A rather historic clothing label setting up shop along Queen West seems a bit like a feather out of place. But if you know anything about Original Penguin’s history, the brand and this street seem to be hatched of the same humorous sensibility. From the start, Penguin has been a bit of an odd bird. The origin of its infamous necktie-wearing marine fowl logo is itself reason enough for its existence on one of Toronto’s most reckless streets.
The logo is inspired by a taxidermy penguin bought on a whim by Abbot Pederson, an ambitious salesperson with the Munsingwear undergarment company in the mid-1950s. It seems Pederson had had one too many drinks at a local bar on a sales trip to Manhattan, took a wrong turn and found himself in front in a taxidermy shop. (You could easily substitute one of the many quirky vintage stores on Queen West with that Manhattan shop). Pederson was soon the proud owner of a stuffed penguin, which he quickly named Pete. On his flight back to Minneapolis he accidentally knocked off Pete’s head and the stewardess with whom he was flirting coyly removed Pederson’s tie and wrapped it around Pete’s neck in order to hold the head in place. And so a logo was born.
Fast forward to August 2012. Penguin has set up nest on Queen Street, west of Bathurst. It’s their first Canadian store, joining a flock of 43 others around the world. Designed in the classic sense, the shop makes use of its historic setting. The original tin ceiling is painted white, and its rich hardwood floors are highly polished. Almost blinding. Racks and shelves house clothing on either side of the store while low racks of product occupy the centre and divide the store in two. The back, where the dressing rooms are located, is furnished with retro club chairs made comfy with overstuffed orange pillows and a kidney-shaped glass table.
“We’ve just received our fall line,” Diane, the sales director for Penguin, tells me as I eye the discounted rack of pinstriped summer shorts. So cute. But autumn is approaching, and it’s time to get set for cooler weather. The line at first might seem a bit conservative for Queen. But not really. It’s actually quite hipster-friendly and easy to coordinate. Its muted tones work well with Queen West’s new understated sensibility.
Primarily a men’s brand, the international company has been around since 1955 and appeals strongly to 18- to 35-year-olds. A big part of the fall lineup is the Donegal, a flecky fabric used in their jackets and hoodies. A double-breasted jacket with a short shawl collar, considered a season-less piece, is also important. “The colours used are considered understandable,” Diane continues. “It’s easy for a guy to understand. They are not screaming colour.” For a straight guy maybe. Gay guys know colour like the back of their ass. And we tend to like screaming colour. Pinks are muted. Blues are subdued. Besides their usual lineup of buttoned-down shirts, chinos, sweaters and logoed polo shirts, Penguin also has a collection of shoes, which are just a little bit hip hop, just a little bit hipster.
As we peruse the collection, Andy Jones, a young up-and-coming designer, struts by the front window. I run out and bring him back to the store to check out the line with me. We both agree that this style is very on point right now.
“You are definitely opening your store in the right area,” Andy adds.
But I wonder if the brand has changed over the years, only because it seems to fit too perfectly what is going on on Queen West so perfectly right now. “It’s a little bit quirky,” Diane says of the line. “[Penguin] does things in a different way. Some of the pieces have gone back to the archives, and they’ve recoloured them or the styling might have evolved. Men have evolved. Whether they add detailing on this cuff with gingham or made this collar smaller, it makes it fresh. It's a classic line that has evolved.”
But of course, what is happening along Queen West and in Toronto is happening across North America and the world. The resurgence of Penguin happened organically on its own, without the aid of marketing and PR, many years ago.
According to them, and I agree, the brand, especially the logoed shirts, “catapulted back into fashion in 2000 when young trendsetters started scouring yard sales and demanding their favourite vintage stores restock the cult classics. In 2003, this overwhelming new audience led to the rebirth of an Original Penguin by Muningswear and an alliance with an international fashion house.”
Its rebirth was organic, fluid, real. It came from the people, and no doubt some of those people waiting for its rebirth were gay. The hipster look is now also very blurred and is one of the current big gay looks. Some call it hipster fag. Some call it modern ’mo. Whatever it is, it’s going to make Penguin a swan among some ugly ducklings.
“It really is,” Andy laughs.
“I think with this collection you can dress it up and then you can dress it down,” Dianne adds very politically correct-like.
“Flame it up or flame it down,” I add with a wink. We all burst out laughing.
“Exactly,” Andy squeals. “I would wear this [sky-blue button-down shirt] with a pair of silver jeans.” Flame on!
“The silver pants would work perfectly,” Dianne agrees. “That’s the Penguin guy. He’s twisting it up. They call him the social subversive. He’s changing the way it’s supposed to be.”
If this isn’t what Queen West (and being gay) is all about, then I don’t know what is. — Rolyn Chambers
Fab finds: Black Label Pete polo shirt -- black/ruby
Fab find: Warrenson basic pant (in pink)
Fab find: Gray life shawl collar sweater
Fab find: Ernie slip-on hybrid Shoe - grey/retro blue
Fab find: Ft Penguin long-sleeve woven shirt – tamarac
Original Penguin, 700 Queen St W. 416-504-1234. penguinclothing.com
Models: Andy Jones, fashion designer; Evan Desouza, PR intern