Lou Myles: Well Suited

Lou Myles with his wife, Wendy Switzer Myles at the 2011 Queen's Plate

Canadian suit designer Lou Myles, 87, has died (July 9, 2015) of a massive stroke. His Toronto apparel shop, Lou Myles Disegnatore, was among the first in Canada to specialize in custom-made suits from fine imported material. Here, in this article published in Zoomer (Sept. 2011), we look back at the remarkable life and career of the Canadian sartorial legend.

 

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A good suit is priceless, and no one knows how to dress  a man like Canadian Lou Myles.  For Menswear this season, suits cut with a lean silhouette continue to grab the most attention.

It’s a look that first caught fire in fashion circles in the 1960s, and was made popular in Canada largely as a result of Lou Myles, the Canadian sartorial legend. Myles is making a comeback after having recently opened a new Toronto-area factory and retail location, showcasing the premium made-to-measure product that has made him a coveted name in men’s fashion for more than 50 years.

“I’ve never wanted just to clothe a man, [I want] to give him fashion,” says the dapper octogenarian, explaining, in part, why he and his bespoke suits have never gone out of style. “I’ve always believed in creating clothing made according to good taste and never faddish, clothing that can be worn for years.”

myles-4-HR-IMG_7257It’s an approach that has won the haberdasher many famous (and infamous) clients over the years, a partial list of which reads as a who’s who of 20th-century North American pop culture: Frank Sinatra; The Beatles; Omar Sharif; Tony Bennett; Sir Laurence Olivier; Bob Dylan; Muhammad Ali; David Bowie; Sugar Ray Leonard; Magic Johnson; Lee Iacocca; Bob Hope; Lee Majors; Guns N’ Roses; Steve Nash (who purchased 16 hand-tailored suits this spring, all made to fit his wiry, all-Canadian, NBA frame); and ZoomerMedia Founder Moses Znaimer.

“I never do any advertising,” says Myles, impeccably dressed in one of his own suits, a white handkerchief spilling out of the upper pocket of his single-breasted, two-button, side-vented doppione silk jacket: “All my business is referrals.”

In his day, he also dressed the late prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, as well as New York crime boss John Gotti, nicknamed the Dapper Don for having owned so many custom-made Lou Myles suits. The late Gambino family mobster is now buried in one.

“I’ve dressed them all, from the politicians to the crooks,” says Myles, whose raspy voice and slicked-back silver hair frequently has him confused with the guy in The Godfather who finds the horse’s head in his bed. “If you ask me, the crooks have better manners,” he continues, not at all joking. “They’re good guys. They’re just on the wrong side of the law.”

Born in Toronto in 1928 as Luigi Cocomile, the son of a deaf Italian immigrant shoemaker who raised three children at the corner of College and Clinton on just $9 a week, Myles is sympathetic to those who stray from the path of right because he once strayed himself.

He was raised poor but street-smart. His main preoccupation as a kid on the mean streets of Toronto was shooting craps and other entrepreneurial trades of the minor hoodlum.

“I was a bootlegger and a bookmaker,” he says, nursing a pack of Rothmans over the course of an evening spent one fine June night at The Big Ragu, an intimate trattoria in Toronto’s Corso Italia district, where the chef makes him chicken in bourbon sauce, an item not on the menu.

“But you know, I can’t say I’ve had a bad day in my life. The Big Guy upstairs likes me. He’s always looked out for me. And I thank Him daily for it.”

He was 16 in 1944, shining shoes for change in a downtown Toronto arcade when he met one of the guardian angels doubtless sent to turn him around – Ed Mirvish, the late Toronto retailer and theatre impresario. Mirvish looked down at the punk at his feet and gave him some advice.

“He was beautifully dressed. I looked up at him, and he told me not to waste my life,” says Myles, who, in a twist of fate, later on came to make suits for the man better known as Honest Ed.

“One night, I lost quite a bit of money at craps and I went down to the lakeshore to look at the moon and the stars to ask what I should do. Not long after that, I walked into a men’s clothing store and asked for a job. I never looked back.”

In the 1950s, he worked for Coward Clothes, a menswear chain, before opening his Lou Myles Disegnatore store on Yonge Street, south of Gerrard, in 1960.

After launching his own label that same year, he quickly became an international name in menswear: “We closed the store so The Beatles could shop after hours,” he recalls. “Muhammad Ali, I had to dance around him with a measuring tape. He never kept still.”

With his wife, Wendy Switzer Myles, today an executive vice-president with the Lou Myles Disegnatore business, he relocated in 1988 to an Avenue Road boutique location that offered champagne limousine service to and from the airport for celebrity customers like Vic Damone. The popular singer and actor flew up regularly from Hollywood to Toronto to be outfitted by the clothier he believed to be the only one in North America working with the best fabrics from Italy.

“I still go to Italy for my fabrics,” says Myles, who earlier this year moved the business into a 5,000-square foot factory and showroom at 132 Cartwright Ave., just south of the 401 at Caledonia Road, close to Toronto’s Yorkdale shopping centre. There, his made-to-measure hand-tailored suits start at $2,000 and go as high as $20,000, depending on the fabric.

“My next trip is in the fall and at the mill, I’m going to work with the designer to create a new fabric just for me.” The first fabrics he designed for his company were a plain beige with a chocolate check, a chocolate with a beige check, a plain beige and a plain chocolate. When fashioned into a suit, the jacket could be worn as a sportscoat, or the pieces could be worn together. Two suits would give the buyer several different styles to wear.

While working mostly with Italian-made material, Myles prefers a British cut, a so-called Savile Row silhouette that is more streamlined than American or continental suits.

“I’m not a tailor,” says Myles, a self-taught menswear designer who can look at a man and size him up at glance in determining the right cut for his body. “But I’ve got a good eye. I know how to make a man look good. For me, it’s the cut that makes the man.”

Observes his wife, 26 years his junior, “As Lou has always said himself, the silhouette is key, and his suits slenderize. They make a bad shape look good and a good shape look great.”

This season, the silhouette will be as lean as he first made it in the 1960s when dressing Frank Sinatra and other members of Hollywood’s Rat Pack. They were the ones, with Myles’ help, who made body-conscious suiting popular for North American men.

They are all long dead. But other customers from that era are very much alive and still come to Myles for their clothes. Among them is a veteran Toronto lawyer who in late spring walked into the new Lou Myles showroom in north Toronto with four suits the designer first made for him in 1964.

“I put them on him and said to him, ‘You don’t need any suits. These are perfect. I might need to let them out a bit because you’ve gained a bit of weight – I always dictate to my customers – but other than that, there’s nothing wrong with them. They look as good as the day I made them.’”