By John Swartz
Here’s the thing about C C Fashion, the Mississaga street West clothing store started in 1971 by Ralph and Frank Cipolla, if you want to know something about the business, you have to talk to the boss, Dianne (Ralph’s wife). That might be the biggest change the shop has had in 50 years.
“He’s busy with council. He comes in and has a few decisions,” Dianne said. She started working in the store in 1998 and while if you drop in you might see Ralph occasionally, it’s Dianne who will take care of you.
Originally the store name was C C Pant Shop and formally became C C Fashion in 2000. The idea was to sell unisex jeans, not just standard Levis, but cool looking pants. They still sell a large selection of designer jeans, but they also have women’s and junior clothes. We all know fashions change with each season, mostly the colours available, but some styles last longer than others, so what’s the biggest change in 50 years the Cipollas have witnessed?
“Our jean sales are still very strong. Especially in the junior’s and the men’s, the ladies – they’re into the fashion, we carry French Dressing which is our strongest jean line,” Dianne said.
“Fashion evolves. It might be skinny jeans this year and then straight. This year its wide legs, high rise for the juniors, just like it was when we first opened. You can only do so many things with pants, skinny, straight or wide,” Dianne said. Some things take forever to change though.
“Men don’t change. Men’s fashion has gone a little slimmer, but the straight legs are still the strongest. Guys get a jean they like and they buy numerous pairs at the same time.”
Ralph’s perspective on change starts with the clientele.
“The difference is we have very loyal customers. Fashion? Back then a pair of jeans, they were $6.95. What’s made us successful is fair price, top fashion; back then we tried to buy just about everything Canadian. A lot of the fashion was made in Montreal and GWG was in Winnipeg. Things changed and they went to Europe. All of a sudden all the European fashions started to come into style and people wanted those fashions, so we started shopping there and we went to New York to buy product during Fashion Week,” said Ralph. “Being on top of the fashion world, that’s what really made us successful. You couldn’t buy the products we had here anywhere else.” The types of clothing they sell have changed and now you can get tops, sweaters, jackets and footwear to go with your jeans.
“Back then it was mini-skirts and great big wide pants; it’s all starting to come back,” said Ralph.
People start projects and hope it lasts long enough to bear some fruit. Few people anticipate their creations are going to last 5 decades.
“I thought it was going to be a long time, but never 50 years. I thought I’d retire at 60 or 65. As I keep saying to my wife, “what’s the point of retiring, are you going to sit on a couch watch television and drink a beer or two?”” said Ralph.
Ralph’s interest in clothing started with an after-school job.
“I worked at Louis’ Menswear from the time I was 14 to when I finished high school. I went out west to work at International Nickel (in Thompson, Manitoba) for a year. Then I came back and my parents didn’t want me to go back.”
It was a tough decision, to walk away from what for a teenager was an astronomical annual income. It wasn’t quite Alberta oil field money, but it wasn’t Orillia money either.
“I said, “What am I going to do? I’ll stay if I can make the same amount of money,”” He took a job at General Motors in Oshawa his brother-in-law lined up for him, driving cars all day long as a test driver, but he got bored of that and 8 months later was thinking of starting his own business. He and Frank, who was working at Dorr, Oliver, Long decided to become partners in the business.
“He said, “OK, you open it and we’ll see what happens. I opened 400 square feet,” Ralph said. “After about a year things were going really well. We expanded it and my brother came to work with me,” said Ralph.
“Our store was so popular we couldn’t keep up. The unisex shops in those days, the only place you could buy anything like that was in Toronto,” Ralph said. To keep up they opened more stores. First at Orillia Square Mall, then in Bracebridge and Gravenhurst, and eventually ending up with a chain of ten stores from North Bay, to Oshawa and Peterborough.
“We had two stores in Huntsville,” said Ralph. Like Orillia, there was a store in the mall and downtown. “We did extremely well in both.”
As if on cue, while gathering notes for this story, customers came in. “He’s one of our original customers,” said Ralph.
“We were here almost on day one,” J J Woolverton said, adding, “Unfortunately, that’s how old I am.” He’s shopping with his wife, Sue Hurtubise and they both keep coming back.
“First of all, Dianne treats us like we are kings and Queens,” said Woolverton. “One other thing, it’s also the quality of clothes and the variety they have here.”
“I remember when I first came in,” said Hurtubise. “I was
just a tween basically and you’re starting to buy your own clothes and I’m looking
at the prices and I’m just like, “Oh, I have to have them,” and that was the
beginning of the end.”
“We’ve been coming so long, we’ve become good friends with Dianne and Ralph. They were actually at our wedding.” Woolverton has other reasons which keep bringing them back.
“Let’s just say Dianne keeps calling my wife and saying, “We’ve got a sale,”” he said. “We’ve got our whole family shopping here; kids and grandkids, we’ve been treated like family.”
Woolverton isn’t the only one with a sense of humour. While posing for a photo, Hurtubise dropped a good one.
“I was here yesterday,” she said.
A sign of the times is as business owners they have seen changes in what they stock, but along with everyone else they’ve had to change how they do business during the last two years.
“We had to really think outside the box. Instagram, Facebook, we deliver in town, we do curbside pickup, we have restrictions as far as the amount of people in the store, I’m sanitizing all the time,” said Dianne. “We know our customers so well, if people came in and wanted jeans during the lockdown, I’d just give them a pile of jeans and say, ‘take them home, try them, bring back the ones that didn’t fit and pay for the ones that did fit.”
“The people in Orillia, and surrounding area have been so supportive our store over the years. This whole Shop Local campaign is working really well and we work so well with other store owners in the downtown. I can’t have everything I send them to other stores, (if) people are looking for jeans they’ll send them down to us.”
The Cipollas also put their effort behind community projects.
“What we did this year for Mother’s Day is people sponsored a bag and in that bag was a pair of pants, a pair of socks and a top. Our community is so amazing, we took 100 bags up to Green Haven, to Uplifting Blessings and VICARs,” said Dianne.
“What we contributed to the community helped us tremendously to be successful,” Said Ralph.
The official anniversary date is Friday, August 27, and like any other retail business celebrating an anniversary they’re having a sale and all their summer fashions are 50% off.
“At 5 o’clock we’re going to have a ribbon cutting and Steve (Clarke) will be here and Rusty Draper because Rusty was one of the first guys, he did CFOR and he was there (on day one). We’re also doing (after 5 p.m.) fill a bag for $50. The people are going to fill them with as much product as you can from the rack (outside). You can’t try it on because of COVID, so if it doesn’t fit you, you bring it back and we donate it to Uplifting Blessings,” said Dianne.
(Photos By Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia) Main: Ralph and Dianne Cipolla with an original promotional t-shirt from 1971.