The first thing I notice about Philip Sparks is his eyes. Chestnut brown, they have a curious habit of flitting about mid-conversation, darting away for fleeting moments to spy my outfit – rolled-up sleeves, New Balance sneakers, ketchup-stained jeans. If Sparks wasn’t so amiable I’d think he was looking through me, catching all the unfinished edges. Wait, is he?
As we stroll through his delicately cluttered menswear factory, spotted with antique typewriters, countless fabric swatches and a pale green chalkboard reading “Bonjour,” I slowly relax. He’s not judging me. He’s just being a designer.
Ever since his 2007 debut, Sparks’ eye for detail has became his signature. Known for retro accessories, twee styling and hand-stitched suits, he quickly climbed the fashion ladder, becoming the go-to guy for top-quality (and top dollar) local designs for both men and women.
After eight solid years, things suddenly flipped. Sparks turned heads this spring with a barrage of minor bombshells. He would no longer make womenswear. He was shuttering his quaint little shop at Ossington and Foxley and moving back into his Junction factory, his mothership since 2012. Finally, he would stop producing seasonal collections and instead focus on bespoke menswear suiting.
For Sparks’ fans, it was a lot to stomach, and many were left with questions. Where was the brand going? Why would he abandon Ossington for a secluded, industrial corner of town? Sitting on a sun-basked sofa in his Junction shop window, Sparks chatted with Vv Magazine about his new vision, getting back to his roots and why he thought Ossington was becoming too “beer-and-burgers” for his $2000-a-suit brand.
First, tell us about this space. How did you design it?
I thought about it in terms of when you visit a winery and you can see how the process happens, or like an open kitchen at a restaurant. I’m not trying to hide the mess; I’m trying to let people see into the workspace. You can see that people are sewing. I’m really trying to highlight that we do it all.
What was it like saying goodbye to the Ossington shop?
Ossington was a beautiful shop. I liked being there a lot. But I did really see the whole street changing.
When we opened on Ossington there was a lot of development proposals for more people to move into the community. There were a lot of high-end restaurants bringing great clientele to the neighbourhood.
And then everything went very beer-and-burgers, if you will. It went in a very casual direction. There was unfortunately a very big divide between the community around Ossington and the businesses around Ossington. A lot of people who lived in the community really didn’t want to see any development on the strip — they wanted to stop or slow as much development as possible. So there was really a lack of a sense of community I was hoping would be there.
But here there has been great support from the BIA down in the Junction and other business in the area. It’s full of creative people.
Let’s talk foot traffic. I was introduced to Philip Sparks during a walk down Ossington, and I think that’s how a lot of people met your brand. Are you worried that being in the Junction — which is pretty isolated — will hurt your business?
When I started the company, our focus was on menswear, on suiting, on coats and some small accessories. Through the years we tried a variety of new things, and now I’ve really tried to get back to my grassroots: suiting. And … that wasn’t a service we were really able to capture in Ossington, based on space constraints.
People who are seeking out the service that we’ve decided to focus on are really researching that kind of thing. They’re not just wandering in window shopping for bespoke suits. On that persecutive we’re not relying on walk-ins. That said, I do get walk-ins for bespoke suits here!
Really? That shocks me.
There’s a lot of other really creative businesses in the neighbourhood that have really good clientele and they’re in the area. Then they see us and go, “Who are you guys? What do you do? I’ve been looking for somebody [like you]!” And it goes from there.
You mentioned a new direction. Can you lay it out for us?
We’re really just focused on bespoke. We wanted to keep some off-the rack options, but we’ve been really bombarded with requests for bespoke.
I want to ask about womenswear. You’re no longer making any, correct?
We’re not doing any more womenswear off the rack. I can and have done bespoke suiting for women. Again, I’m trying to make my focus men’s bespoke suiting. But I’ve done a couple tuxedos for women for weddings, which was fabulous.
I have to admit, I’m a fan of your clothes. I own the grey shawl sweater you made for winter, and I loved your winter coats. Will we ever see these sorts of pieces again, or is your focus just bespoke bespoke bespoke?
[Laughs] Thank you! We’ve been working towards getting more shirting off the rack. We continue to carry small accessories, so all the neckties and bow ties and hankies and sunglasses. We have a few bags, and what’s fun about them is that we have a few different leathers you can order, as well.
So bespoke bags?
I wouldn’t call it a bespoke bag because we’re not saying, “Come in and we’ll design whatever bag you want.” But we offer some degree of customization. I just like to be careful about the word bespoke.
Good point. Bespoke has been really buzzy lately; Toronto Life did a feature on it last fall. But what makes something bespoke?
It’s not a short definition. First, there has to been some degree of handwork. That’s one of the key factors. With bespoke, a pattern should be made for you specifically. You shouldn’t just be forced into making a selection off the rack.
On on our bespoke jackets, we do a full chest piece that goes the whole front of the jacket. [Sparks walks over to a worktable and picks up a jacket in progress.] The whole thing gets hand-pasted in place and hung inside the jacket. With really cheap suits there’s a glue on the canvas and they’ll glue it right to the canvas, whereas we build the shape in by hand with hand-stitching. And then when it’s all done the canvas hangs loose still, separate form the rest of the garment. That lasts better through dry cleanings, it molds to your body. It’s less a plate of armour and is more suited to your body.
I could bore you so much with this.
What price range are we talking about?
A bespoke suit starts at $2,000. That’s for a jacket and pant. And the price goes up based on fabrication. We have large range.
Are you selling a luxury product?
[Pauses] Um, I guess. Yeah. It’s a luxury experience for sure. It’s a luxury product for sure.
A lot of men are thinking about wedding season right now. Any style advice?
The trend has definitely been blue. From navies to more cobalt, bold strong blues, that’s the trend I’ve seen. I’ve gotten a lot of requests for shawl collar tuxedos with the contrasting silk collars. That’s really interesting with the black collar with the blue.
How would you style a blue suit? (Confession: I have a wedding in Italy this month and one blue suit.)
I would recommend a cognac dress shoe. You can’t go wrong with a really nice white shirt. And then you can have more fun with the colour of the pocket square, necktie or bowtie. You can let those small accessories be a bit of a contrast. You’re really letting blue be the statement.
Aside from these big business changes, what are you most looking forward to this summer?
Gosh, I don’t have any big travel plans. It’s simple. Just go up north. I love the water. Anytime I can spend on a boat would be wonderful.
At Vv, we’re already thinking about TIFF. Is that on your radar, too?
Yes. If someone wants something for TIFF we usually say you need eight to ten weeks for a suit. Some of the fabrics come from very rural places and take a while to get here. You want to be thinking about it mid-July.
Any famous men you’ve styled?
Oh gosh. I don’t like to name drop that kind of stuff. I like to let paying clients be paying clients.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
What do you think about Philip Sparks’ new direction? Let Vv Magazine know in the comments below, or tweet us @ViewtheVibe.