Many men who make appointments with Tomas Romita, founder of MADE Clothing, arrive at the Yonge and Shuter location expecting to see suits. “’Where are the suits?’” Romita quotes them as asking. “’Where are the fabrics? Let me touch them!’ They’re like kids kicking in their chairs. ‘I want to see them!’” They learn eventually that along with their custom-made, Italian fabric three-piece suits, what they’re paying for is the experience and expertise of Romita, who acts as the company’s chief stylist. Individual style is important to him (MADE personal consultations are a lengthy and in-depth process, hence the impatient kicking in chairs), but so are the rules of dressing.
“When you put on a good suit, there’s no other feeling. It’s a confidence that comes from the inside, especially when you know you’re wearing it the right way.”
It would seem Romita has come a long way from the way he dressed growing up at Weston Road and Lawrence. It was all about low-hung, baggy sweat pants and the sneakers of the moment. “Every time there a new sneaker was released there was a craze… I had to work from an early age, and I remember being scolded because a lot of my budget would go towards gear. Now, years later, it makes sense.”
Although he tried to blend in, he dreamt his world could be like the pages of GQ. He saw the magazine, which he calls a “beacon of cool,” as a way of life. “Who wouldn’t want to look at those pictures and attend those parties? And wear a tie clip, and learn the top twenty places to get one?”
But it wasn’t until going to Queen’s University that Romita decided to evolve the way he dressed. Enrolled in a business program, he realized it was time to pull up the sweat pants. In the sartorial melting pot on campus, he enjoyed mixing his urban pieces with the preppie style of his peers, although he admits, “it was a pretty dark time for fashion–you had trends like double popped collared polos.” (Apparently, the early 2000’s are now considered the bÃªte noir of style, a development that makes me feel ancient.)
During undergrad he studied abroad in Hong Kong. “It’s crazy what people pull off there,” he says. “You get that feeling, if they’re doing a level ten, I think I can pull off a seven. And no one’s going to say anything to me ’cause none of my friends are around.” Getting a suit tailored made was an item on his bucket list. The experience changed the direction of his life.
Not that it was perfect–“There was broken communication. They don’t really ask how you want it to fit. Or you say ‘modern,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah! Modern!’ And you know they won’t do it… It took about an hour. Two hours of haggling, an hour of actually picking the stuff.” But when he selected his fabric (brown with pinstripes) and the tailors draped it over his body, Romita became more and more inspired. When he got his suit, it fit better than anything he could get off the rack. And the tailors made it look so easy and precise. “That’s when I thought, I got to do this somewhere else. Because at the price point they charged, I could do this. I could do it at this semi-haggled price.”
Light bulb illuminated, he returned to Queen’s and started telling his friends he was going to start a suit company. He studied accounting so that he’d have some credibility and people wouldn’t see him as a kid any more. “Now I was a kid with a CA behind my name!” he laughs.
The tailors in Hong Kong had made it look simple, but when he began to crunch the numbers of starting his own business, he realized it was like Pandora’s Box. Most important of all, he’d have to teach himself tailoring, but he wanted to throw himself in and get started. “If you learned everything you should in business school, you’re going to be forty and still not have started your business.”
One of the founding principles of MADE was to make suits in high-quality material available. Romita’s frustration, going back to his days of flipping through the cologne-scented pages of GQ, was not being able to find the clothes they celebrated. “Toronto’s been this weird place where we’re a big city but without a big city supply of swag. With the Internet mixed with new cool stores popping up, I think that’s changing.” Just as important, he realized men wouldn’t invest in quality items if they were uneducated on how to wear them.
It’s a feeling he’s sensitive of–“I taught myself how to tie a tie. I didn’t have a dad to tell me how to tie a tie.”
When he pushes clients (especially grooms) to wear bow ties, he often hits resistance. “Some guys are instantly, ‘No.’ It’s not ‘No’ because it won’t look good. And it’s not ‘No’ because they don’t like bow ties. They think that’s the reason. What underlines it is they don’t know how to tie it, they’ve never worn one before, they don’t want the feeling we were scared of in high school, rocking a new style.” Romita saw the role he could play, not that of a father, but a cool older brother instructing guys in a down-to-earth, non-patronizing way how to dress like gentlemen.
The very first thing he does is try to ascertain why the client needs a suit.
“Are you coming in because you have a wedding coming up? When’s the wedding, what’s the theme? We go down those paths. Or do you just want a suit? Are you a really stylish guy? In that case we’re going to have to be on our A-game to get you fabrics and options to make you confident MADE is the place you want to shop. Is it a fit thing? Are you six-foot-five, 240 pounds? We’ll try to figure out what angle you’re coming in from.”
There’s so much talking that, before the boxes of fabric even appear, appointments can start to feel like therapy sessions.
“Let’s say you came in and this is your first suit,” he continues. “We know you’re a journalist so you don’t need to wear a very conservative Bay Street style. You’ve always wanted navy. So then we’ll look at navy. Pictures of past navys we’ve done. We’d still suggest a solid because if it’s a pattern and it’s your first suit, you’re putting yourself in a corner. You want as many options as possible.”
“Once you’ve picked the fabric, then we can pick a collar, the lining, the slant of the pockets. There’s a lot of decisions for you to make…But we know how men feel about too many decisions: ‘I make decisions all day!’ Along the way we can provide explanations and suggestions. If you’re really engaged, we can give you more background.”
Romita gives the client a rough idea of what the finished suit will look like on an iPad, a program I tell him he should patent as an app before someone else does. Then they measure for fit, obviously a very important part of the process. Pointing at my dress shirt he says, “That shirt, same colour, same pattern, would be a completely different item if it was a muumuu.”
“I have one at home,” I reply.
Again, it’s all about measuring people’s expectations against reality. A man might want a slim-fitting jacket, until he tries one on and can’t move his arms.
Then they pick out shirts, socks, and accessories (Romita pushes for colourful pocket squares), and the directions are sent off. The suits are made in Montreal, the shirts come from overseas, and the ties and pocket squares are from Concord, Ontario.
Three to four weeks later, the client gets to try it on. It’s the most fun part for everyone involved.
“If you don’t look good, it doesn’t bode well for us. But if you look better than you’ve ever looked before, your friends and family are going to ask, and that will lead back to us. Our product is not some mattress on the upper floor of your house. No one’s ever like, ‘Hey, check out my Serta mattress!’ But people check out your threads. They represent you.”
From Hong Kong to the Caribbean, getting a suit custom made is a common occurrence all over the world– although North Americans have forgotten its value. “Here, everybody eats at McDonalds, everybody buys their suits at some big box store. Sooner or later people are going to realize that they don’t need to do that.” Romita sees that changing, especially as Toronto’s style matures and men spread the word on the importance of proper-fitting sleeves. Personally, I think it may take an improvement in the economy and an across-the-board increase in salaries before Millennials are able to invest in custom-made clothes.
Next for the company is to find a more traditional retail space (their current location is a shared office), and expand their offering Canadian brands. But one thing bothers me. MADE is so much an extension of Romita’s personality, I wonder why he didn’t name it after himself.
He explains that he created the name and logo in the very first month after a lot of soul searching. He rejected choosing some “fake Italian name” (he’s half-Italian) or a made-up British title. He also rejected naming it after himself because he didn’t want it to be all about him and, at that early stage, he wasn’t confident he should be held up as “the fashion guy.” He likes fashion’s rules, but he doesn’t believe he discovered them. Rather, they’re out there for anyone to master.
That being said, I tell him my theory that, as the first social media generation, twenty-something entrepreneurs don’t find it difficult to turn themselves into brands. We’ve been doing it online for ten years. Romita agrees. “We learned in middle school what not to do on MSN Messenger.”
About success he says, “Bravery and bravado have a bit to do with it, but it’s a game of persistence. With social media people are proving you can witness their transformation from quitting their job to creating their brand. You get a window into people doing these things that [we thought] were ‘man on the moon’ hard. You see that’s it’s just about grit and some days will be crap. You see failures and that’s tough. But through social media you’re seeing more stories…”
“Hearing stories from people and how they did it is huge. Instead of putting people on pedestals and thinking, I could never write my own book, if someone tweets about writing their book for 90 days you think, ‘Oh, doesn’t seem that hard!’ Twitter is good for debunking the myths about what’s impossible.”