Fashion grad draws on Roots

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By Natalie Alcoba

In his time at Ryerson, fashion graduate Tu Ly learned the roots of what it takes to design and produce a line of clothing.

“Ryerson provides the process of creating a line, and putting it on the runway. You’re working to create, which is what the job’s all about.”

After years of doing the job of a designer and running his own line of knit sweaters under the label Sample, which is also available in New York, Hong Kong and Paris, Ly is again finding his roots with one of Canada’s fashion icons.

It’s gone from clothing Olympic athletes to making plans to jet across the country, but still Roots clothes remain a staple of the Canadian fashion landscape, under the direction of founders Michael Budman and Don Green.

Times, and fashions, though, are constantly changing, which is why Green and Budman looked to 34-year-old Ly to inject some new direction and edge to the company’s urban styles.

“Roots is a great Canadian company which I have a lot of respect for,” Ly says, “but updating and giving it edge is a natural evolution for clothing.”

Dressing people in cutting edge streetware isn’t Ly’s only concern as he takes the helm as creative director of Roots’ urban clothing line.

This summer, in addition to outfitting Canada’s 200 Olympic team, Roots announced plans to launch an airline along with Skyjet called Roots Air. The company asked Ly to help create the Roots Business Class collection, a line of clothes for Roots Air employees that will also be marketed to passengers.

Ly is already thinking of ways to give the line universal appeal.

“They’re clothes you can wear to a job interview, to school,” he says.

“Our focus is on clothes you can travel in.”

Getting a lot of movement out of your wardrobe doesn’t mean the clothes can’t be as sophisticated and trend-setting as Ly can push the Roots name.

“Right now Roots is known for being athletic. We want to diversify,” Ly says. “You can’t go wrong, you can only get better.”

That principle may be the thread that has guided Ly since he graduated from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute’s fashion program in 1987.

After working independently for a few years, Ly began designing for sportswear company Ports International. Here he found the support and guidance of co-workers that was lacking in his solo career.

His meeting one particular employee once again spun Ly on an independent track. Two years ago, he and Nella Walker created the Sample label of women’s knit sweaters.

In his unassuming Davenport Road studio, with the Sample logo carved in the wall behind his death, Ly looks every bit the stylish, elegant but humble designer who prefers working behind the scenes, not on the runway.

“I’m a very visual person,” he says. “If it wasn’t for fashion, I’d be in interior design or architecture, something that has to do with solving problems.”

He moved to Ottawa from Vietnam at the age of five, leaving for Toronto, and Ryerson’s fashion program, in the early 1980s.

While many designers find themselves attracted to the renown of fashion centres such as New York and Paris, Ly has firmly established his roots in this city.

“If you have a strong sense of design and a strong voice, then there is no reason why you can’t be heard in Toronto,” he says. “Toronto is very supportive and open about design and new talent.”

Roots has also hired on Ly’s business partner Walker to work in store merchandising.

Roots’ communications director Raymond Perks says store founders Budman and Green were impressed with Ly’s experience and business sense. The company also wants to branch out to appeal to an older market, Perkins says.

“Ly knows the game inside out, and he gets along every well with the team,” he says. “Both he and Nella Walker will make a significant contribution to the progression of Roots.”

The pair will continue producing the Sample line while meeting Roots’ challenge.

“For me, it’s important not to be stagnant,” Ly says. “Change is good.”

Flexibility isn’t the only thing helping Ryerson fashion grads succeed. “You need to have drive,” he says. “But the ones that want to achieve and work hard are successful.”

Constant inspiration has helped his career thrive. “Every day brings growth,” Ly says. “I was happy one year after Ryerson, but I didn’t stop there.”

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