In October 2008, fresh from a year of study at the prestigious Istituto Marangoni design school, Vancouver-based menswear designer Christopher Bates came out of the closet (as it were) with the launch of his very first fashion line: Christopher Bates for Ultra.
The former account manager at a Yaletown marketing firm was living his dream. Two years prior, he’d quit his job and sold his condo in the Arthur Erickson-designed Waterfall Building to finance his move to Milan. “Designing was something that had been with me my entire life but I didn’t know growing up in Vancouver that fashion was a career or an industry which you could pursue,” he remembers. “It wasn’t until I took a few trips to Europe that I was even aware of that possibility. And then I was like, ‘Oh, wow! There are people out there who would like my ideas! I’m not crazy.’ ”
With its skinny trousers, pouting models, and impeccably tailored, appliquéd suede jackets, the collection showed the swaggering designer took his Euro Trash inspiration seriously. The entire evening seemed an almost too-perfect fit for the venue—the now-defunct Tunnel nightclub, whose patrons nightly answered the question “Who buys Ed Hardy T-shirts?”
Fastforward five-and-a-half years and Bates is settled comfortably in a black leather club chair in the men’s department at Holt Renfrew. Decked out in a three-piece tuxedo of his own design and a Kiss Shirt that boasts a silk-screened red lipstick pucker on the collar, both Bates and his namesake line, renamed simply Christopher Bates, have come a long way from the throbbing dance floor and douchebaggery of Pender Street.
In 2010 Bates pulled up stakes yet again, leaving his hometown for Toronto. “I was selling more there than I was here,” he says, echoing many former West Coast designers who have followed their dreams east. In 2012, he was awarded a sponsored show at World MasterCard Fashion Week in Toronto as the only menswear designer in the Mercedes-Benz StartUp program.
As he quietly but steadily built up his company and zeroed in on his target customer, Bates’s street-style start matured into a more sartorial direction, with a focus on tailored suiting and dress shirts made in Canada from Italian fabrics. Euro trash was forgotten in favour of inspirations like the French Riviera, in the case of his most recent collection, and The Picture of Dorian Gray for fall/winter 2014.
Bates’s work eventually came to the attention of none other than Barbara Atkin, vice-president of fashion direction at Holt Renfrew and one of Canada’s most important fashion mentors.
Now, two years later, Christopher Bates is selling next to internationally acclaimed menswear labels like Dsquared2, Tom Ford, and Dolce & Gabbana at the luxury retailer’s Vancouver store, which will carry his fall/winter 2014 collection. (More Holt Renfrew locations will be carrying Christopher Bates in the future.) Bates also recently inked a deal with online fashion retailer Gilt.com, where a capsule of his most recent collection is available for sale.
“I’ve been extremely fortunate,” Bates says of his career. However, one can comfortably say that luck had very little to do with his success. Aside from the golden touch of Atkin, both Canadian fashion icon Jeanne Beker and Fashion Magazine’s Bernadette Morra have signalled their admiration for Bates’s undeniable talent and his unique fusion of sartorial suiting with sportswear.
“I like to pop in something unexpected every season,” Bates says, pointing to a pair of pixelated camouflage flood pants that, on their own, aren’t exactly in line with the rest of his collection. But when paired with one of his micro-knit sweaters, they blend in seamlessly. “It’s about honouring my streetwear past and looking forward to the future and stretching myself as a designer. I have to keep moving forward.”