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December 11, 2017
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Menswear Manifesto: Uncle Otis

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Uncle Otis' retail space in Yorkville, Toronto. Photograph courtesy of Uncle Otis.

Donnell Enns is the current owner of Uncle Otis, the Toronto-based, aesthetically intuitive menswear retailer and online shop, tailored to the casually well-dressed individual. Since 1991, Uncle Otis has been supplying Toronto's men with top-tier streetwear and smart casual wear.

Photograph courtesy of Uncle Otis. 

David Walmsley: How did Uncle Otis happen? Why the Yorkville area of Toronto?

Donnell Enns: The shop's original owner, Roger O'Donnell [The Cure's keyboardist], had a cheeky attitude towards the stuffiness of Yorkville [an upscale area in Toronto] and its boring high-end shops. He opened up a streetwear shop in the most unlikely of areas in Toronto: Yorkville. He wanted a shop that catered to an audience who wanted product that, at that time, was different and harder to find. 

DW: How has the style and branding of the store changed over the last twenty years?

DE: When I took over the store in 2000, I thought it was time for a slight rebrand. My brother (who handles the creative side) changed a few things, such as our logo (from uppercase to lowercase). The larger change was the renovation in 2005. The interior aesthetic then became the canvas upon which the clothing was the focal point, as if the shop was a gallery space. 

As I've grown up, my tastes have changed, and so too have those of our customers. Leonardo Da Vinci's quote applied (and it still does), when he said, "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." 

DW: What are some of the lesser-known brands you're currently stocking that you're excited for people to hear about?

DE: Currently, we break down our brand list into four regional categories: Canadian, American, Scandinavian, and British. There are so many amazing, quality brands coming out of these countries.

For Canadian content, we have a tight local label called 18 Waits (run by Daniel Torjman) that we've carried for a few seasons and is progressing immensely every season. They're a great example of a brand expressing Canadian design heritage in a way that isn't so obvious. Another local label to look out for this spring is United, which is spearheaded by our good friend, Sydney, who pioneers KIN here in Toronto. They are adding themselves to the list of well-priced, well-designed Japanese denim options that are produced in North America.

On the American side, Yuketen and Levi's Made and Crafted are always timeless winners. Grenson and Garbstore from the UK are newer brands to us that we're very excited to offer as well.   

Leonardo Da Vinci's quote applied (and it still does), when he said, 'simplicity is the ultimate sophistication'

DW: What made the shop go from a skate-style streetwear shop to selling more upscale brands like Rag & Bone, Canada Goose, Generic Man, etc.?

DE: During its more streetwear days, the shop was very niche but with a street influence. Being in business for over twenty years, the shop is constantly evolving. In order to keep us enthused (as well as keeping our loyal customers enticed), we must always try new things. It really was a natural progression: we grew up, essentially. The focus became more about a tailored fit, superior fabric and quality garment construction. All of the brands we carry have those elements in their products. When scouting for new brands, those factors always come into play.

DW: Your displays and in-store photos tend to have a very clean and well-thought out plan behind them. Where do the design concepts of Uncle Otis stem from?

DE: Thanks for the compliment! I have my brother to thank for that - he's essentially the creative director of Uncle Otis. We share a similar taste in conscious design. When approaching aspects of design, we must really enjoy it ourselves before putting it out there for everyone to see: it has more of personal, hands-on connection.

DW: How important is it for you to balance your stable of international lines with Canadian ones?

DE: It's actually become very important to us in the last few years. Only now are there top-notch, internationally-recognised, Canadian brand choices available. Five years ago, we pretty much only had Wings + Horns and Spruce to offer. Now you have many more innovative names such as KIN, Klaxon Howl, 18 Waits, United, and Canada Goose.

Canadians want to see homegrown product and are excited to buy into it. There are always going to be remarkable brands everywhere else in the world, but when we can offer an excellent product with a "Made in Canada" label, it has more of a personal attachment to it. We're very proud to showcase Canadian content, especially when our international clientele sees it - it's that much more special.

Photograph courtesy of Uncle Otis. 

DW: Uncle Otis seems to have a good online presence, between an online store and various social media avenues. Has the online atmosphere changed the way Uncle Otis operates?

DE: It's funny - when I took over, I would be hard-pressed to find a store similar to ours that had a webpage, let alone a full commerce site. The market we deal with has become globally competitive; it means we are in the same playing field as stores in America, Sweden, the UK, and everywhere else. 

Ultimately, I would say that there have been many positive effects. Being online, our international customer base has expanded. Without an e-commerce site, we probably wouldn't even last. Without our website, people would forget about us pretty quickly. I could be wrong but I'm not willing to gamble on it. The upside to social media is that we get more exposure without having to do much. When it's a tasteful magazine like The Genteel, it works even more in our favour.

We could most definitely use more social media attention but I'm a bit of an old fashioned kind of guy, I guess.

DW: What was the involvement of Roger O'Donnell in starting Uncle Otis?

DE: I turned to Roger himself for this answer:

"It was pretty much totally my idea: the concept, the name, the location, and the investment. Initially, I thought that I would fund it for six months: I really didn't think it would last after that. Twenty years later and it's still here, thanks to Donnell and Martin.

The whole idea was to bring newly emerging streetwear into an area where they had never seen anything like it: bringing downtown uptown. All our neighbours hated us, because we had such a different approach. We would just as soon chat to a person who walked in the shop as sell them something.

I think that, because we had money behind it, the commerciality of the project took a back seat. I would spend every day in the shop talking to customers, friends, and relatives; or in the back designing t-shirts or talking to Shawn Stussy about Frank Zappa. Looking back, it was one of the best times. I still have a lot of friends and a lot of clothes from those first five years." 

Photograph courtesy of Uncle Otis.  

DW: Where does the name "Uncle Otis" come from?

DE: With Roger being very influenced with music from his days in The Cure, he created a name derived from being a big Otis Redding fan. He also wanted a name with notions that were non-racial: one that people could relate to - hence he combined the name into Uncle Otis.

DW: Does the personal style of the Uncle Otis team change what you buy for the shop? How do you differentiate between trends and what's going to last, in terms of your selection?

DE: It most definitely it does. We're not a very trendy shop, per se. Our buying mandate has always centered on timeless pieces or classics with a modern twist. We may adapt to current looks so our clientele can relate to our offerings but we really only sell what we at the shop proudly wear and have a keen taste for.

When buying for the shop, we'll ask ourselves, "will this piece or product be cool or relevant in five or more years?" We want our customers to get the most out of their purchase.

We love what we do and have an immense passion for it. With Martin having a sharp-witted British influence (both fashionably and vocally), his expertise is very much nurtured by his own look(s) and is most valuable in carrying out Uncle Otis' commitment to personal style.


Uncle Otis

26 Bellair Street, Toronto, ON, Canada 

http://uncleotis.com/

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