The windows are still covered with paper when I knock on the door of 2949 Dundas West. Langton Willms, the owner of Gerhard Supply, apologizes that he’s still setting up displays and preparing for the launch party. This weekend, the doors of the newest Made in Toronto apparel store will open. Willms shows no signs of stress. The locally-made candle he lights combined with the soft yellow light from the papered windows create a quiet, calm atmosphere. The space will feel radically different when the doors open on Saturday.
“Where did the name come from?”
“It was really bothering me,” Willms says. “Whatever you named your store seemed kind of contrived no matter how personal it was. Then I realized that the most genuine thing you could possibly do was to just name it after yourself. Gerhard is my middle name. It’s also my grandfather’s middle name. It’s a name that runs in the family–it’s German.”
Willms, who has been in retail since he was 16 at Banana Republic, previously worked as the Regional Facilities Manager for Aritzia. He jokes that he climbed the company ladder by threatening to leave every year or so. He only has the nicest things to say about his former employer. It was at Aritzia where the seed of Gerhard Supply was planted.
“Aritzia has a bit of a DIY culture that seems to be pretty great at spotting new talent,” he explains, citing labels like Jonathan+Olivia that grew from it. “They have a real culture of if you can’t find a solution you have to come up with a solution yourself. So I guess the company gave me a sense of empowerment that way.”
The timing seemed right to open his own store.
“I started to really clue into the fact that Toronto is cool all of a sudden. I noticed that Toronto has so much to offer, at a really high quality. I wanted to be a part of that and carry the torch for that movement.”
When I ask him to define the Toronto style, Willms has trouble pinpointing it. “It’s sort of…let’s say rugged and refined. I’d say quality is a big part of it. Heavy materials, robust fabrics, people like something that feels tough,” he explains.
The initial concept for the store was to stock Made in Canada, not just Made in Toronto.
“The fact that I got rejected by a lot of the big Canadian labels was sort of a blessing and a curse,” he says. “I reached out to a lot of the big players in Canadian design, the names that everyone knows. And got replies back saying, you don’t have nearly enough clout or we’re just not interested or we have too much distribution.” If a label was already sold all along Queen Street, they felt that working with him might oversaturate the market.
Necessity being the mother of invention, Willms connected with local designers he could meet in person, first reaching out to Matteo Sgaramella of Outclass.
“At that point it dawned on me that the players in the game that were slightly smaller than the big names in Canada…were very willing to work with me. And made quality that was just as exciting to me.” Soon enough, his merry band of vendors included Muttonhead, Nozo and Philip Sparks, a designer whose name inevitably comes up when discussing fashion in Toronto.
“Then I realized that there really was no reason to engage anyone outside the city. We have so much great talent here that’s really ready and waiting to be noticed.”
But finding local designers isn’t as easy as you would think.
“It’s hard, because you can’t find them on Google. The only way to find these Toronto designers is by being really hands-on and going to all the markets and the pop-up shops. If you don’t go to those you won’t ever find out about these people.” Reluctantly, Willms joined Twitter and created an online presence for his company. Now, he’s addicted.
“It’s gotten me some great contacts. People are reaching out to me now weekly … So now it’s switched from me reaching out to people to me getting to choose and curate what goes in my store.”
In addition to clothes, Willms felt strongly about supplying the kind of twee, gentlemanly items he liked using but never saw in shops. For example, he stocks handmade scents created by Julie Clark at Provence Apothecary. “It took me forever to find her,” he says. “As far as I know, she’s the only person in the city who makes handmade scents, other than the Rastafarian guy in Kensington Market. I didn’t talk to him.”
He broke his Made in Toronto rule for only two accessories. The umbrellas he sells are made in Vancouver. “Cause it rains every day in Vancouver,” he laughs. And the safety razors, to go with his other old-fashioned shaving products, are German–“I’ll trust a German with making knives for me.”
Even though the atmosphere and products appear masculine, Willms wanted to stock a lot more unisex clothing.“I think the idea of unisex clothing is really hot with women right now,” he explains. “Not only is it comfortable, but I think it represents a certain value, of not wanting to be confined to a certain gender.”
When I ask him if he has an ideal customer, Willms comes alive.
“Yes! I do! My customer’s name is Cool Dad Steve. I invented a character called Cool Dad Steve. He’s between 35 and 40. He has a stroller, but it’s kind of a new thing for him, he’s sort of getting used to the idea that he has a stroller. A copy of Monocle in the stroller. He’s not loaded, but he feels pretty good,” says Willms.
“It started out as a bit of a joke. I’d be out at bars in the Junction and they were all Cool Dad Steve bars. You can actually sit there and go, ‘That’s Cool Dad Steve! That’s Cool Dad Steve! That’s Cool Dad Steve’s Dad!’”
“He has interesting thick-rimmed glasses like your own,” he says, describing Cool Dad Steve’s look. “He wears jeans and a relaxed sweater. Facial hair, but in control. He has your hairstyle.” Willms pauses, looking me up and down. “You’re Cool Dad Steve!”
I’m embarrassed to admit that my reaction to this compliment was crying, “I am not old enough to be Cool Dad Steve!”
“You will mature into Cool Dad Steve very nicely. There’s Cool Dad Steves everywhere. They’re a global brand of man,” he assures.
Despite not having opened yet, Willms is unafraid to dream big. His ideal would be to have similar stores in every major Canadian city, supporting local designers and contributing to each community. He’s also looking into e-commerce and whether there’s an international market for Toronto-made products: “One of the things about opening up to e-commerce is that it lets you know where your biggest markets are outside of your own country. Outclass is getting noticed by a shop in Tokyo… Maybe I could start shipping things to Tokyo.”
Ultimately, it’s about changing the way people see Canadian fashion.
“I think when some people hear something was made by a local Toronto designer, they don’t think that’s not cool, but that it’s cute. When you say it’s made in Toronto, I think everyone envisions someone’s Mom who’s retired sewing things as her hobby. But really, there’s a huge blossoming industry here, and some of the most talented people in the world cranking out collection after collection. And I think Made in Toronto could be a really desirable label internationally. I’m being an idealist here, but it’d be fantastic if Made in Toronto could eventually mean the same thing as Made in Paris.”
As someone often bored by men’s fashion, but who would like to support local talent, Gerhard Supply is the most appealing shop I’ve been to in a long time. I plan to visit… even before I acquire my Cool Dad Steve stroller.
Correction: Previously, Matteo Sgaramella’s last name was spelled incorrectly. We regret the error.