Melissa Austria understands men, and that might be her best business asset.
The 46-year-old owner of Gotstyle, a two-store independent menswear retailer in Toronto, Canada, that clears $5 million in annual revenue, says men want shopping to be easy. That’s why her shops offer everything they need to “look good,” right down to grooming supplies.
Men shop for a purpose, not fun, so salespeople help them find an outfit for the wedding or job interview coming up. They’re visual, so Gotstyle puts whole outfits together to help “push them out of their safe bubble,” Austria says. They prefer neighborhood stores to fighting for parking at malls, so her shops are in cool residential areas with good pubs.
They also want the truth, so Austria insists salespeople keep them from buying things that are unflattering (to reinforce that, she pays salaries, not commissions). “And they don’t like to shop around,” she adds. “So once they find a store that they like and a salesperson that they like, then they’ll stay with them forever.”
An On-the-Job Menswear Education
Austria was born in New Brunswick to a geologist father and engineer mother recently arrived in Canada from the Philippines. But she was the athletic type, running track and competing in a high-octane cheerleading squad that accumulated trophies at local, regional and national meets.
Her parents didn’t push college — there wasn’t much money for it — and Austria was more interested in fashion. So she moved to Toronto after high school to attend the Fashion Academy of Merchandising and Design (only briefly — she called it “a joke”) before deciding to get her education on the job.
Austria landed an office position at Harry Rosen, a leading Canadian luxury men’s clothing company, whose hands-on founder Austria calls her role model. She soon moved to the sales floor to sell sportswear and accessories. After a few years, she left for wholesale menswear, which allowed her to work with companies like Calvin Klein, Valentino and Kenneth Cole and travel all over Canada, the U.S. and Europe.
Carving Space in the Middle of the Market
That’s when the dearth of independent, mid-priced menswear stores in Toronto became clear to her. Toronto’s men had only Harry Rosen and the chains in shopping malls. To fill the gap in the middle, she started Gotstyle in 2004 with retirement funds and by re-mortgaging her house — along with a bank loan finagled by a former business partner.
Her first “big break” came in 2005 with a cable TV reality show called “Opening Soon” featured her store. Regular reruns provided a shot of visibility and publicity — and taught Austria about the power of marketing. She has invested in a full-time social media person, weekly email newsletter and is about to launch a print magazine called “The Gotstyle Man.”
Building the company hasn’t been easy. In her third year, a falling out with one of her two business partners led to so much stress she developed shingles, hair loss and almost lost the business. Thankfully, her other partner stepped up, and she was able to revive the business.
It’s been 11 years now, and Gotstyle has 24 employees, including her brother, who manages the warehouse. Austria is thinking hard about getting a lot bigger and expanding into other cities, and is looking for an investor with experience opening many locations.
She thinks Gotstyle has legs. It’s an asset to be a woman in the menswear world, she says. “A man always wants to be told how he looks by a woman versus by a man.”
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