Modrobes founder finds success on Queen Street
By Elizabeth Beddell
CBC Dragons' Den panelist Kevin O'Leary called it a “once in a lifetime deal.”
The deal, offered to Modrobes founder Steven Sal Debus by entrepreneur Brett Wilson, would see a clothing company – whose worth had plummeted from $10 million to zero in less than a decade – get one more kick at the can.
“Basically the investment got me started again,” Sal Debus said of the $200,000 contribution. “At the time I didn't have a company – it was shelved. I went on [Dragons' Den] to get the capital to start – to buy fabrics, to book the manufacturing, to set up the space.”
And set up the space he did. Sal Debus' revived retail store – located just west of Bathurst on Toronto's Queen West strip – opened its doors in March as The Modrobes Sustainable Garment Shop. The name represents the essential change that has overtaken ModRobes since the company folded in 2005.
“[At the time of the fold] I knew I was going to stay in the industry but it had to be on the environmental side,” Sal Debus told PostCity.com in a recent interview. “I had seen the amount of damage that was typically done by clothing manufacturing.”
Charged with a new sense of responsibility, Sal Debus moved from Toronto to Vancouver to study environmentally sustainable manufacturing and garment-making – skills he now employs on a day-to-day basis with his newly rebuilt empire.
“We now represent a new way of making clothing,” he says. “Clean clothing – it’s a huge priority for us to figure out how to create things that have less of a negative impact on the environment. For example, our T-shirts are made out of eucalyptus trees. The fabric is bio-degradable so it will break down eventually if you throw it out. There's no chemicals used to make the fabric.”
Another popular line of products is Modrobes' sustainable active wear, fashioned entirely out of recycled pop bottles.
“We basically take pop bottles, smash them up and melt them into plastic pellets. From there tiny microscopic fibres are extruded to make the clothing fabric. The process of going from pop bottle to fabric takes 80 per cent less energy than going from oil to fabric.”
At the new store, the clothes are flying off the shelves and Sal Debus says he’s concerned that they may not have adequately prepared for the rush. He is, however, adamant that the company won’t fail in the same way it did in 2005.
“My number one mistake was growing too fast,” Sal Debus, whose company began as a simple business project for a course at Brock University in 1996, said.
By the late 90s, Modrobes' quintessential wide-legged “exam pant”, hugely popular with the rave generation and with college kids nationwide, reached cult-like Canadian status.
“We grew way beyond the original plan and just lost control of it. We sold to really big companies and they didn't pay us – large multinational corporations that didn't care about anything but the bottom line. We no longer deal with multinational corporations. That's what ruined everything about us.”
What has not changed however is the company's attachment to its national roots, since all their garments are, and always were, manufactured on Canadian soil. As for Toronto itself, Sal Debus says he wouldn't station Modrobes anywhere else.
“Toronto is the best city in Canada. I built ModRobes in Ontario and people in Toronto are very receptive to new ideas, more so than anywhere in the country. They know bull*hit and they'll call people out on it. They're tough and hard to please but if you do it right, they'll tell their friends and if it’s a hit they're going to tell you.”
And with Sal Debus' confident attitude, it would be safe to assume that the feedback has been positive.
“Canadians are humble in terms of what we do well, I'm not that way, what we're doing here is leading the world in environmentally sound fashion and sportswear, people should feel proud of that – that someone close to home is pushing the parameters.”