The Genteel
April 21, 2021


The Club Collar. (Photo Source:

Mark Johnson is a retail Renaissance man. Not only is he the designer behind Kovalum - an Indian inspired, Canadian made clothing line - he oversees the full spectrum of production, distribution and marketing for the brand, from sourcing fabrics and factories to hiring models and makeup artists - and he began it all while working full-time as a lawyer. After being fired (an occurrence he calls "lucky"), he was able to focus on growing his line of stylish shirts, jackets and accessories, which now sell in boutiques in Toronto and New York, as well as online.

The Genteel spoke with Johnson about conquering the learning curve and where he plans to take his business from here.

Mark Johnson (Photograph
courtesy of Kovalum).

Charlotte Herrold: When did you start Kovalum? What inspired you to start a fashion line?  

Mark Johnson: I started in the spring of 2008 after coming across an old Madras cotton jacket that my dad wore in the mid-sixties. I myself wore it twenty odd years ago when I was in university. I got compliments on it back then and I wondered if I could produce them now with an updated design. Kovalum started with that initial curiosity and almost two years of background work, and we've grown carefully since. 

CH: What was your career path before starting Kovalum?  

MJ: Corporate law, which I admit is an unusual, almost laughable starting point. But I really haven't had a "career" - it's more of an adventure. Kovalum is another part of that journey.

CH: When you started the clothing line, were you consciously looking to shift towards a career in fashion or was it initially intended to be a hobby?  

MJ: I had always wanted to build up a business within a law practice setting - but things and events changed that. You really can't control your career destiny. An opportunity presented itself to develop Kovalum and I took it. It's still very much a side project to my mainline career, but I take it much more seriously than just a hobby.

CH: What is your educational background and how does it relate to what you are doing now?  

MJ: Economics, then law - totally, absolutely irrelevant. But I can say that the organisational and critical skills that I learned in those two fields have been helpful.

CH: When it comes to a career in fashion, what do you think is more important: education or experience?  

MJ: Experience. I don't think of myself as someone in the fashion industry, but rather someone in the clothing business. We need to make money after all. Experience helps in business.

As much as we can, Kovalum tries to support local businesses, but we're not self-righteous about it. It makes good business sense. We're a small, independent clothing line that does small runs for each of its designs.

CH: When did you realise you were on to something big? 

MJ: Kovalum has had many small successes that have built on each other. Being in the National Post just before Christmas was big. Also, having our shirts in the main window in Vespa Soho in Manhattan was pretty gratifying.

CH: What is your favourite part of what you do now? Least favourite?

MJ: Launching a new product or promo is always fun. Least fun? Tax returns.

CH: What types of other industry professionals do you work with regularly?

MJ: Everyone from upstream to downstream: suppliers of fabrics, buttons and drawstrings, pattern makers, garment factories, label and tag makers, IT guys, shippers and printers - all the way through to photographers, modelling agencies and retailers.

CH: How did you go about researching styles and fabrications that you wanted to use when you first started?  

MJ: The hard way. I had no experience or exposure in this industry before I started. There were lots of trips to fabric stores, test purchases, prototypes made. Trial and error.

CH: What vacuum do you think Kovalum fills in the retail industry?

MJ: Kovalum tries to be casual but clean, not a sloppy casualness. As for the men's garments, Kovalum tries to present a masculine style, one that doesn't make men feel like they're compromising their masculinity if they're stylish.

CH: Why is it important to you that your products are locally manufactured?  

MJ: As much as we can, Kovalum tries to support local businesses, but we're not self-righteous about it. It makes good business sense. We're a small, independent clothing line that does small runs for each of its designs. I don't order a thousand units of one style and so I need smaller, niche suppliers.

Having local suppliers also helps with quality control. I can visit the suppliers and develop a personal relationship with them. That type of relationship is easier to manage than one that's one the other side of the world, ten hours ahead.

Kovalum Tunic, modelled on the
traditional Indian kurta
(Photograph courtesy of Kovalum).

CH: How did India factor into your inspiration for the clothing line?  

MJ: Kovalum is named after the beach in southern India. It's a mecca for surfers and travellers from around the world. The 45-year-old jacket that was the genesis for Kovalum is made from Indian madras. And so our James and Jemma pullover jackets are made from genuine Indian madras as well. The logos on our bamboo T-shirts are based on real Indian signs that I photographed when I was there two years ago. Our Royal Enfield line is a collaboration with an Indian motorcycle company. And finally, part of our proceeds helps [Saint James Orphanage], a girls orphanage in Kerala, India. There's a real Indian connection to Kovalum.

CH: What are your plans for Kovalum moving forward? How do you see the business growing in the next few years?  

MJ: We'll be carefully launching new products and expanding into some boutiques. Kovalum is underweighted in womens wear so we'll be adding to that side of the business with a few new products such as business casual shirts, a new tunic style for this summer and some silk and linen scarves that we'll be launching soon. Our female customers will be pleased. We'll also be looking at expanding our retailer footprint. We're looking to get into some small, independent shops in Europe and few American cities.  




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