Story by Justine Iaboni. Photography by Brendan Adam Zwelling.
Over the Rainbow (101 Yorkville Ave., 416-967-7448, rainbowjeans.com)
I spent yesterday morning hanging out with the fascinating Joel Carman, the owner of Over the Rainbow, Toronto’s premiere denim destination for 35 years. Joel showed me all the nooks and crannies of the 4,800-square-foot emporium, which includes an alterations room and a mini version of an Ikea warehouse—only this one is stocked with pairs and pairs of Seven for All Mankind.
Legend has it that you built your denim empire on $2,000 made from your time working as a cab driver? Is this true?
“Absolutely. I graduated from university, travelled around Europe for a couple of years, and then started driving a cab. It paid the bills and, back in 1973, driving a cab in Toronto meant that you were kind of an outlaw. All the young guys were driving cabs. We’d get together after a night’s work to party a bit—it was this whole subterranean lifestyle. But I knew that I wanted to do something, to build something, and that I wanted to work for myself. One night, I picked up a gentleman in my cab; we started talking and I found out that he did alterations. He invited me to go to a party with him and his friends. I said sure. After that, I brought him a couple pairs of pants to fix. One day he asked me to go into business with him.”
What happened next?
“First, we opened up at 110 Bloor Street. There was a 400-square-foot space renting for $300 a month. I thought, ‘That’s crazy! For that price, we’ll open a store and if it doesn’t work, I’ll just put a bed in there and at the very least I’ll have an apartment on Bloor Street!’ My partner, Peter Jackman, asked me what I wanted to sell. I had no idea. The only thing I really knew about was blue jeans because that was all I wore. I went to Montreal, picked up some blue jeans in some warehouses, and we got to work. If a customer came in to buy a pair and they didn’t fit, Peter would alter them to make them fit perfectly. So we became known as this really cool little store, on the second floor, where you could come in and someone would actually fit you into a pair of jeans.”
How long did you stay there?
“I was at the original location for about a year after Peter pulled out of the business. Then I heard that someone was building a store at 120 Cumberland, which is where Sushi Inn is now. That was my second store. We brought in lines like Pentimento & Brittannia, fashion denim that no one else carried. I was young, my staff was young, and my customers were young. We had a lot of fun. We played good music and always made sure that there was a bowl of jujubes at the front—we’ve done that for 35 years! When I went to renew the lease, my landlord wanted to double my rent, so I got a real estate agent to help me find our current location. I ended up paying double the rent, but at least I got double the space!”
What’s the craziest, most out-there pair of jeans that you’ve ever sold?
“There are so many crazy jeans! We’ve had patchwork jeans, rips, tears, you name it. Even if our customers don’t buy the more ‘out-there’ pairs, we still like to pride ourselves on stocking unique pieces. But the craziest pair? There was a pair of True Religion jeans that cost $595—they were ripped, torn, patched, you name it. I decided to buy six pairs just to say that we carried them. That same weekend we sold four pairs. We ended up selling 60 to 70 pairs of those jeans.”
What’s your most popular, tried, tested and true denim brand?
“Sevens and Citizens of Humanity are the brands that have been around for a while now, but Levi’s has been around the longest. But things have changed so much in the denim business over the years that anything can happen. You always have to be aware of changing trends, technologies and new brands. It really is the business of ‘What have you done for me lately?’”
What should women and men look for in the perfect pair of jeans?
“The first thing you need is to have somebody working with you who understands jeans, who understands what you look good in, and how to relay that info to you. Sometimes people come in saying that they want a pair of True Religions, or Sevens, and then they end up walking out with a pair of Hudsons—because the Hudson looked the best on them.
What we do is act as interpreters—we have this huge selection of product, we’ve seen it all, we know our denim. So, it’s not so much the customer who has to know what to look for in the perfect pair of jeans, it’s our job as the experts to bring that perfect pair to the customer. A few other key things to think about: whether you want original hems, high or low rise, what you’ll be wearing the jeans for (work, going out, chilling), and lastly, making sure that you don’t buy your jeans too big because then you end up with a saggy butt and the jean, although it’s beautiful, won’t look as beautiful as it should.”
Now that there are hundreds of denim brands to choose from, how do you pick what brands to stock?
“I’m interested in everything. Every day customers walk in and ask for something in particular. If five people come in asking for dark skinny jeans, I’m going to start looking for them and try to stock the best ones.
We travel a lot, we go to clothing stores, we subscribe to magazines, we pay attention to what’s going on in the streets. We’re constantly watching the business and trying new things. It looks hard from the outside, but once you’re immersed in it like I am, you just get really comfortable with your product. Sit me down with 100 different pairs of blue jeans and I’ll go through all of them and love every second of it.”
These days, jeans can be just as expensive as a pair of wool pants. When you started selling denim in 1975 it was considered more of a blue-collar material. Did you ever think that denim would make it this far?
“During the ’60s, one of the ways that people rebelled was through their clothing. My parents never wore blue jeans because it was considered to be rebellious. If you look at the old movies from the ’50s, unruly characters like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause wore blue jeans—jeans were portrayed as working man’s clothing or as something motorcycle gang guys wore. They weren’t considered everyday clothing.
My generation however, liked to wear jeans because the more you wore them, the more character they had, and it was totally against what our parents considered appropriate dress. Denim was our expression. When I started [working with denim] there were very few denim lines, and the first pairs of jeans sold for about $17. Jeans were also very homogenous—aside from Levi’s 501, they all looked identical. They didn’t use ring-spun denim, which is one of many technological advancements made since then.”
What are some of the other advancements?
“The Europeans and Asians revolutionized weaving technologies in an attempt to copy the cheaper, older American versions of blue jeans. So instead of making homogenous denims, they started to make denim how it was made 100 years ago. That was a real breakthrough. Another thing that happened was the introduction of the stretch denim yarn. Nowadays there’s so much technology going into the production of blue jeans that it’s really quite remarkable.”
Many Toronto boutiques now offer high-end denim. What do you offer that makes customers keep coming back to the original denim headquarters?
“The most important thing for me is our customer. We’ve had a lot of really unique customers like, ahem, ex-Raptor Chris Bosh—he bought his blue jeans here and that was really cool. It’s the celebrities, the people, my regular customers and all the fun we have. I say it over and over again, but we really do have a lot of fun here—it’s never just a dry transaction. We love to talk to and engage our customers. I think that’s what keeps them coming back. That, and the free jujubes.”
On August 26 and 27, the Rainbow team is planning a major anniversary celebration: They’ll be hosting day-long barbecues, offering crazy deals, and limited-edition Ts. You should go!
Below, Joel Carman in Over the Rainbow, and other pics from the shop.
Read about other cool Toronto shops—including The Cat’s Meow, Robber, and Love of Mine— in our Style Map section!