Montreal suit maker Samuelsohn tries to tap into Big Apple buzz

Arnold Silverstone moves up the line of men like a general inspecting the ranks. Instead of an officer’s uniform, however, he wears a navy overcoat, charcoal turtleneck and grey tweed trousers to guard against Manhattan’s January chill. His troops, tall and square-jawed, stand at attention, done up in fox-trimmed wool coats, tailored blazers and ice skates, their hair spray-painted Tin-Man silver. As Silverstone adjusts a collar here and a tie there, an assistant trails behind touching up the models’ makeup.

Since taking charge at Montreal-based suit maker Samuelsohn in 2010, Silverstone has been tasked with both reinventing the company’s stodgy image and raising its profile. If things go well at the brand’s New York Week debut today, Samuelsohn could earn a legion of new customers and fans. If things go poorly, Silverstone will have spent $100,000 on an all-male Ice Capade for the benefit of a handful of fashion bloggers. He seems nervous, but buoyantly so. “I just hope no one falls and splits their pants!” he says with a chuckle, then rushes off to fix a model’s scarf.

If your father or grandfather lived in Canada and wore a suit to work, it’s likely he owned a Samuelsohn. Whether under the JP Tilford label it produced for decades for Harry Rosen or its own name, Samuelsohn has dressed generations of Canadian men since its founding in 1923. Their suits had a reputation for quality at an affordable price, but as the decades wore on, and labels like Canali, Hugo Boss and Ermenegildo Zegna proliferated in the Canadian market with big budget advertising campaigns and European flair, Samuelsohn’s offerings began to feel increasingly out of touch.

“[It was] a dad’s brand… a grandfather’s brand,” says Silverstone, a fourth-generation fashion industry veteran and a former design director for Nordstrom. “If I was going to a store to find the latest product, I’d see a Cucinelli or I’d see a Zegna, I wasn’t looking for a Samuelsohn.” When he was approached to lead Samuelsohn’s relaunch after the brand’s sale to a private investment group in 2010, Silverstone was skeptical at first, but a visit to the factory helped bring him around. “I was blown away by the quality,” he recalls. “It was a little dusty, but with some love, the bones were there and it just needed a bit of a facelift.”

Six years later, production at the Montreal factory has doubled and sales through Harry Rosen and other Canadian retailers remain strong, but Samuelsohn is still far from the household name it used to be in Canada. Even more pressing is the U.S. market, where the brand is virtually unknown compared to its European counterparts. If Samuelsohn is to thrive and grow for another 100 years, it will need to make it in the U.S., and to make it there, they need to be at New York Fashion Week. That’s where the silver-haired models on ice skates come in.

As at any fashion week, a successful show at New York Fashion Week: Men’s is only half about the clothes. Whether or not people actually like the outfits they see, an impressive production can be a win in itself. In that regard, designers frequently try to outdo each other in the spectacle department. At this year’s NYFWM, Calgary-born designer Nick Graham (of Joe Boxer fame) presented a space-themed show with the help of astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Bill Nye the Science Guy, while Joseph Abboud staged his men’s runway in a vacant church with a live strings section accompanying the show. Aside from simply being something that hadn’t been done before, Arnold Silverstone chose skating – and the ice rink at the Standard High Line’s hip hotel – as a tie-in to his brand’s new “ice wool” and “ice cashmere” fabrics. Made in Italy, the cloth is blended for stretchability and temperature treated to make it stain- and water-repellent. To up the celebrity factor, he brought in figure skater Eric Radford, an Olympic silver medallist.

By show time, the skating rink is surrounded by a healthy crowd of photographers and fashionable onlookers huddled around propane heaters, sipping hot chocolate from enamelled mugs. For the next hour, Silverstone’s models skate around the rink in Samuelsohn’s collection of suits, blazers and overcoats, occasionally punctuated by Radford, who performs a choreographed routine of jumps and twirls in a double-breasted blue velvet blazer. A couple of the models teeter and fall, but recover quickly and continue their promenade.

Following the show Silverstone heads directly to the airport to catch a flight to Italy for a meeting with his fabric suppliers – the show may be over, but the work goes on. Social media did not go wild for Samuelsohn’s NYFWM coming-out party, nor did the press pay it much immediate attention compared to their coverage of shows with bigger celebrity names and more controversial designs. Success can be measured in other ways, however, that may not be as immediate or obvious. One thing is certain today, if nothing else: Samuelsohn debuted on ice at New York Fashion Week: Men’s and no one split their pants. Report Typo/Error

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