Original Signage for Malabar Limited, 14 McCaul Street, ca. 1960.
Courtesy of Tanyss Malabar.
Malabar Limited, the famed costume emporium, closed in March 2022. Although it had been a fixture of downtown Toronto’s cultural landscape for 99 years, it departed without fanfare or media coverage. The three-storey building it had occupied at 14 McCaul Street is currently vacant and for sale, asking price $14,500,000.
In July 2019, I was granted permission to photograph the interiors behind Malabar’s grimy, inscrutable facade. Many Torontonians will remember visiting its retail and rental showrooms located on the ground floor. Private offices, workshops, and storage lofts for hundreds of costumes occupied the second and third floors. Returned costumes were cared for in the basement, and smaller items like hats were stored there.
About 30,000 other costumes housed in a separate warehouse on Brock Street had recently been sold to Sarasota Opera Costume Studio in Florida, and were in the process of being shipped out. This huge accumulation of stock was the product of what had been Malabar’s main business since the 1950s. Collaborating with well-known designers, it had produced complete sets of costumes for popular operas and musicals, then rented them out to companies mounting productions across North America.
Harry Mallabar (later spelled with a single “l”) had founded the Toronto branch of his family’s Winnipeg costume business in 1923. Its original location was a narrow storefront at 431 Spadina Avenue. By 1932, it had moved to a two-storey space at 309–311 King Street West. A fire in February 1956 caused major damage to the King Street building, which may have precipitated the move to 14 McCaul Street in 1957.
The McCaul Street building had, during its first four decades, been the headquarters of the Harold F. Ritchie Company. At the time of his death in 1933, Harold “Carload” Ritchie had built his company into the world’s largest sales agency, marketing food staples, patent medicines, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. Toronto journalist Don Gillmor published a short, engaging biography of Carload Ritchie in 2022.
The architecture of 14 McCaul, its wide Chicago-style windows, pressed metal cornice, wood-panelled offices and grand second-floor showroom, were intended to reflect the commercial prestige its original occupant. However, it was Malabar, under the ownership of master tailor Luigi Speca, that transformed this undistinguished building into a cultural resource known throughout North America.
Shipped to Florida…in a time when film and TV and whatever else is in need of such services in Toronto.
Why did this popular and obviously cherished business close, in a city where the entertainment industry is constantly growing?
When I was still living in Montreal in the mid-80s, I rented a costume from Malabar in their Old Montreal location. I went as Prince Machiavelli in a ruffled shirt, and light satin green cape and pantaloons!
I was the manager of tne opera/theater dept on Brock St for over 30 years. That dept rented to EVERY major opera company in North America, complete opera productions. By 2015 Luigi was looking to retire and wanted the costumes to continue in other hands. NO Canadian company or institution showed any interest in acquiring the stock. Some American companies were eager and interested. Sarasota got the money and large grants and donations to purchase the entire stock.