All dressed up and nowhere to go: How Ottawa’s formalwear businesses are coping with COVID-19

E.R. Fisher Menswear, Sukhoo Sukhoo Khooture, Chapeaux de Madeleine adapting to restrictions on social gatherings, work-from-home trends
Sukhoo Sukhoo Khooture showcased its couture gowns during a 2017 garden party at the German embassy, in support of Cornerstone Housing for Women. Photo by Caroline Phillips
Editor's Note is supported by the generous patronage of Mark MotorsMarilyn Wilson Dream Properties and Sparks Dental. Read their stories here.

If anyone has their work cut out for them during the pandemic it’s suit tailors and dress designers.

With weddings, galas and corporate events cancelled, put on hold or severely restricted, the demand for glamorous gowns and sophisticated suits is hanging by a thread, leaving Ottawa’s formalwear sector in search of new ways to do business.

For Sonia Fisher, president of E.R. Fisher Menswear, 2020 was “the most challenging year” in the history of her venerable business, located at 199 Richmond Rd. in Westboro.

“There’s never been anything like this before.” Not in recent memory, anyway.

The menswear store, founded on Sparks Street in 1905 by Fisher’s great-grandfather, has a reputation for its tailored and made-to-measure suits, custom shirts and formalwear. Fisher, who’s the fourth generation in her family to own E.R. Fisher, purchased the retail store from her uncle, aunt and father in 2009. 

E.R. Fisher Menswear president Sonia Fisher with her father, Peter Fisher, vice-president of E.R. Fisher. (Miv Fournier/MivPhotography

The business, which turned 115 last September, has weathered its share of economic downturns. At the same time, it had just emerged from its best sales year when COVID-19 arrived last March.

“In 2019, we kind of hit a milestone, and things were going very well,” said Fisher. “That is one of the reasons why we’re still here. Over the years, we’ve had such great relationships with our suppliers, our staff and our customers. It’s those relationships that really carried us last year.”

Fisher is confident her business will outlast the pandemic, despite seeing sales drop by 50 per cent in 2020.

“We’re not going anywhere,” said Fisher, who, despite having to temporarily lay off 12 staff during last spring's lockdown, has them all, for the most part, back working for her.

"When the pandemic hit, I was so thankful to have this history and the accumulated knowledge in the business – whether it was our bookkeeper or my uncle, aunt or father – because they've all been in a recessionary situation where they've had to cut back on inventory and adjust staffing levels," said Fisher.

"Even though the pandemic is very unique, there is a little bit of a playbook that I have."

The businesswoman previously expanded her store space in Westboro and, in doing so, began offering more high-quality urban sportswear brands. Those products made up 45 per cent of her sales last year and “helped pull us through” in 2020, said Fisher, who admittedly did end up with extra suits. Also popular has been their casual wear, sleepwear and loungewear.

“I’m very thankful we had a decent Christmas,” said Fisher, who credits the uptick to their pre-pandemic shopping orders back in February of lovely and unique items for her fall season. “I’m so thankful we had them to sell, because they were bought.”

E.R. Fisher Meanswear during a 2019 Open House at E.R. Fisher Menswear at 199 Richmond Rd. (Miv Fournier/MivPhotography)

It wasn’t a good year for the trusty tuxedo, however. Rentals “almost completely stopped” in 2020, with the exception of love-struck millennials bent on getting married.

“Bless their hearts,” said Fisher, who did see some grooms buy made-to-measure suits for their big day, what with their wedding being so much smaller than originally planned.

Fisher is hoping business travel and social gatherings resume later this year; certainly, by 2022.

“I feel sometimes like a salmon swimming upstream when it comes to dress clothing but I believe that dressing up isn't cancelled,” said Fisher. “I think there will be a resurgence.

“We’re not going anywhere."

“It’s a way of celebrating the human experience and life, and making an effort, whether it be for your date or your uncle who passed away or your friend who gets married. All these events in life aren’t going to disappear; they’re still going to happen, and they’re going to require dress clothes, not casual wear."

Fisher believes her business will be "in a really strong position" once the pandemic is over. The need for tailored clothing will continue, she said. "There's a lot of leisurewear out there but we'll never become a Lululemon. They do that really well and we don't want to be them."

As soon as the coronavirus swept into town, Ottawa fashion designer Frank Sukhoo and milliner Madeleine Cormier started getting cancellations on pending orders for couture evening gowns, cocktail dresses and custom-made hats. 

The well-established pair share a space at 146 Dalhousie St. in Lowertown, on the outskirts of the ByWard Market. The boutique is elegant and tasteful; not the least bit snooty or pretentious.

Inside, Sukhoo runs Sukhoo Sukhoo Khooture alongside Cormier, owner of Chapeaux de Madeleine. Clients include Sharon Johnston, wife of former governor general David Johnston, and Beverley McLachlin, retired chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. 

Sukhoo, who was trained at the Richard Robinson fashion design academy, where he also taught, is a loyal supporter of Cornerstone Housing for Women and teaches at EcoEquitable, a nonprofit social enterprise that supports women. Cormier, who first learned the centuries-old trade in Montreal, has been making and designing hats for 25 years.

Frank Sukhoo, owner of Sukhoo Sukhoo Khooture, and Madeleine Cormier, owner of Chapeaux de Madeleine, at their boutique at 146 Dalhousie St. Photo by Caroline Phillips

The storefront window features a female mannequin in a chic pencil skirt paired with a mock turtleneck grey sweater and matching wool cloche hat. The outfit is a marked departure from the eye-popping fashion that usually fills the space. 

“We’ve gone a little more casual because that’s what our clients are asking us for,” Sukhoo explained.

Quipped Cormier: “For our next window display, we’re going to put pajamas.”

Seriously, though; Sukhoo has created a couple of silk robes for clients wanting to lounge around in style during these low-key times.

The front window display features a decidedly more toned-down mannequin to reflect the demand for more casual clothing and hats at Sukhoo Sukhoo Khooture and Chapeaux de Madeleine. Photo by Caroline Phillips

In a normal year, Sukhoo generates about half his sales through his tailor-made dresses. In 2020, he designed only a handful of couture gowns – far less than the two or so dozen he normally makes. The dresses were for small, outdoor weddings. 

Most of Sukhoo’s revenue these days comes from women’s business suits designed for existing clients who want to look stylish and professional, even if it’s for video conference calls done at home. Sukhoo knows his clients’ tailoring measurements and can design their outfits without in-person fittings. As for Cormier, she said her extra downtime has stimulated creative ideas for new designs. She's also starting to hear from men who have an interest in customized hats they can wear every day.

Sukhoo said it would be “much harder to stay in business” without the financial assistance programs rolled out by the federal government over the past 10 months. He successfully applied for rent assistance, the $40,000 interest-free loan and federal financial support, and plans to apply for the Ontario Small Business Support Grant recently announced by the province to help small businesses pull through the current second lockdown.

"What is there to lose?" he asked.

Sukhoo and Cormier say they’ve seen their respective sales drop at least 70 per cent since the start of the pandemic. With two full lockdowns and, at times, very strict restrictions on social gatherings, the demand for couture gowns and fancy fascinators is at an all-time low. 

“I don’t lose sleep over it,” said Sukhoo of his lost revenue. “Maybe I should, but I don’t. That’s not me. I stay positive. I can’t be stressed about something I can’t control; there’s no point. 

“Once this is all done, I think people will get tired of wearing casual clothes and staying in their houses and not doing anything. I know people are looking forward to going to galas again.”