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The measure of a man

Winnipeg trio gives city men a well-fitting life raft when it comes to buying a suit

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BLAME it on genetics.

According to a University of Michigan study, the reason men loathe shopping is because of their prehistoric past. Back in 10,000 BC, whenever a guy needed new duds, his only recourse was to sharpen his spear.

But since most of the clothing options at the time belonged to sabertoothed tigers and wooly mammoths, male cave dwellers quickly learned that hunting for just the right fit had its share of disadvantages.

"The cliché is correct; most gentlemen hate shopping," says Alex Ethans, one of the founders of eph Apparel, a Winnipeg company specializing in economically priced bespoke suits.

"We’ve also heard it said that buying a new suit is an especially daunting experience. So we’re trying to change that mentality by making it fun, exciting and, at the end of the day, a bit educational as well."

The way eph (it’s pronounced "eff," like the letter) accomplishes that is by taking a trip to the mall out of the equation. Without a store to call their own, Ethans and his partners, Andrew Parkes and Maciek Hunek, host private fitting parties for men, either at potential customers’ homes or at the Winnipeg Winter Club.

There, groups as large as 40 are able to peruse the company’s selection of suits, shirts and accessories in a relaxed atmosphere. (How relaxed?

"If we’re at somebody’s house, for example, there are typically a few appetizers floating around, some beverages, guys watching football…," Ethans says.) Ethans, Parkes and Hunek graduated together from the Asper School of Business in 2008. For the next few months, the budding entrepreneurs would hook up at Starbucks on Sunday mornings to sip Frappuccinos and discuss business ideas.

The reason they chose tailor over tinker, soldier or spy was based primarily on personal experience.

"After we finished university, we all needed those first four or five suits for that first business job," says Ethans, the "born salesman" of the group.

"None of us had enough money to buy something lavish, but it seemed everything we tried on at the so-called box stores was ill-fitting. So we decided there had to be some sort of middle ground."

Eph’s "middle ground" works like this: since July 2010, the company has used Facebook to let people know where and when events will be held.

(This weekend for example, eph Apparel will be at the Wonderful Wedding Show at the Convention Centre.) Men — and women ("Lots of guys bring their wives or girlfriends," Parkes says) — arrive at the prescribed time and begin pouring through dozens of binders containing hundreds of swatches.

After individuals settle on a specific fabric and/or pattern — everything from traditional, charcoal greys to Don Cherry-style plaids — they meet one-on-one with a consultant to discuss options like lapel size, back vents and french versus rounded cuffs.

Next, one of the owners takes all of the necessary measurements. Arrangements are then made to meet again when the clothes are ready — usually in about four weeks’ time.

(Suits are stitched overseas and start at $299, including shipping and all customizations.) "The idea itself isn’t too novel — there’s a guy from Hong Kong who comes to town once a year and sets up shop in a hotel," Ethans says, referring to Maxwell’s Clothiers. "How we differentiate ourselves is by being a lot more hands-on in the process. We have a stylist available to help you select a colour or style that best matches your body type. Plus, you’re dealing with a local company."

Another way eph Apparel distinguishes itself from the competition is by encouraging Winnipeg businessmen to brown-bag it.

"We’re the first (clothing) business to go directly into people’s workplaces over the lunch hour," Ethans says. "Last week we were at the Royal Bank. We got a bunch of guys into new suits without any of them having to leave the building."

"They’re actually coming to my office next month," says Andrew Jensen, an investment adviser who has attended three get-togethers at the Winter Club thus far.

"Having them at work is going to be super convenient; we have a lot of guys who put in 12-hour days and don’t have much time to spend at the mall."

Jensen wears a shirt and tie to work "every day of the week." He says he can get two made-to-measure suits from eph for what he used to spend on one off-the-rack item from higherprofile higher­chains.

"Price and product are important, obviously, but what I’m most obsessed with is service," Jensen says, eyeing a blue pin-stripe. "I’ve never been that strong when it comes to buying a suit but I’m really comfortable dealing with these guys. I feel like they’re steering me in the right direction."

(You can add Winnipeg Jets sniper Evander Kane to eph’s list of satisfied customers; on New Year’s Eve, Kane arrived at MTS Centre for a game versus the Toronto Maple Leafs sporting a flashy, metallic grey number he picked up from eph in November.) Earlier this week, eph hosted its first fitting in Calgary, at the Marriott Hotel. The partners are hoping to expand operations to include franchises in Saskatchewan and Ontario in the near future.

"Our business model is very applicable to other cities in Canada; there isn’t much out there that bridges the gap between high-end and bargain-basement," Parkes says, mentioning that eph will also be introducing a women’s line of made-to-measure skirts, pant suits and blazers later this year.

For more information on eph Apparel, visit their website at www.ephapparel.com

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