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Friday January 8, 2010

Founder of Ports International made things happen

What do women want? In the 1960s, they wanted a perfect blouse to wear to work. When a Toronto entrepreneur provided it, his company took off

Luke Tanabe, who built a clothing empire out of a one-room office on Front Street in Toronto, was a rare combination of business visionary, master craftsman and salesman extraordinaire.

Alert to the profound changes taking place for women in the 1960s, he envisioned the kind of clothing that would dress them for new-found careers and then designed the details to perfection.

For good measure, he had the business smarts to take his products to market and to get them sold.

The result was Ports International, which grew from an importer of mainly blouses to a purveyor of a full line of clothing for professional women with elegant boutiques throughout North America and beyond.

Filling a void between high fashion and what women had considered everyday dress, Ports changed retailing in Toronto and influenced clothing manufacturers throughout the industry.

This is all the more impressive considering that Mr. Tanabe had emerged from a work camp after the Second World War to find himself in living at the Toronto YMCA.

"Here was a man who had nothing to start off with, just a vision," said James Yamashita, who worked for Mr. Tanabe from the beginning. "He wanted to be able to satisfy the clothing needs of the career woman. And it was able to pull it all together.

"He was that kind of man. He had a vision and he was able to accomplish what he had in mind."

Luke Tanabe was born in 1920 in Vancouver, one of three children of Kichihei and Kane Tanabe, Japanese immigrants who had come to Canada in search of opportunity. They ran a watch and jewellery shop, successful due to his father's watch-repair skills and his mother's gift for sales.

Raised as an Anglican and exposed as well to Asian influences, he grew up curious about the world and was encouraged by his parents to succeed at school. After high school, he studied business and finance at the University of British Colombia. But after he graduated came the war, and his career aspirations were postponed.

The Tanabes, like other Japanese Canadians, lost their property and were sent to internment camps to wait out the war.

Eventually Luke was offered the option of joining the Ontario Farm Service Force and worked on a farm near St. Thomas, Ont., owned by Mitch Hepburn, premier of Ontario from 1934 to 1942.

Family members say that the experience changed him. After the war, he preferred to think of himself less as a Canadian and more as a citizen of the world.

Still, he did not spend a lot of time bemoaning the past. His children instead remember stories from the time about the benefits of working outdoors and of working hard.

Mr. Tanabe got a job as a salesman for a glove company, where he met Mr. Yamashita.

In 1948, he married Ruby Miyake, who had spent time at the Slocan City internment camp in British Columbia and then came to Toronto to study.

The two eventually had six daughters.

Mr. Tanabe's early success selling gloves caught the eye of a New York competitor who asked him to set up a Canadian subsidiary. He accepted, and took Mr. Yamashita with him.

The operation thrived, but Mr. Tanabe had bigger plans. As the 1960s dawned, a Japanese trading company offered him a chance to import clothing from Japan and elsewhere in Asia. He jumped at the chance and Newport Canada was born.

Still in need of more entrepreneurial freedom, he went on his own with the help of a Canadian backer in the retail import business to set up Ports International in 1966. The company started mainly by importing blouses made of polysilk, a new fabric created in Japan, which quickly caught on in the St. Regis Room at Simpsons, The Room at Eatons and in other high-end stores.

Then came the famous No. 10 blouse, designed by Mr. Tanabe himself.

"He worked and worked on it," his former colleague said. "He was obsessed with it - the fabric, the buttons, the tailoring, how the collar opened a certain way. It was his baby."

Soon retailers were fighting over this blouse, begging for more of them and complaining when the other guy got too many.

This in turn attracted more investment and Ports eventually was able to expand to offer an entire line of well-tailored classics for the professional woman, which caught on fast.

By the 1970s, the room on Front Street had given way to luxurious orchid-decked offices high in the Royal Bank tower and a beautiful showroom in Queen's Quay Terminal.

"Tanabe filled his lakeside headquarters with an exquisite collection of Japanese paintings, libraries of collectable books, and exotic objets d'art acquired on his many world sojourns," says author and journalist Julie Enfield in the history she is writing of Ports. "The showroom quickly became an international point of reference in fashion circles."

The company's creations were sold in the best stores throughout North America and eventually in its own boutiques, including one on Bond Street in London. Mr. Tanabe started Tabi International in the mid-80s to sell a more affordable line of quality clothing and opened a store in Tokyo.

"It was mind-boggling to see," Mr. Yamashita said. "He had such confidence, people just believed in him."

But Mr. Tanabe always sought more from life than work. He loved travel, sailing, the theatre, music, photography and especially golf.

He practised yoga and Zen Buddhism and sought to instill his love of life and pursuit of excellence in his daughters.

Mariko Tanabe, 53, a dancer and dance instructor, says it wasn't always easy being his daughter, especially during the rebellious times of the late 1960s and early 70s. But it was always interesting. She says her father was determined to teach his children not only how to succeed in the world, but also how to do so without sacrificing values and integrity.

"From the age of six," she says with a laugh, "I can remember him trying to teach me yoga, to meditate, to focus my mind.

"He was always sussing things out, digesting things and turning them over, always looking for ways to improve things. He thought life should be about performing your best."

His youngest daughter, Miki, 43, remembers her father trying to explain the meaning of the word "quintessential" to her when she was five.

"He had high expectations for me," she said, adding that this was sometimes frustrating. "He would always challenge us; but that is part of growth."

Unfortunately, the story of Ports International did not end as auspiciously as it began.

In 1989, Mr. Tanabe retired and sold both Ports and Tabi to Etac Sales Ltd., a Toronto company operated by Alfred Chan.

That company eventually became overextended and Ports found itself in bankruptcy in 1994.

"It was sad to see the ending," said Mr. Yamashita, who retired at that time.

Still, there is much of Mr. Tanabe's entrepreneurial spirit and fashion inspiration that survives.

Miki, who got her start in the business answering phones at Ports when she was 12, went on to get a degree at Parsons school of design in New York, then stayed to work with Mr. Chan when her father sold the company.

After that she spent 14 years in Italy, designing for the Holt Renfrew private label, Fred Perry, and managing the design production for the manufacturer of Pucci, Malo and Dsquared2.

Last year she returned to Toronto to become partners in Suede, where she designs handbags sold in the beauty section of Shopper's Drug Mart and elsewhere under the Bluesuede label.

The brand Ports International is still sold in hundreds of stores throughout China through Ports Design Ltd., which is publicly traded on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

The name also lives on in Ports 1961, a luxury label launched in New York in 2004 by Mr. Chan and designer Tia Cibani.

Two of Mr. Tanabe's favourite Canadian protégés - Dean and Dan Caten of DSquared2 - came to work for Ports early on after meeting Miki at Parsons.

They're now international fashion celebrities - having designed for Versace and dressed such luminaries as Madonna, Britney Spears and Rihanna.

"He was an inspiration to so many people," Miki says of her father. "A true visionary, an incredible teacher." Luke Tanabe Luke Tanabe was born on Oct. 21, 1920, in Vancouver. He died in Toronto on Nov. 16, 2009. He was 89. He leaves his wife Ruby, daughters Midori, Mariko, Lee, Emi and Miki, as well as two grandsons.

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