In January 2004, Graham Ling walked into his boss's office after lunch and announced that he was leaving.
"But it's only 2 o'clock," came the reply. "What about the [name of company] account?"
"I don't care. You don't understand," Ling replied. "I'm leaving the company. I can't take this anymore. I need to do something else."
"What are you going to do?"
"I think I'm going to open a clothing store."
"Yeah? You and whose army?"
Guerrilla tactics ensued. Ling enlisted a scrappy squadron of unpaid recruits-his girlfriend and some buddies-and cocked a snoot at the world's suits. He mobilized the entrepreneurial marketing smarts he'd learned working in retail management and corporate sales, and a DIY attitude copped from a couple of years in the topsy-turvy local film industry, and finally realized his long-held dream. Last month, after Ling and his crew spent several weeks pulling all-nighters painting, hammering, and putting in a hardwood floor, the former Galloway's specialty-food store was transformed into You and Whose Army?
Since YAWA opened its doors at 929 Denman Street, it has been doing brisk business selling very cool shirts, jackets, and jeans for guys, and sporty womenswear, without any advertising or promotion. Walk-in traffic along the West End's bustling, cosmopolitan thoroughfare is pretty healthy these days, as all those high-end condos from Yaletown to Coal Harbour fill up.
"I had one guy walk in one Saturday night at 11 just when I was about to close. He dropped $900," says the easygoing, affable Ling, chatting in his breezy, whitewashed, uncluttered store one sunny afternoon. "Another night a guy knocked on the door around midnight while I was cleaning up. He wanted to get something to wear out clubbing."
We're sitting on a spacious black leather couch in front of a wall-mounted flat-screen TV Ling installed to show style-related films and videos. Nearby, Ling's girlfriend, Jackeline, sticks price labels on new stock.
Ling is one tall drink of water, and rake-thin. Dressed in trendy Jean Paul Da'mage jeans, white shoes based on racing-driver footwear from the '70s, and a light-brown pinstripe Full Circle jacket over a hoodie and a pink T, he's a walking, talking, endorsement of the contemporary menswear carefully draped in his artfully designed store.
"I wanted an art-gallery atmosphere. I only order limited numbers of each item and never duplicate designs. Once a certain shirt is gone, it's gone, and I replace it with something new."
Ling hopes to develop a regular clientele, and one way to do that is to ensure that there is always something new to look at and try on. Most of his stock comes from small independent labels in London, Montreal, New York, and L.A. Ling cherry-picks designs that are hard to find elsewhere in Vancouver. If his store's name prompted me to walk in, his taste in clothes coerced me to stick around.
From Jean Paul Da'mage, a label out of New York, Ice, Redemption, and Rekko jeans for men ($240) offer contemporary styling with a shelf life. Appliqués, deconstructed stitching, and studs are very popular, but less is definitely more. Too much flash quickly grows tired. It's better to go for something well-constructed with just a bit of funky detailing. Da'mage fits the bill, plus the company's Web site (jp damage.com/) has the sexiest Flash intro of any jean company I've seen.
Electric, multicoloured stripes adorn dressy-casual cotton shirts by Montreal's Haight & Ashbury ($79). The Summer of Love meets sophisticated tailoring in these darted, form-fitting shirts.
"Haight & Ashbury usually produces about 200 shirts from a ream of fabric, which they never repeat," says Ling, adding, "I try on all the menswear myself before I make an order."
Fitted cotton shirts from MAAC of London ($120) carry through the '60s theme, with vivid overlapping patterns and sleek tailoring.
Cotton hoodie blazers ($195) by London's Full Circle really suit Vancouver style. The hoodie-and hoodie sleeves-are built into the jacket, perfect for a summer evening out on the town. Pink, blue, and black cotton polo shirts ($60) from American Apparel, and pastel Firetrap polo shirts with contrasting piping along the seams and printed graphics on the back ($70) acknowledge one of the summer's biggest trends. On cooler nights, these tops can be accented with an ecru or black leather jacket from Montreal's Dekker ($395), equipped with double zippers so that you can adjust the size.
YAWA'S everchanging stock means that you never know what you're going to find when you walk through the door. One thing you can count on is service.
"I think good service in Vancouver is a challenge. I won't tell someone that something looks good if it doesn't," says Ling, who considers himself a style consultant, not just a salesperson. "I'm not here because I have to be. I spent 10 years doing things I didn't like. I got sick of the conservative environments, and all the corporate lingo, like planograms for retail-store design. I'm here because I want to be. I'm having fun."
In the near future, YAWA hopes to present exhibits by local artists and fashion shows for clients. Ling is also very open to looking at clothes by local independent designers. And of course, new style recruits are always welcome.