by Mary Jane Agra
Flocks of stylish men from around the globe descend upon the heart of Toronto’s Don Valley Evergreen Brickworks for the city’s first-ever Men’s Fashion Week. More than an acronym, TOM* is every man - regardless of age, ethnicity, or background – who not only loves fashion, but wears his heart on his Burberry sleeve. Leading the army of TOMs is creative visionary, arbiter of cool, and the It-est – if that’s a word -of them all, JEFF RUSTIA, TOM*’s Executive Director and Founder.
It was sensory overload as I stride past downtown Shangri-La hotel’s luxurious lobby lounge towards the bar where Jeff had arranged to meet. With the clinking of tea cups, soft chiming of the crystal chandeliers, the whiff of signature exotic scents, the bold sight of the waitresses’ Ming Vase-inspired dresses, the soothing live music in the background, and the incessant chatter of tourists and city dwellers, I start to wonder how this interview was going to pan out considering the sea of distractions. Having met Jeff before, I recall this larger-than-life personality to be denuded of pretension and artifice despite his string of accomplishments. I spot him at a corner wrapping up just one of his many back-to-back meetings for the day. Yet, his face shows no sign of stress; the zest in his eyes suggests he thrives off the hustle and bustle of life. Jeff saunters towards me in his all-black ensemble, fedora, and effortless confidence. His intensified energy commands focus that surrounding distractions fade and I’m put to ease almost all at once as if in the company of an old friend.
Throwback to highlights of his career from his impressive CV: In his early twenties, this ‘media baby’ submerged himself in fashion while working for Channel [V], formerly MTV Asia, as its Producer and Director in Hong Kong. “Fashion and music go hand in hand, so I’ve always been very conscious about how I look and dress, especially with Fashion Police. Fashion has always been a part of not only my professional life, but my own personal branding and interests,” he says. Drawn to fashion at a young age, he has childhood memories of getting dressed up by his parents in matching corduroy suits alongside his brother. He even admits to have been quite the iconoclast, “my teenage years have been very experimental, always creating my own ensembles regardless of criticism. Often times, when people comment on what I shouldn’t wear, the more reason I wear it.” He takes his love for fashion to the front of the lens as the Host and VJ for BPM:TV’s Club Fashion. After spearheading departments for networks like HBO and Cinemax, YTV, and CBC, he soonafter launched his very own awarding-winning and first-ever diversity broadcast design and branding agency in Canada, KOL TV, formerly FRONT TV, now celebrating its 14th year in business.
Fast track to the 8th Men’s Fashion Week in the world, TOM*, a venture he takes on to give back to his city. “Historically, menswear is often an after-thought tagged along at the end of women’s. Finally, Toronto has its own platform to showcase innovation, creativity, and talent,” he says. A recent conversation he overheard between two athletes discussing whether they would wear the gladiator sandals from the Versace show struck a chord with him, “Years ago, this wouldn’t be a conversation we would typically hear, and that’s the indication of the menaissance – the rise of consciousness in men’s fashion,” he continues. Men today have redefined the meaning of masculinity, very much like the Joe Namath syndrome. “They will go to Muskoka and chop wood and smoke cigars, and would be unashamed about coming back here and buying a pink suit!” he exclaims. “It’s not about sexuality, it’s about choices and dressing for success,” says this true sequin enthusiast. In fact, favourite pieces from his closet include super-tight silver-sequined pants and a sequined blazer custom-created for him by Francis Libiran, Tyra Banks’ go-to designer. This trendsetter is ahead of the game, already sporting patterned tote-sized man-bags, and admits to taking fun trips to Kensington Market for eye-catching vintage pieces.
An avid supporter of Canadian designers, such as Dsquared2 and HD Homme, this menswear enthusiast imagines Toronto to match - if not beat - London Men’s Fashion Week as the home of menswear. Before TOM*, it was Canada Philippine Fashion Week, which he credits to his late son, Kol, who passed two years ago. “I dedicated CPFW to Kol, and it was such a beautiful thing to be at Sick Kids Hospital last December with a cheque for 85,000 dollars. These days, I don’t do anything unless there’s an advocacy for children, hence TOM*’s Men’s Fashion 4 Hope,” he says. Coming out of the whirlwind adventure of CPFW back in June 2013, he relives waking up to this fantastic epiphany and sweat about TOM* in August.
However, what started it all was the epiphany he had for CPFW, which was shortly after his 4-month sabbatical in the Philippines to mourn for Kol’s passing, “I wouldn’t have ended up with TOM* if not for the crash course of CPFW.” While sitting at a café in Toronto, something urged him to draw on his late father’s advice: ‘Jeff, when you have a dream, write it down on a piece of paper.’ So on a napkin, he pens four words: CANADA, PHILIPPINE, FASHION, and WEEK. “I couldn’t believe that after I unleashed that dream into the universe, I’ll be standing at Roy Thomson Hall and welcoming 4,000 people to the world’s first Canada Philippine Fashion Week,” he reminisces.
The future of TOM* is set to get brighter, “My ideal for TOM* is that we’re not just under one tent so to speak but involves the entire city and lots of peripheral fashion events happening at art galleries and other venues simultaneously,” he says. “At the end of the day, what matters to me is that TOM* shows fashion has a heart. The big success in all of this is when you can see the names of every individual and company who made this possible. After all, it takes a village to create an epic event that can help children and give back to the city in every way,” he ends.
TOM* magazine is the definitive men’s magazine of Toronto, highlighting current trends in fashion, and culture that focuses on sophisticated, international audiences who seek and live fashion.