mother was very much a stay-at-home, reclusive type of woman. They really were a poor match but, anyway, I came along. And I have a brother and a sister.
I had a grandfather who was a tailor, but he never produced any clothing for me. My father had a bit of a flair. And when I was old enough, I was able to wear one of his suits, a striped suit, much too old and conservative for me, but I didn’t know any different.
If I had not found a part-time job with a store, I don’t know what I would have ended up doing. I wouldn’t have ended up in the fashion business because fashion was not natural to me. So, as I liked and developed the working relationship with men as customers, and referrals with customers, I developed a sense of taste and quality. I think I always had a sense of quality. It was important to me, and that’s when I opened my shop. I always sold clothing that was an expression, in my view, of something special.
As far as I know, back in the days when you started your business, men in general were not openly interested in fashion and appearances.
They were, but it was a much narrower approach to fashion.
So, how were you breaking and overcoming those boundaries?
For me, retailing is an experience that tells me where things are and where they are going. And I learned so much from my travels, watching what was happening in other cultures, meeting with merchants from other cultures and the United States.
What I learned was applicable to more than just clothing. I could run a restaurant or a large business because it is all about people. But when I developed a sense of taste and pursued merchandise that I really believed in, that’s when my business really became a country-wide one.You are probably a live encyclopedia of male culture and style in Canada. How has the male Canadian consumer changed over the last 60 years?
The Canadian consumer has changed a great deal. First, I entered this business pretty much from a tailoring side, you know, selling custom-made clothing. I had accessories—I don’t think we had hankies, but ties and shirts. But over time, as I observed what was going on when Ralph Lauren was coming onto the scene—his idea of colour and the great taste that he implemented—I got an exclusive on his product for Canada. I learned a great deal from him and other very good merchants, particularly in New York.
Men today have a varied lifestyle. I’m always reminded of what men who wore suits were like in their lives. [A typical example was] my neighbour next door. When he would clean his swimming pool, he took his jacket off and rolled up his sleeves, and that was as “casual” as he got. That was typical of what most men considered their wardrobe. There were suits, maybe an occasional blazer and a sport coat.
The development of these lifestyles started to occur in the ’60s and ’70s. And casual [style] came on as a lifestyle; men started to buy things that were really casual. When I found quality things in a casual retailer that fitted my business and my particular philosophy, I added them to my selection. It gradually grew, and now we cater to a particular lifestyle: suits, perhaps business, casual wear and mode of dress—that is, what I call denims and things that people wear at home around the house, like I do. When I go home, I put on my sweats and do my reading. So, now we have a varied lifestyle.
Also, formal wear has grown as a business. Now you see a lot of tuxedos. That’s become a very big business for us. One time, most men would rent a tuxedo. Today, a good many of them own tuxes. So that’s another lifestyle.
Have you ever considered getting into the women’s market?
Very much so. I have some friends in the United States who started their business the same way I did. They have now expanded to where they have a big selection of men’s, but their women’s business has grown even larger than their men’s business.
I am envious of this, and I think that we should be doing it. But I am now 85, and this is my single solitary idea—it is not shared by anybody else in the company. It will be, one day. Maybe I will not be around, but it will be.
You will be around!
(laughs) Thank you!
You are considered a Canadian icon. Are there any personalities, style icons or other companies that you have been looking up to throughout your career?
Well, I liked a type of clothing that was worn by some of the performers in the ’30s. It was very English in fabric, but in the U.S., the Americans took the hardness, the stiffness of the clothing, and made it far more soft and comfortable. And I liked that type, I related to it. It was in the northeastern part of the United States. I used to go there to the shops at Harvard, Yale and Princeton to see what the stores were selling. But that’s out of the past though. Today, the Italians have made it far more interesting: they brought quality and flair to this type of clothing.
The influence in my taste goes back to tailored clothing in the ’50s, when I started in the business. Ralph Lauren played an important role in my development.
Your company was using images of Justin Trudeau for its quite entertaining advertisements in 2013. Now that he is prime minister, how, in your opinion, does his image contribute to the perception of Canada on a global scale?
He is a good-looking man, and he dresses in a very classic fashion, which I guess is a safe position for a prime minister. But I think he doesn’t have the [natural] flair of his father. Some of the photographs of Pierre, dressed in a cape to a football game or rowing in a canoe with a suede jacket on… He, to me, was the epitome of all politicians in terms of expressing good taste. You can call it a Canadian taste. He was an eclectic man, and [his influences were European and international], but it was all natural to him.
Did you ever work with him in some capacity?
I did dress some of the politicians. I was supposed to dress [Pierre] Trudeau, but that never happened. However, he did see me (laughs).
I did wardrobes for some of the Senate. In fact, we were important enough, so that when a by-election occurred and a candidate was running, they called Toronto where he would go to Ashley and Crippen [a photo studio in Toronto] to get his picture taken, and he would have an appointment with me to select a wardrobe.
I dressed many politicians. But there are many other men, our customers, who have a personal sense of style and it is a real nice challenge to clothe [them]. I don’t know if I should give you their names, but there are some men who have great taste, travel quite a bit and are sophisticated.
If there had been a biopic about you, what male actor would play Harry Rosen? Who today embodies the values and philosophy of Harry Rosen as a brand and Harry Rosen as a person?
I’d go back to my 1930s figures. I liked Cary Grant. He dressed extremely well. Interestingly enough, he wasn’t particularly worried about his clothing.
People like Gary Cooper had their clothing made in Savile Row in London, England. And that look of Fred Astaire… Those were great looks and people I liked. But then there are a lot of people who are not movie stars but are dressed incredibly well. I like Dino De Laurentiis, his way of dressing. Everything he put on looked great.
Christopher Plummer, to my mind, is a guy with a great natural taste, and he would certainly be my choice too. You know I am picking actors that are older, like myself.
I recently watched a documentary about an 85-year-old sushi chef Jiro in Japan, who has received three Michelin stars. Until this day, he continues to work and believes he hasn’t reached perfection with his sushi yet, although he’s been making it for 70 years. What keeps you going at the age of 85?
We have a number of dimensions to our business. We deal with some of the best international manufacturers and designers. We have an area of our business that we call bespoke. That’s my version of an updated Savile Row type of clothing. Not a severely shaped but a real quality look.
I work out three to four times a week, and I think a lot. That is where my energy comes from.
You help students a lot too. You were on the Board of Governors at George Brown College and Ryerson University in Toronto. The Retail Management School even has an auditorium named after you, and there are Harry Rosen Research Commons in the Faculty of Arts. You have also established Harry Rosen Research Grants. What is your advice to the young generation and those who want to make it big in the fashion business?
I see a lot of young people who come to talk to me about their hopes, and I can only say, “You gotta have an idea!” Call it an original idea. It may run contrary to the fashion of the day or the manner in which most businesses are taught in business schools now. If you don’t have a vision, you are not going to do anything original. I always checked on what I was doing, and I was satisfied that it had some commercial value, but it was original. Usually, it put me ahead of the game and ahead of where fashion was heading.
You can last in a business that’s been around for a long time, but even those businesses have their problems unless they know how to renew themselves or [place that responsibility in] the hands of a visionary. That, to my mind, is critical.
Around the store with Harry Rosen
Fun fact: “The most expensive cloth that we have in the store would make a $25,000 suit,” says Rosen. “It is 93% vicuña, 7% silk. It is from Peru. The vicuñas were not domesticated. They had to be caught in the wild when they shed, so their fleece could be picked up. They went onto an endangered list because they were dying off. So, a couple of German specialists domesticated them, and now they are clipped like sheep. It is a very expensive cloth.”