Although Christopher Bates is firmly rooted in the reality of the Canadian fashion industry, he is, for all intents and purposes, a rare beast. One of this country’s celebrated menswear designers, Bates is the epitome of his West Coast roots, soft-spoken with a steely and suitably quiet determination.
Quiet strength is his hallmark. Professional and calm control is broken only occasionally by nearly imperceptible flashes of enthusiasm as he presents his fall/winter 2014 collection at Holt Renfrew in Vancouver. Dressed in a tuxedo of his own design paired with a signature “Kiss Shirt” (finished with a bright red lipstick stain silkscreened on the collar), Bates is the ultimate spokesperson for his eponymous menswear label: effortless, impeccable, and stylishly devil-may-care.
Nearly a decade ago, Bates was, by all accounts, living the high life. Problem was, it wasn’t the high-fashion life the Vancouver native had secretly pictured for himself. “I didn’t know growing up in Vancouver that fashion was a career,” he says. “But I never forgot [about it].”
Throughout high school in his hometown’s tony Kerrisdale neighbourhood, Bates had filled the margins of countless notebooks with sketches of clothes he wanted to wear. His sidelined obsession endured while completing degrees in economic geography at the University of British Columbia and marketing and communications at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.
Upon graduation, he continued to draw and dream as an account manager for a boutique marketing firm in Yaletown, where—in the lead up to the global recession—that area’s narrow streets were seemingly paved with gold.
To all outward appearances, and perhaps even in his own mind, Bates’s life was firmly on track. He boasted all the requisite trappings of success, including a coveted loft in the iconic Arthur Erickson-designed Waterfall Building. Then, in 2005, Bates’s entire life turned around thanks to an epiphany while vacationing in Stockholm. “There was a eureka moment,” he says, recalling the flashpoint. “I was walking down the street and there were so many stylish, unique people. It was so different and everyone was so effortless. I thought, ‘There are people out there who would like my ideas, I’m not crazy.’”
Immediately upon his return to Vancouver, Bates began to research the most reputed design schools in the world, setting his sights on Milan’s venerable Istituto Marangoni. “The program itself looked like exactly what I wanted and needed,” he says, quickly adding, “Milan is the greatest fashion capital in my opinion. To be honest, I didn’t seriously consider any other city.”
Diving into the adventure, Bates subsequently quit his job and sold his beloved condominium to finance his ambitions. “There was no budget involved,” he remembers. “I was paying for the whole shot and I was willing to pay for the best education I could find.”
That gamble paid off. Bates returned to Vancouver in 2007 to unveil his first full collection with a decidedly Italian aesthetic. A modest success on the West Coast, he noticed that his Toronto orders far outstripped his Vancouver sales. So, Bates pulled up stakes again and moved across the country.
He continued to hone his sartorial skills and his brand with a goal of appealing to “stylish, affluent men who appreciate the finer things in life and understand the value of building a wardrobe over time.” The Christopher Bates customer, he says, appreciates staples as well as statement pieces, so every collection works a little street style into sartorial suiting. With the exception of the knitwear components, every garment is made in Canada using Italian-sourced fabrics.
Bates’s single-minded focus was rewarded when, in 2012, he won a Mercedes-Benz StartUp Program-sponsored show at World MasterCard Fashion Week in Toronto. The only menswear designer to be featured by this incubator program, he caught the trained eye of Barbara Atkin, vice president of fashion direction at Holt Renfrew. Taken with his sartorial twist on traditional sportswear, Atkin mentored Bates, ultimately launching his inaugural spring/summer 2014 collection at Holt Renfrew in Vancouver, with rollouts following in other stores throughout the year. He has also inked a deal with online fashion retailer Gilt.com to sell a curated capsule collection.
“I’ve been fortunate,” Bates says deferentially of his hard-won success. But fortune smiles on the bold.