Toronto retailer Melissa Austria gets men. Her thriving menswear stores cater to guys who want to look good but hate to shop by providing everything they need in one place — suits, casual wear, accessories and even a shave and a haircut.
See related video and article: Melissa Austria is Building the Retail Store of the Future
MELISSA AUSTRIA: If you take care of a guy he will be your customer for life.
INTRO: (as music plays lightly in background) Welcome to The Story Exchange, featuring the stories and strategies of entrepreneurial women around the world.
COLLEEN: I’m Colleen DeBaise
SUE: And I’m Sue Williams
COLLEEN: Today -- as we often do -- we’re talking about a woman in a man’s world.
SUE: Except this time, she’s LITERALLY in a man’s world
COLLEEN: That’s right -- we’re going to introduce you to Melissa Austria of Toronto, Ontario...who’s actually in fashion.
SUE: Men’s fashion.
MELISSA: We’re Canada. We got a lot of big boys
COLLEEN: Melissa is the founder of GotStyle….it’s sort of a one-stop retail shop for guys…
(SOT: Melissa: Oh, looks nice. Yeah, much better with the brown shoes. GUY: Yeah MELISSA: Yup)
MELISSA Guys want...one place where they can buy (PICK UP) their weekend wear, their hangout clothes, their going out clothes, their suits, different brands for different body types and different price levels.
COLLEEN: Melissa opened GotStyle back in 2005 -- she now carries 35 designer brands, has her own custom label, and makes more than $5 million a year.
SUE: She really understands not just business but the male psyche.
MELISSA: As long you know what you’re talking about, men are very receptive to having women sell you clothes.
COLLEEN: We were fascinated by this concept of a woman not just breaking into the boys club, but running the boys club -- so we headed to the lovely but cold city of Toronto to talk with Melissa. If you go to our website, TheStoryExchange.org, you can watch a video we produced, telling Melissa’s complete story. Today, we’re going to share snippets of that conversation. If you’re interested in reaching customers who dress or shop or act differently than you, keep listening.
MELISSA: I was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, the eastern part of Canada - a shock, I’m sure to my parents because they came from the Philippines
COLLEEN: Melissa has always been into fashion.
MELISSA: When I was growing up...most girls would have Leif Garrett or Sean Cassidy on their wall. I would cut out Vogue magazines and put that all over my wall. And, in fact, when I was in high school I got voted “best dressed.”
COLLEEN: No surprise - she decided to study fashion…briefly, anyways.
MELISSA: I decided to move to Toronto to go to the Academy of Merchandising and Design which was the biggest joke in the entire world.
COLLEEN: OK, not a fan of college -- or college tuition, which was quite expensive, so Melissa dropped out.
MELISSA: After being almost like, you know, $15,000 in debt I’m thinking, “I need to get a job.”
COLLEEN: And that is when something happened -- in Melissa’s own words, a “total fluke” -- that really changed the course of her entire fashion career.
MELISSA: I was lucky enough to pretty much quite early on start working at Harry Rosen.
MAN”S VOICE: “Harry Rosen carries suits from the most renowned labels in the world…”
MELISSA: Harry Rosen is the preeminent menswear store in Canada, he really elevated shopping for men.
COLLEEN: It’s basically Canada’s equivalent to Saks Fifth Avenue -- an upscale department store, but one devoted exclusively to men.
MELISSA: I started off actually just doing administrative work, and then within a short period of time the store manager asked if I wanted to start selling on the floor.
COLLEEN: That’s when Melissa’s real education happened.
MELISSA: So as a young female, you’re starting off selling shirts and ties, then sportswear, and they start giving you a very rigorous training to start selling tailored clothes cause they really wanna be sure that you know what you’re doing before selling a $2,000 suit to somebody.
COLLEEN: Now, for fans of fashion history...let’s pause here for a little lesson in men’s wear. While fashion has become synonymous with women’s outfits (ball gowns and the like) -- traditionally, men had glorious wardrobes, whether they were headed off for battle, or dressed for the royal court. In fact, in the 1920s, the Duke of Windsor was considered the world’s first international style icon.
MELISSA: I was still in my early 20s so it sort of just started my taste into menswear.
COLLEEN: Melissa soon discovered that she liked working with male customers, too.
MELISSA: Men come with a, a goal in mind. They need something, “I have an outfit, I have an event, I need this.” (PICK UP) They want that more communication compared to women. Women are really funny. When, when we go shopping we’re like, You know, don’t talk to me. Men wanna be talked to.
COLLEEN: So Melissa became an expert in the male wardrobe. She eventually left retail to work in wholesale menswear…
MELISSA: So Liz Claiborne was launching their menswear division so I went there and that was a great learning experience.
COLLEEN: She also managed iconic brands like Calvin Klein and Armani, traveling frequently to NY and Europe. And that brings us to 2005….when Melissa, finally, decided to branch out on her own.
MELISSA: I really felt that there was a void in the marketplace. (PICK UP) For me it was either Harry Rosen, which was beautiful store but very high end, or it was Tip Top, which was a low-end commodity-driven store…
COLLEEN: Her idea? A place where guys who don’t like to shop could pick up hip clothes or cool suits -- and get plenty of advice. And that’s how GotStyle came to be.
COLLEEN: We’ve been sharing the story of Melissa Austria, who spent 12 years developing an expertise -- and surprising interest -- in menswear before opening her own retail store. Sue -- you’re our resident filmmaker -- you spent a day in Toronto, shooting our video profile…
SUE: I did. You can watch the video on our site, The Story Exchange.org.
COLLEEN: So Melissa set out to create a one-stop shop that had elements of a gentlemen’s club, but with a modern aesthetic….
SUE: Yes -- she actually has two locations now. One is in Toronto’s Distillery District, a very popular tourist area, with cobble-stone, pedestrian streets and good bars and restaurants. The store is lovely - big windows, lots of light, and high ceilings, it has a loft-like feel. In addition to a lot of beautiful clothes and accessories, they have a few women’s clothes on display which Melissa says she actually avoids! Her other store is in a cool, but more residential area and that’s where they have grooming supplies, and sometimes a DJ spinning, and men can get manicures, haircuts and shaves. A one stop shopping experience for guys who hate to shop!
COLLEEN: She really put a lot on the line to open her first store -- she quit her job, she remortgaged her home, she sunk her retirement funds into it...
SUE: And it still wasn’t enough...let’s listen
MELISSA: I probably should’ve had at least a good half a million to 750 in the bank ready to go. You should be opening a business with at least enough cash in the bank to last you for three or four months in case the sales don’t come in. So I opened up with not enough cash in the bank and with debt. So right from the get-go I was behind the eight ball.
SUE: But she got very, very lucky -- as she was opening her first shop, HGTV (the cable network) decided to feature her store in a reality show. We have a clip of it here...
SOT: “She’s five-foot-nothing, but Melissa Austria is determined to play with the big boys…”
MELISSA: They pretty much followed us for about six months prior to opening, so all the headaches, all the trials and tribulations...PICK UP (09:54:15) That branding really, really helped get the store, you know, on the map.
SUE: Of course, it hasn’t all been easy.… she’s run into quite a few legal issues along the way, including a break up with her first business partner.
MELISSA: We’re you know, yelling and screaming in the store, which is, you know, obviously not good for the staff and not good for the customers
SUE: She hired a lawyer and bought the partner out -- but not before the stress of the situation took its toll on her.
MELISSA: I had shingles on my face. My hair was coming out in like huge clumps. At the same time if I didn’t go through that heartache it wouldn’t make me who I am today. So now I find that nothing fazes me. Nothing’s an issue. Nothing’s a big deal.
COLLEEN: I like her feistiness.
SUE: Yes, she’s tough. And when you see her in the store with her staff, you see she is a leader too. She knows what she wants. At the same time, there is a bit of an artistic side to her, she truly loves well-made clothes. When our film crew was there, we met the gentlemen who makes her suits... Now I know very little about men’s suits but I was blown away by the beauty of the fabrics and the details.
MELISSA: So our private label suits are made in Montreal. It’s at a manufacturing plant that’s been around for about I think 150 years and our shirts are made in Toronto also at a manufacturing plant that’s been around for 55 years.
SUE: Melissa looks at suit-making as an art form. It’s important for her to be supporting the craft in Canada. And it also allows her to get very small orders - she can order 12 shirts for guys with extra long arms and get them quickly, which you could never do if they were made in China. That’s good for business because it’s allowed her to offer a very personalized service that her customers appreciate and are willing to pay for.
MELISSA: I’m very ambitious [LAUGHS]. Globally right now menswear is outpacing women’s wear in terms of sales percentage increase so we’re definitely planning on expanding.
COLLEEN: Melissa now has 24 employees, including her brother, who runs her warehouse, and she’s looking for investors as she considers franchising…
MELISSA: I think there’s a great opportunity, you know, in the US and internationally as well, too, for what we wanna do.
SUE: Because she’s still small, she can be nimble -- she’s trying a host of new technologies, integrating into her business the best digital tools she can find…
MELISSA: We actually launched the app with mobile pay a couple months before Apple launched their Apple Pay. It also allows us when you come into the store you pop up on our iPad, “Now, hey, Steve’s in the store,” so we can greet them by name.
COLLEEN: Now, as far as being a woman in a man’s world is concerned…Melissa says it’s never been an issue for her.
SUE: In fact, her role model is the Canadian gentleman she once worked for….
MELISSA: Definitely Harry Rosen is still someone that I look up to. No matter how many stores, how busy he got he was always still on the floor every Saturday and that’s one thing that I try to do.
COLLEEN: And if she does expand, she wants to have women running all her stores.
MELISSA: Women are just better multitaskers and I think they give that warm, fuzzy feeling that you wanna have in a retail environment.
(10:21:39) At the end of the day a guy would rather be told by a woman that, “You look great in those jeans” versus another guy telling him, “You look great in those jeans.”
SUE: I’m Sue Williams
COLLEEN: I’m Colleen DeBaise
OUTTRO: Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or….maybe you would. This has been The Story Exchange. If you liked this podcast, please post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.