At Maison Leporem, we believe a gentleman’s clothing is simply an extension of his personality. Therefore, learning about a client’s lifestyle, profession, aspirations, and philosophy is paramount to creating a garment that ‘suits’ him perfectly (pun intended). To this end, an initial client consultation at our showroom typically involves about a 30 minute chat about his life, usually over a scotch and/or coffee, before getting into the actual garment making.
After three years of this process, we have come to two important realizations – 1.) Every client has a unique and interesting story; and 2.) Our brand tends to attract a certain type of gentleman, one we like to describe as a “maverick”.
The Oxford dictionary defines the word “maverick” as, “an unorthodox or independent-minded person”.
Perhaps, it is apt that such unorthodox individuals are attracted to an unorthodox brand with an unorthodox history, but more on that later.
This segment of our Journal, titled ‘Leporem Mavericks’ profiles some of the fine young men that walk through our doors in search of made-to-measure garments. We hope you are inspired by each of their stories.
How do you describe a man like Richard Zhang? An ex-banker, a businessman, a heavy metal guitarist, a music producer, a band manager, a teacher, and a philosopher. Well… that’s a start. Richard is a man who figuratively speaking, wears many hats, and literally, always wears one - a black fedora. He embodies the concept of a Leporem Maverick.
Born in Beijing into a conservative and successful Chinese family, Richard ended up landing a ‘dream job’ at the Bank of China. This prestigious job (only 1 in 800 applicants are interviewed) at the Bank of China meant Richard was set for life – the pay package was great, job security was certain, and there were incredible perks. This all pleased his parents and extended family, who, being “a traditional Chinese family”, in his words, believed the main goals in life were to go to school and then get a well-paying job at a major organization.
Then Richard made a drastic change based on the following philosophy:
“I don’t care about the money, I only care about my soul.”
We caught up with him in our Montreal showroom to discuss exactly what his life-changing decision was, his life philosophy, style inspirations, and the innovative sales strategy he adopted to kickstart his business.
So, let’s begin at the start. Where were you born?
I was born in Beijing in 1989. And I came to Montreal 6 years ago – in October 2012.
How did you end up in Montreal?
Before I came here, I finished my University Degree in Beijing- I studied International Trade. After University, I got a great job at the Bank of China. The pay and everything else was great, but I was stuck in an office. It was boring. I worked there about a year and half. And then I thought, ‘this is not my life’. I don’t want to live my whole life living in the same office. I wanted change.
Since I was 18, I had been playing guitar, heavy metal music, just as a hobby. Through that, I had met a lot of people in Beijing who were either musicians or in the business of musical instruments. Back then, I did some part-time jobs selling guitars and teaching guitar lessons in Beijing. So, after a year and half at the Bank of China, I decided I wanted to start my own music business. So, I just quit my job suddenly and moved to Montreal.
Seriously? You quit suddenly? Did you tell your parents ahead of time?
(Laughs) I told them one week before I submitted my letter of resignation. By then, my mind was already made up and it was impossible for them to make me change my decision.
You know, my family is a very traditional Chinese family. My father is a police officer, a very serious man. And my mum is a civil servant. Their plan for me was to finish University and get a good job in a field related to my study. So, I messed up their plan.
What did you do when you first moved to Montreal?
You know, I could not just leave China and come to Canada to start a business. So, I decided to come here as a student instead. I enrolled at Concordia University in Montreal to study Business Administration. Luckily, I was able to transfer credits from my International Trade degree in Beijing, so it only took me two years to obtain my Business Administration degree at Concordia University.
Immediately after I finished my degree, I started my business in the musical equipment industry, as planned.
Awesome. How did you go about starting your business?
I started my business by selling guitar effects to musical instrument stores. I already had the contacts in Asia for the manufacturing of the equipment, and a great American brand that I wanted to introduce to the Canadian market. The biggest problem I had was getting the stores to trust me and agree to sell my products.
So, what I did was, I would go to these music stores, and play guitar there for about an hour. The staff at the store would be in awe – Asian guy, with long hair, playing guitar so well, and heavy metal for that matter! I made quite an impression on them. I would leave without talking too much, and then return again in a week. I did this routine in multiple music stores.
By the third or fourth time, the staff started talking to me more about music and we got to know each other. That was when I casually asked them if they had ever heard of the brand I was trying to sell and if they would be willing to try it out in their stores.
That’s an incredible strategy. What was the reasoning behind that approach?
I wanted them to remember me. It’s very important for people to remember you. You cannot just walk into a business and expect them to listen to your sales pitch immediately. So, I developed that relationship first, before casually talking to them about the product I wanted to sell all along. That is how I started. First order was for only 100 pieces, but as time goes on, you build on the relationships and the orders get bigger.
And in addition to your musical equipment business, you also organize Asian tours for North American heavy metal bands. How did you get into that?
I attend a lot of concerts – a few times every month – where I meet many musicians and bands. Most of them are extremely talented and produce great music, but the heavy metal industry in North America is too saturated, so it’s difficult for them to stand out. In Asia, it is the opposite case. There is an ever-growing demand for good foreign bands over there. So, I decided to use my connections in Asia to help some of these bands gain access and exposure to the Asian market. It started with organizing tours for three bands and all three were great successes.
And you also produce music for metal bands and films? Is there anything you don’t do?
(Laughs) Yes, I do. I built a studio at my home and I work from there. It is a lot of fun. I also teach guitar lessons. I really enjoy the teaching aspect, especially when the young student actually loves metal music and is not just trying to learn guitar to impress girls. (Laughs)
I have to ask you about your hair. Did you work in the bank with this hairstyle?
(Laughs) I did not. I started to grow out my hair 5 years ago, after I moved to Canada. My Dad hates it - he thinks only criminals have this sort of hairstyle. But, I love it. It is a lot of work though, I have to shave the sides myself at least once a week.
What strikes me is how your distinct style is an extension of your personality. When I met you the first time, I obviously didn’t know your story; but my first impression was ‘damn, this guy is f****n’ cool’. Can you tell me more about how/why you built this signature image?
You know, you’re not the first guy to ask me this question. From the beginning, I always loved the purity of black. And for my business, when I meet potential customers for the first time, most of them won’t remember my name. But they will always remember, “the Asian guy with long hair, in all black.” Having a distinct, stylish appearance is very important in business, I think.
So, how did you develop this personal style? Have you always been interested in fashion?
Hmm I don’t know. I think it stems from me being overweight when I was younger. When I was 18, I was twice my current weight. I used to look at style magazines and wish I could fit into some of the clothes I saw. So after I lost the weight, I was excited to finally be able to wear some of the cool clothes I had always wanted! And I used to date a model and frequently went with her to photoshoots; I secretly hoped I could model one day too! (Laughs)
Now, let’s backtrack a bit and go back to your bold decision to leave your fledgling career in banking. How did you know you were making the right decision?
Actually, I didn’t know if it was the right decision. It was extremely hard to get that job in the first place. Only 1 in 800 applicants are interviewed for the job. But one thing I was sure of was that I don’t care about money. All I care about is my soul. I always tell my friends, if you have an independent and full soul, you can live like a king even if you live in a small cage. But everyday working at the bank, I felt like I was in a cage. All of my relatives, no one ever tried a different lifestyle. I wanted to try something different. And I thought, what’s the worst that could happen?
And how did you develop this mindset? Was it through books or…?
Absolutely. I read. I read all the time.
Any particular books that helped you develop that philosophy?
I read a lot of stuff by Milan Kudera – an author/philosopher from Czech Republic. His most famous book is titled The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
How do you stay motivated and deal with the ups & downs of being self-employed?
Sometimes, business is really bad, but I never regret that I quit my job because, I’m free. I think that ‘lack of regret’ is important to remain motivated and focused. It also helps that my business is multi-faceted. And every once in a while, I find a new unique business opportunity that I can take advantage of. For example, I recently helped a new hotel source pictures and artwork for all their rooms. I’m always trying to be resourceful.
Where does your drive come from? That is, what gets you out of bed in the morning and raring to go, during times when your business is in a slump?
My mindset is that if things are not going well, I have only 2 choices: one is getting angry and pissed off; the second is to do something about it. Whenever I remind myself about these two choices, I know what I have to do. It’s as simple as that.
Great mindset. Now let’s talk about classic menswear before we round up. Do you have any style icons?
I don’t have any specific individuals, but I derive my style inspiration from movies. Movies like The GodFather and that sort of Italian mafia style from the 1930's to 1950's.
Finally, when you designed your custom suit at Maison Leporem, did you have anything specific in mind before you visited the showroom? Or did those ideas develop during the process?
You know, I found your shop on the internet. I had done extensive research online, so I visited many stores. But when I walked into the Maison Leporem showroom, I felt different; I felt transcended to a different era. The decor, the music, even the customer service was unique. For example, last time you were playing Frank Sinatra on the gramophone. That just made me happy. And that sort of 1950’s inspired style was what I wanted for my double-breasted suit.
Thank you very much for the kind words, and for your time!
Written by Collins Oghor
Photography by Dany Dao (unless otherwise stated)