Business behind Spanner clothing brand refocuses for the future

Waterloo Region Record

KITCHENER — For more than four decades, the company founded by the late Peter Lago has been dressing women in appealing, high-quality fashions.

“And I want to be around for another 40-plus years,” says his son and successor, Geoffrey.

That’s meant both bold moves and difficult decisions for the Kitchener-based Inspired Style Group, home to brands including the homegrown Spanner and Gabby Isabella, and imported Agel Knitwear.

The bulk of its business lies in wholesaling to retailers, a sector that was especially hard-hit by the recession in the late 2000s.

“A lot of the boutiques and little independent stores that we served, they held on there as long as they could,” Lago says. “But it’s been almost like a plague of closings.”

Two of his own company stores will soon be closing, too.

A Spanner store at Waterloo’s Conestoga Mall will close Dec. 31, while the one at the firm’s Manitou Drive headquarters, home for years to popular semi-annual warehouse sales, will close Jan. 7.

Lago sold the 30,000-square foot Manitou Drive building this summer. The business will move administration and warehouse operations to a smaller nearby location in the new year.

Looking to replace the large Manitou retail space, Lago opened the Conestoga Mall store a year ago. “I thought it might have been the answer.”

But a new location at the St. Jacobs Outlets, specializing in year-round discount “warehouse sale” pricing, has been “a nice surprise,” Lago says. It compliments the Spanner store with different merchandise that has operated on King Street in the village of St. Jacobs since 2011.

“Let’s face it. We don’t need four or five stores in the region of Waterloo,” he says.

Other corporate locations, namely the flagship Spanner store at Shops at Don Mills in Toronto and the Gabby Isabella store at Blue Mountain, are also doing well.

Founded in 1973 by Peter Lago, who died last year, Spanner hit its peak in the mid- to late-2000s, just before the recession put the brakes on growth. At that time, one seasonal collection numbered 686 styles in a wide range of sizes.

But as some of Spanner’s wholesale customers suffered economically and fashion tastes changed, the large, heavily coordinated collections became too labour and inventory intensive.

Having joined his father in the business in 1996 and assuming the president and chief executive officer title in 2008, Geoffrey Lago has endeavoured to bring more focus to their products.

To that end, a design centre that had operated in Toronto for a few years closed in April, and that work was brought back to Kitchener.

“What I’ve been trying to do with Spanner is make it smaller, the size of the collection,” he says. “The Spanner brand is alive and well, and we’re doing it in a different way.”

The Gabby Isabella line, named for Geoffrey’s two daughters, is a bit more contemporary. Inspired Style Group sells the Spanner and Gabby Isabella lines to retailers in North America, Australia and New Zealand, while it distributes Agel Knitwear, a Greek line, in North America.

Inspired Style Group employs more than 50 people, a number that will come down somewhat with the closing of the two retail stores.

“Things have changed and we’ve had to change with it. There’s consequences — some are good and some are a little more challenging,” Lago admits.

But a lot of the tough decisions are behind him now, and Lago believes the company is getting much closer to where it needs to be.

“I’m proud of our history in the community,” he says. “We’ve been here a long time, and we’re staying here.” , Twitter: @DavisRecord