Vv Magazine’s Anthony O’Dell sits down with the team behind the Toronto-designed menswear brand CUT + TSO to discover what it takes to launch a brand internationally, why they’re keeping the brand Canadian and more.
These days, menswear brands are a dime but every so often, a brand rises through the clutter to create something special. Canada has steadily gained a reputation for its quality design and craftsmanship, exemplified by brands like Reigning Champ and Naked & Famous who have been making a name for themselves internationally. The newest brand to join the list is CUT + TSO.
In the past few years, CUT + TSO has quietly but steadily built a following, which includes artist Marty Grimes, for their unorthodox take on current menswear staples such as tees & bomber jackets. Behind the brand is a three-headed team made up of Michael D’Ercole (sales & marketing), Michelle Nguyen (designer) & Philip Tso (designer/founder). I had the chance to chat with them about their new collection, going to Paris and what’s next for the brand.
Can you tell me a bit about how the brand started?
Philip Tso: Four years ago, I started off with jackets. The first jacket I made was the Ninja Bomber. It was in retail for about 3 years ago and did really well. I needed more help because I didn’t have any technical training. That’s where Michelle comes in, she’s great with patterns and makes the most ingenious products.
One of the things that really stood out to me about the brand was the quality. Why did you choose to make it Canada and why have you kept it here?
Michael D’Ercole: For practical reasons, like quality insurance, but also because a lot of streetwear brands choose to move their productions to China, which is okay, but what about that slightly older consumer that doesn’t want something cheap? We’ve assessed who our customer is and found a lot of them have well-paying 9-5 jobs and want something different. Our clothes offer the opportunity to be who they want to be outside of work. That same customer wants a jacket with a high-quality zipper, leather from Spain, cotton from Japan, etc… Phil & Michelle get a chance to check up on the production every couple of weeks and do multiple revisions on each garment. We can then make one perfect garment and put it into production.
PT: We didn’t want to sacrifice the product to make a bit more money. You have to cheap out on pretty much everything to sell something at a price point you can’t really compete with (most big retailers have minimums in the thousands to produce in China). A lot of these companies also try and scale too quickly but by focusing on quality & a unique design, we ‘re building a foundation for a brand built to last.
Michelle Nguyen: As a consumer and artist, when I spend what I consider a lot of money on an item, it’s my baby. I wanted to create something that the consumer will not only covet but also cherish for years to come.
Canada isn’t as fashion forward as a market like Paris…
PT: I wouldn’t say Canadians aren’t fashion forward. Canada is fashion forward, they just don’t take many risks on smaller brands. They’re on the trends but the problem is, retailers don’t take as many chances on new brands. We have to go to markets like Paris, New York, and London, where they have the ability to take risks on new brands. We’re not knocking the Toronto market, we’re from here and we grew up here. It would be awesome to walk into some of those boutiques and see our products but unfortunately, the market isn’t there yet.
One thing I noticed about you guys is the big emphasis on retail, which is something I think a lot of Canadian brands forget – that they have to sell clothes, not only direct to consumer but also traditional wholesale. Can you talk a bit about Liberty?
MD: Liberty invited us out and then we committed to the F/W show in Vegas. What we found was that the buyers there were looking for a more reasonable price-point. At Liberty, we met a sales agent that pushed us onto Tranoi, an international trade show in Paris stacked with the best new menswear brands in the world. CUT + TSO is also a darker/monochromatic brand so it was naturally a better fit for our aesthetic.
What do you hope to accomplish in Paris?
MD: We want to get a Toronto retailer there – we’ve been in talks with a couple in the city now. We also want to get into the European and Asian markets. We met Kin LA in Liberty – they haven’t even received our F/W and already want to look at our S/S, so that’s the type of retailer we want to work with, companies that give us a genuine chance. In the city, we want to partner with great style brands, Vitaly is a great example. We’re working with them on a project for their online platform.
PT: We’re looking to align ourselves with brands with the same point of view on longevity and quality, locally and abroad. We have Atrium as our first big retailer in NYC so we’re looking to build off that with similar retailers internationally.
Everyone knows the speed of fashion is moving at a neck breaking pace. Would you consider doing an in-season collection?
MD: The big retailers that are doing that are pushing a trend and by the time we’re in a feasible position to do that, the trend will likely pass. We’re not in a position to drop in season and we’ll continue to align ourselves with the traditional calendar for the time being.
MN: We have some ideas in the pipeline to do some exclusives, whether that’s a special piece for an event or collaboration that will be online only.
What can we expect from your S/S 2017 collection that will be unveiled in Paris?
PT: It’s very functional; I don’t want to unveil too much. There’s a lot of clever details men will appreciate and the theme is Air. That’s all I can say about it now.
Where does your inspiration come from as designers?
PT: When Michelle and I design, we rarely look at other brands and start from within. If we look to other brands for inspiration, we’d naturally start to look like other brands and lose our uniqueness.
MN: We see what we like and try to design with a blank slate.
MD: You guys start with an idea and then look to where you can find it. For example, Phil had the ninja idea and incorporated it into the jackets. They essentially create a mental blueprint in their heads of what they want it to be and go from there.
What’s the one thing you think separates yourself from the dozens of contemporary menswear brands out there?
MD: A lot of other contemporary brands take pieces and ideas from high fashion, for example, the biker jean, and knock it off. I see our garments along high fashion but they don’t directly align with our aesthetics. Phil doesn’t even know who those designers are. (Laughs)
PT: We don’t have millions of dollars for marketing so we can’t distinguish ourselves by copying other people. The way to do that is by changing classic pieces to fit our own aesthetic. For example, the Ninja Bomber. We didn’t just take the bomber jacket and change the fabric or color, we made a new silhouette.
What’s your favorite piece from the collection?
PT: The Shearling Trench. It’s completely unlined and I don’t like to wear scarves so I love that the collar has the same cut as the Ninja bombers.
MN: Overalls we made for the F/W 16 collection. Overalls are trending but we didn’t just want to make another pair of overalls. We put a lot of thought into them and we just love them!
PT: Some brands just add a flap for the sake of aesthetic but they are actual working overalls, there are pockets on the inside.
Where can we find CUT + TSO now?
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