ALFRED SUNG: THE NEW KING OF FASHION
In a recent window display at Lipton’s clothing store in downtown Toronto, a life-size photo of fashion designer Alfred Sung peered out at passers-by from behind an eight-foot-high Venetian blind. An artificial hand parted the slats to reveal only his eyes and nose, and a pair of black Chinese shoes protruded from the bottom. Sleek mannequins dressed in sumptuous grey and burgundy ensembles from the Toronto-based designer’s fall collection completed the eyecatching tableau, and a small sign inquired coyly, “Have you seen Sung yet?” Indeed, he would be difficult to miss. In four years Alfred Sung has soared from the relative obscurity of a small boutique owner to the hottest name in the $5.4-billion Canadian fashion industry.
Throughout North America, thousands of fashion-conscious women are sporting his crisply tailored suits during the day and his slinky silks at night. The cool, sophisticated look of Alfred Sung is everywhere. Sung designs, which range in price from $110 to $350, adorn such high-profile women as Iona Campagnolo, Margaret Trudeau and Conservative Leader Brian Mulroney’s wife, Mila. “He is our own Yves St. Laurent,” said fashion expert Krystyne Griffin, former president of Toronto’s exclusive Hazelton Lanes shopping centre. Sung, 35, has vaulted far above the drab anonymity reserved for most domestic designers, partly as a result of the most aggressive marketing campaign in the history of the Canadian fashion industry. It features splashy ads in the U.S. fashion bibles Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily. Since he joined forces with Toronto business partners Saul and Joseph Mimran (aged 33 and 30 respectively) in 1979 to create what is now the Monaco Group, retail sales of Sung’s fashions have doubled annually to a projected $30 million in 1983, half of which is earned in the United States.
Now Sung and his partners are planning a campaign to capture an even larger share of the U.S. market. During the next five years the group will open 20 Alfred Sung boutiques across the United States, the first next month in Washington’s trendy Georgetown Park. As Sybil Young, fashion editor of Homemaker’s magazine, put it: “They’re dynamite. They’re streaks
ahead of everybody else.” Added Bonnie Hurowitz, editor of Flare magazine: “Alfred Sung is the biggest success story in the history of the Canadian fashion industry. Ever.”
Emulating the strategies of U.S. fashion superstars like Calvin Klein and Bill Blass—whose signatures on everything from underwear to chocolates produce instant profits—the Mimran brothers are building a business empire on the strength of what they sometimes refer to as simply “The Name.” In addition to the designer’s 200-piece fall-winter collection of sportswear that is entering the stores now, Sung has introduced a line of coats and accessories, including gloves, belts and hats. Sung and his assistants designed the products under licence to outside manufacturers, and they represent the first wave of a potential flood of Sung merchandise that could include menswear, children’s wear, shoes, sheets and perfumes. If the licensing, the boutiques and a newly introduced, lower-priced line called Sungsport, with prices ranging from $30 to $165, grow as fast as the Mimrans project, sales will reach as high as $50 million by 1985. Predicts Joseph Mimran: “There is no stopping Alfred Sung now. He is going to be a superstar.”
In many ways, it is an unlikely partnership—the quiet, otherworldly Shanghai-born Sung teamed with the down-to-earth Moroccan-born Jews whom he calls “the boys” (page 38). But in the unstable fashion industry, where relations between designers and manufacturers are often as short-lived as a Las Vegas marriage, the youthful team appears unusually solid. Most Canadian fashion designers work in relative obscurity and isolation, but Sung has managed to find business partners with the daring and shrewdness to promote him across North America. For their part, the Mimrans discovered something equally valuable in Sung. He combines a classic feeling for line and detail, learned at the respected Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne in Paris, with a highly practical feel for the middle-of-the-road North American market.
Sung is not an ivory-tower designer. He is acutely conscious of such mundane factors as comfort, affordability and the conservative tastes of his affluent, career-oriented customers. His
rich, subtle colors are painstakingly coordinated to give buyers the maximum flexibility to mix and match within the current collection and often with pieces from his previous seasons. His shapes are clean, uncluttered and easy to wear. Mila Mulroney wore two Sung suits during her husband’s successful campaign for the party leadership. “I like the use of color,” she said, “and the clothing is not trendy.” Said Homemaker’s Young: “Almost anyone can wear the clothes— there is nothing outrageous about them. His success comes from taking something very conservative and giving it his own panache.”
That distinctive touch is evident in the high-quality fabrics, sometimes designed by Sung himself. The distinction is also displayed in the fine workmanship of topstitching on the satin collar of a silk blouse, in the rich detail of leather accents on a plaid jacket or the trim cut of a pair of pants. Declared Beverly Rockett, fashion editor of City Woman magazine: “The secret of Alfred Sung is that he is a perfectionist. His clothes show his passion for order.”
Still, Sung is not a fashion innovator in a league with Giorgio Armani or Karl Lagerfeld, and some critics see him as more of a business than a design success. Says Iona Monahan, fashion editor of the Montreal Gazette: “The way he has been put out on the market is brilliant. He may have a slightly computerized quality, but I suppose that’s business.” Some women complain that his orderly perfection can be boring, but the designer himself disagrees. “Classic, not boring,” is how he defines his style. Said Sung: “I want the clothes to be beautiful but so subtle that they don’t jump out at you the first time you see them. I like a kind of understated chic.”
Alfred Sung has his finger on the pulse of the mass market, but his personal style is one of eccentric elegance. On a typical working day this summer he wore a loose-fitting beige Gianni Versace jacket over a roll-necked linen shirt which he designed himself. Pink gold Cartier rings adorn both hands, and a gold Cartier watch and slim gold ID bracelet gleam on his wrists. But to counteract any impression of slickness, the 5-foot, 4-inch designer also wears knee-length army shorts, bright white ankle socks and $16 sneakers. The outfit, surprisingly, does not look outlandish.
Utterly absorbed in the world of fashion, Sung lives by himself in a modest duplex in Toronto’s Riverdale district. He gets up at 7 a.m. to walk his beloved Chinese chow dog, Ming. At 10 a.m. he goes to Monaco headquarters in down-
town Toronto. He works uninterrupted through the day, pausing only for coffee and cigarette breaks. A perfectionist, he often asks his six assistants to go over their designs again and again until he approves. Says his friend Joel Kruger, assistant designer for the Sungsport line: “He is not easy on himself, so he is not easy on everyone else.” In the evenings he works at home or relaxes by reading interior design magazines and biographies of movie stars. His other pastimes are shopping, particularly in shoe stores such as Manhattan’s Susan Bennis Warren Edwards—where he recently spent $1,600 (U.S.) on three pairs of lizard-skin loafers—and eating out with friends at fashionable spots such as Toronto’s II Posto and New York’s L’Express. Sung, a gentle and unaffected man, is uncomfortable in the role of a celebrity and he prefers to spend time with old friends, whom he often treats to dinner and expensive gifts. He seldom reads newspapers or watches TV. He is so ill-informed about the world that one night at a Toronto restaurant he asked Brooklyn-born Kruger: “Are there poor neighborhoods in New York where black people live?” Ex-
plains Kruger: “He is totally wrapped up in an artistic environment.”
In his small living room, surrounded by art objects—a lacquered screen from Hong Kong, an antique bust of a woman’s head from Florence, a wooden folk-art crane from Quebec—Sung speaks excitedly about an approaching major event in his life—a partial move to New York City. One month ago Sung rented a spacious, light-filled loft apartment in Greenwich Village, where he will live six months of the year. Although the Monaco Group will remain based in Toronto, the design studios for Sung’s own collection and for Sungsport are now located on legendary Seventh Avenue, the heart of Manhattan’s raucous garment district. When Toronto friends ask him why he so eagerly exchanges the security of Canada, where he is on top of his profession, for the New York jungle, Sung talks about his ambition to “make it” in the United States. Then, his tranquil expression changes to a look of stubborn determination. Clenching a fist, he declares: “I know it is highly competitive, but that will make me work harder. I don’t think it’s a good thing when you’re too secure.” A disciplined, obsessive worker, Sung often speaks like a guilty school-
boy who has neglected his homework. Although his favorite expression is “I always try my best,” he admits that he does not quite believe it. Speaking of the past, as he frequently does, in the present tense, he reminisces: “I suppose it has a lot to do with my upbringing. My parents always tell me to try harder. If I bring back a report card, my father always says, you can do better.”
Born in Shanghai on April 26, 1948, Sung Wang Moon (Mandarin Chinese for “a door in the cloud”) was an obedient child who still had difficulty pleasing his demanding father. When Alfred was 4, his father abandoned a thriving tobacco business in China and fled from the Communist-controlled mainland with his family to Hong Kong. In the British colony he prospered as an importer of woollen textiles and furnished his eight children with Victorian-vintage names such as Florence, Viola and Alfred. As the firstborn son, Alfred was overly protected and seldom allowed to play outside or ride bicycles with his friends. To amuse him indoors, his mother encouraged him to paint and draw, pastimes for which he displayed an early talent.
Sung was close to his mother, but he was afraid of his father, and he and his brothers and sisters used to hide from him. He was born left-handed, and his father used to hit the offending hand until the boy learned to do everything with his right—except manoeuvre chopsticks—a skill he could never master. His parents hoped that he would choose a profession or career in business. But when he graduated from a British-run private boys’ school at 17, he announced his intention to become a painter. Alarmed by that prospect, his father agreed to an older sister’s suggestion that Alfred go to Paris to learn the fashion business. As with everything else in the young man’s life, the decision was made for him. At that point, he did not know anything about fashion—nor did he care.
Leaving first time, Paris in Hong Sung September, Kong arrived for 1966, the in speaking no French and knowing no one except a friend from Hong Kong with whom he shared a modest apartment. For the first three months he was so homesick that he pleaded with his parents in his letters to allow him to return. At the couture school, he stood out awkwardly in his British schoolboy clothes, and teachers ridiculed him for his ignorance. When they asked him to create original designs, he drew inspiration from the only fashion authority he had seen in Hong Kong—Queen Elizabeth. “In my early work, I would always draw people wearing these funny hats,” he recalled, “and my teacher would go crazy and draw a big X through them.” Gradually, over the course of many late nights, the young student mastered the old-fashioned couturier arts of draping, cutting and sewing garments by hand. At the same time, he began to dazzle his teachers with his innovative solutions to such design assignments as “Create a wardrobe for Audrey Hepburn to wear during a week at Cannes.” By the time he graduated in June, placing first in design and 17th in sewing, Sung was firmly launched on his career path. And he had overcome his homesickness so successfully that he did not return to Hong Kong until 1972. By that time, he was a successful designer for a dress company in New York. In keeping with the fashion of the era, he arrived home with waist-length hair, highheeled silver shoes and brightly appliquéd jeans. His parents looked at him— and burst into tears.
Sung’s move to Toronto the same year was a matter of necessity rather than choice. After a year of study at New
York’s prestigious Parsons School of Design in 1967-1968, he worked illegally for four years on Seventh Avenue as he tried, unsuccessfully, to immigrate to the United States. Only when he had exhausted every means of appeal did he come to Canada, where his two younger brothers were studying at Ontario’s University of Waterloo. Sung quickly found a job in Toronto’s Spadina Avenue garment district working in a clothing manufacturer’s sweatshop for $125 a week—a drastic cut from the $400 he had been earning in New York. A series of better jobs followed, peaking in a three-year design stint with manufacturer Percy Lindzon of Lindzon Ltd. There, Sung was finally given the freedom to design his own sportswear collection. But he says he was not given any direction on pricing or marketing. As a result, he created clothes that were too expensive and avant garde. They sold poorly, and soon afterward Sung was fired.
That setback convinced the young designer that he wanted to be self-employed. With $6,000 in savings and the encouragement of a wide circle of friends, including Michelle Lloyd-Bermann, at that time a boutique owner and now assistant designer in Sung’s accessory collection, he opened a boutique called Moon in Toronto. During three years of running the business, while Sung did everything from designing to cutting fabric, his square-cut cotton shirts and narrow-legged corduroy pants developed a strong underground following among fashion-conscious young women. Sung himself was a familiar fixture in the store, and it was there that Joseph Mimran first spotted him. Recalled Mimran: “I was walking along about 10:30 on a Friday night. I looked in the shop, admired the clothing and then in the back I saw a little fellow sketching away diligently. I was impressed.”
That favorable impression stuck with Mimran and months later he called Sung in a panic. The Mimrans’ designer had left for a better job, and the company had $200,000 worth of fabric and no designs for what was to have been the fledgling manufacturing firm’s first sportswear collection. In desperation, they asked Sung to design a 30-piece collection of jackets, blouses, pants and skirts for a fee of $5,000. They were so delighted with the results that they asked him to design a second collection. Initially, both designer and manufacturer were polite but wary, having been burned by bad relationships in the past. Finally in December, 1979, Joseph Mimran, with whom Sung had developed a close rapport, and his wife, Sharon, took him to dinner at Toronto’s
exclusive Auberge Gavroche restaurant. Later, over coffee at Sung’s house, Joseph proposed a 50-50 partnership. Recalled Sung: “Joe said, ‘Alfred, you will be working for yourself still. We will be equal partners.’ ” Excited by the prospect of the new venture, Sung accepted and closed his shop. “It’s strange when you look back,” he said. “I don’t think any of us thought then that we would grow to where we are today.”
Despite what appears to be an overnight success, the growth of the company which now employs nearly 200 people in Toronto and five in New York was not all smooth sailing. There were times when Joseph, who oversees the financial side of the company while his brother looks after sales, wondered how they would meet their next payroll. Once he had to ask his father-in-law to cosign a $20,000 loan to keep the business going. Initially, store buyers were skeptical about purchasing an entire collection and about the ability of the brash, inexperienced manufacturers to deliver. As a
result, the company lost money on its first two seasons. A few influential fashion buyers provided early support, notably Marina Gibson at Eaton’s downtown Toronto store, where Sung opened his first boutique in 1981. For Gibson, the team approach adopted by Sung and the Mimrans was ideal for a retailer. Although the Mimrans do not interfere directly with the designs, Joseph, in particular, keeps Sung informed of fashion trends, market research and items that do not sell within the collection. Said Gibson: “This makes them really unique. They keep Alfred informed about the market, and he, in turn, really wants to know. There is no artistic ego getting in the way.” As a result of the close co-operation between the Monaco Group and retailers, Sung is the only Canadian designer with his own separate boutiques inside both Eaton’s and Holt Renfrew.
When the Canadian market for Sung designs started to expand in 1981, Saul Mimran turned his attention to the United States. First, a New York buying
agent told him there was no room for another sportswear manufacturer in the United States. Undaunted, Saul hired his own agent, rented a New York showroom and took out a splashy $15,000 page ad in the March, 1981, issue of Women's Wear Daily announcing, “This is Alfred Sung.” The gamble paid off handsomely in U.S. orders for the fall-winter season. But the first experience turned into a minor disaster. Because the Monaco Group made an error in the sizing of the clothing, the collection sold poorly, prices had to be slashed and the company sustained a $250,000 loss. Said Saul Mimran: “We paid dearly for that mistake. With that experience, most Canadian manufacturers would have packed up and gone home with their tails between their legs.” Mimran is proud of the fact that, ever since, the Sung line has sold so well that the partners have never had another such loss.
Another near disaster occurred last week when a New York preview of the Sung spring line was disrupted, along with the previews of most other North American manufacturers, by a fire and
power failure in the city’s garment district. “It was pandemonium,” said Saul Mimran, “but I’m confident our accounts will stay with us.”
The Mimrans’ bold entrepreneurial strokes are in sharp contrast to the lacklustre performance of the Canadian fashion industry as a whole. The business still suffers from what top-flight Montreal designer Leo Chevalier calls a “great, fat lack of professionalism.” There are about 80 designers across
Canada producing fashions under their own label, whether in partnership with a manufacturer or on their own. But few of them enjoy national recognition or earn more than $1 million a year wholesale. Only a handful of stars such as Sung, Chevalier and Toronto-based Wayne Clark have topped the $10-million mark. In fact, designer merchandise probably accounts for less than five per cent of Canada’s garment industry, which ranges from struggling sweater manufacturers battling low-cost im-
ports to robust operations such as Peter Nygard’s Winnipeg-based Tan Jay International Ltd., with factories around the world that mass-produce polyester pantsuits. Many Canadian sportswear manufacturers either buy designs from outside the country—Toronto’s Dylex Ltd., for one, buys the Daniel Hechter name—or make inexpensive copies of New York and Paris fashions.
Traditionally, Canadian manufacturers have been reluctant to get involved in expensive promotion of in-house de-
signers, because they fear they will branch out on their own when their names are established. Few manufacturers enjoy the rapport with department stores that Saul Mimran does, because he considers retailing as much a part of his job as manufacturing. And, although a few leading Canadian designers such as Toronto’s Pat McDonagh and Norma Lepofsky and Wayne Clark also enjoy healthy sales in the United States, no one has tackled the vast $75-billion U.S. market as aggres-
sively as the Mimrans. Most Canadian designers have not even tried to export, although some are now asking for government assistance to get them started. This timid attitude annoys industry observers such as Flare’s Hurowitz, who says: “Saul Mimran just went down and did it. The others can too, but so few of them have had the guts to try.” The Sung strategy, however, is being closely watched within the industry and may well influence its future development. Said Linda Lundstrom, president of the 23-member association called Toronto Ontario Designers: “Alfred and that whole company have been a wonderful incentive for all of us.”
Ironically, the partners of the Monaco Group seem to be less impressed with their own success. Saul Mimran says that he is determined to make Alfred Sung a household word in North America. Mimran is acutely aware that although influential U.S. department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Neiman-Marcus and BergdorfGoodman carry Sung and Saks named him one of the top 10 new designers of the year in 1981, no U.S. retailer has so far given him his own in-house boutique alongside such luminaries as U.S. designers Anne Klein and Perry Ellis. Nor has Sung been singled out for lavish attention on the editorial pages of Vogue or Women ’s Wear Daily. The current push to open free-standing Sung stores in the United States is an attempt to gain increased recognition as well as to promote sales. Said Saul Mimran excitedly, lighting a second cigarette before he has finished smoking his first: “We will not be missed. We will not be passed over.” His aggressive strategy shows the promise of succeeding. Predicts Maya Urshel, senior vicepresident of Saks: “There is a good likelihood that he could get an in-store boutique in the future.”
For Sung’s part, he says that he tries not to think about the future, fearing that if he raises his hopes too high he might be disappointed. Occasionally, he speaks wistfully about retiring one day to the countryside outside Paris to paint and draw. But Joseph Mimran dismisses such a plan as an idle daydream: “He is 100 per cent into what we’re doing here. I’ve never seen anyone so totally committed, so engaged. He is absolutely raring to be a superstar.” But after 16 years in the fashion industry, Sung is more cautious. “You can be a star one season, then nothing the next,” he said ruefully. In the ephemeral world of North American fashion, it is a ruthlessly practical sentiment.
With Jackie Carlos in Toronto.