Toronto’s reigning king of menswear opens up to Sienna Vittoria Lee-Coughlin on fashion, business and life in the city.
Published in Fave MEN magazine, Summer 2014. Read it here.
Deep in the St. Lawrence Market, down a charming side street lined with blossoming flowerpots and patio restaurants, there looms a starkly modern high-rise condo building. Directly adjacent is a construction site, with cranes lifting materials and workmen chiseling cement. The booming sounds of the ongoing construction seem antithetical to the peaceful environment, yet together, they fit the subject of this feature perfectly.
Christopher Bates, a menswear designer who has quickly conquered the Toronto market since he launched his namesake label in 2008, works and lives in the above-mentioned condo building. His designs are traditional, with a subtle European flair, just like the neighbourhood he is based in. However, the lens through which he views the world is refreshingly modern; reminiscent of the excitement a new construction site offers.
Bates always knew he needed to work in a creative field, and when he decided that fashion was the industry for him, he hopped on a jet to where it all began. “The legacy of fashion in Italy, and specifically in Milan, was something I gravitated towards.” he said. The young Bates signed up for design school at the legendary Instituto Marangoni in Milan, where he learned the dos and don’ts of design. “It was a very reputable school and offered the type of program I was looking for, so that was my first and only choice for school.”
While North America is fast and of-the-future, Bates fell in love with the elegance and charm of Europe. His goal is to bridge the gap between the two markets, and offer Canadians something special. “In Europe [men] dress up more, for sure. It’s more innate and ingrained in their culture,” he explained. While here, he said, it’s quite unique for a guy to take an interest in fashion. “It’s a young and small market here in general.”
“I do like to dress up even for my day off,” he said, in contrast with some who walk around town dressed in their pyjamas. “In Europe they’d be ostracised,” he said laughingly, while seated in his apartment comfortably in a rose-hued button-up shirt and fuchsia-coloured socks peaking from under his sleek grey trousers “When they leave the house they put an effort into how they look. It’s really nice, and everyone appreciates it there. I find it stimulating.”
After Bates expands his brand in Canada, his intention is to grow his reach to an international level. “Canada is an important market for me right now, but as I expand, my attention will be all over.” While Bates’ intention is to bring European style to the North American market, he understands that change always needs to occur slowly and softly. “In Canada, you have two things working against you: conservative and conformist cultures. People don’t like to step too far out of their comfort zones and they won’t want to go against the grain,” he explained. “I’d like to make something more avant-garde and forward, but I don’t have the clientele to pull that off yet.”
Multimedia and video production have proven themselves to be the future of promotional imagery, so it is only fitting that Bates is ahead of the curve and already has three short fashion films viewable on his website. As the producer, writer, contributing director and even occasional actor, Bates is extremely involved in the process. “It’s really just storytelling and world-building,” he said. “It’s like breathing life into my brand.”
Fashion films have become so popular, and it seems like the logical next step in the evolution for fashion imagery, which started with illustrations and then continued to photography. “It’s more engaging,” Bates expressed. “You have motion and sound and strong visuals, so it’s really a comprehensive experience.”
The subject matter varies in Bates’ films, but they all capture the essence of the brand. Romance has made an appearance several times, and is a central theme in fashion, according to the designer. “I mean, people dress to impress,” said Bates, “they want to feel good and confidant. That is definitely a story I like to tell with my clothes.” Fast cars and urban cityscapes also contribute to the tone of luxury in the videos.
Christopher Bates, the brand, is quintessentially urban. It caters to a man on the move who is successful and thriving. “[My brand is] very urban, modern and contemporary, so the [city] environment is perfect,” said Bates on being based in Toronto. “It’s a very multicultural city, which is also very interesting. You have every culture, language, art and food.”
While the multiculturalism of Canada may leave some confused about it’s identity, Bates sees it as purely an advantage. “It’s a nice place to be from,” he said. “We are regarded as kind, welcoming and peaceful people, and those are things I really appreciate about Canada.” Bates also believes that as a new and young country, we have the opportunity to write our own story. “Being Canadian, there are not a lot of preconceived notions about who we are, what we can do and who we can be,” he affirmed.
Canada is also unique in the fact that it does not necessarily identify itself with one ethnicity. “It’s very modern,” Bates said enthusiastically. “It’s great. I don’t think people should be identified by anything and they should just be regarded as individuals.” The open-minded designer believes in nurture rather than nature, and thinks that we are all able to build our own identities. “From day one I’ve been working on designing my own life. How do I want to live? What would make me happy? Then I work towards that. I practice it and live it.”
Some designers gravitate towards womenswear due to its infinite possibilities. The woman’s body is a blank canvas, and silhouettes are so diverse. Skirts, blouses, dresses, pants and everything in between are options, while for a menswear designer the silhouette is more streamlined and straightforward. “I guess womenswear is more fun in the sense that you have more options,” mused Bates, “but I really enjoy getting the menswear pieces right.” Each season the silhouettes are similar, but Bates adds unique detailing or different colouring and textiles to create something different. “It’s not radically new, but still new and fresh to me.”
Rather than show a certain look in one collection, and move on to something new for the next, Bates strives to perfect each piece year after year. “If you can perfect the sports jacket, then you deserve an award,” he said passionately. “It’s a very difficult piece to master. Every season my goal is to get better and better with my sports jackets and my tuxedos because there’s where I’m able to have fun.” The amount of thought and purpose that goes into each seam and stitch is inspiring.
We may be what we eat, but Christopher Bates is truly what he makes. The precise tailoring and clean lines so apparent in his design aesthetic directly translate into the way he lives his life. “That is me, and who I am, and how I like to live,” he said. “That is actually a very astute observation, and I’ve never thought of that before,” said Bates pensively. “I am very organized and disciplined, so I suppose that transfers into my design aesthetic.”
The Christopher Bates team consists of many branched-off parties, working from each member’s corner of the earth. Bates has business investors, sales agents, social media masters, and production and manufacturing gurus helping him build his successful line. “It’s all about teamwork,” said Bates. “But it’s lean and modern. You don’t need everybody in the same space in an office environment. I don’t think that’s really necessary anymore.”
The trick of the business, according to Bates, is to find a balance between the creative and the commercial. “I think [fashion] should lie squarely in the middle of that equation if you want to be successful,” he said. “There’s times you may veer right or left, but overall your job as a designer is to balance it.” While the artistic aspect is the one that drew Bates into the industry in the first place, he recognizes that you still have to sell clothes.
In 2008, when Bates showed his first collection on Vancouver’s runways, it was different than what it is now. “I had this label in mind that was a little more high-end streetwear,” he explained. “Urban and youthful and badass, but also with some tailored elements there.” Unfortunately, the market didn’t welcome this innovative combination, and Bates found himself having to readjust his brand. “I found there wasn’t a big market for the streetwear, but there was for the tailored stuff. That’s what I found was my strength, and I’ve since evolved the brand.”
The chicken or egg debate is a perfect metaphor for the fashion industry. While the designers set the trends and create the clothes for the customers to follow and wear, it is still up to the customers and the market which designers make it big. “You can’t dictate what people are going to wear and what it’s going to cost,” said Bates. The relationship between customer and designer is one you need to play around with, to find the right balance.
Bates infamously declared in a previous interview that he hadn’t owned a couch since 2006, and looking around his apartment, that is now confirmed. He explained that he would rather participate than watch. “I put in a lot of hours [at work] and I’m here till 11:00 or 11:30 every night working,” he said. When Bates is not working, he’s either playing sports or out socializing. “That’s still how I live my life,” he affirmed.
Not only is he a brilliant storyteller, but Bates is also an avid reader. “I’ve read for 30 minutes every night for my whole life,” he declared. “It’s not only good for your mind and creativity, which I love, but it’s also an escape.” Currently, Bates’ mind escapes to the battlefields of the First World War in Joseph Boyden’s haunting first novel, Three Day Road. “It really is music. You absorb it without effort. It just flows into you, and that’s very unique,” Bates said of Boyden’s lyrical prose. “It really is enchanting. I’ll definitely share my opinions on social media so I can get as many people to read it as possible.”
Bates never reads a book twice, but he has broken this rule for one title he holds dear. In countless interviews, the designer listed Oscar Wilde’s famous character Dorian Gray as a source of inspiration. “There’s so much wit and humour and playful observation of life in Oscar Wilde’s work,” praised Bates. “[Wilde] was a very forwards thinker in a backwards, ancient-thinking time.”
The classic myth follows Gray, who, terrified of growing old, commissions a portrait of himself to be painted that would age instead of him. While his muse may have had a peculiarly unhealthy view on aging, Bates looks upon youth as something that can be healthily maintained. “I live every moment as full as I can,” explained Bates. “Eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep… And yeah, have fun, but in moderation. I’m here for a good time, but I also want to be around for a long time.”
The Christopher Bates line caters to middle-aged men with money “that are after something that’s stylish and a little bit different.” Bates describes his client as someone who “appreciates quality and understands design.” He lives and breathes his brand, wearing only his own clothes since the day he launched. “I’m the brand ambassador, so I’m always advertising my clothes.”
Bates feels strongly about the man he caters to. “It’s someone who wants to be a gentleman, and someone who strives to be like that. I think that’s what being a man is,” he clarified. “That’s what men should strive to be. I think it’s someone who is career- oriented, well-cultured, educated, well-dressed and that takes care of themselves,” Bates continued. “I was raised with manners being really important, so that will be with me forever.” Christopher Bates not only wears his own brand, but he lives it and embodies it. All men can learn a little something from this gentleman.
Christopher Bates clothing can be found in the following locations: Vancouver: Holt Renfrew. Toronto: Gotstyle Menswear, Gotstyle Distillery, The Coop Ink. Barrie: Imago Boutique.