Coppley Apparel: Move from historic workplace

Coppley Apparel — with roots on York Blvd. back to 1883 — will move to a new facility on MacNab St. in March

Next month, the whirring sewing machines, puffing steam presses and chorus of different languages will fall silent at an iconic landmark on York Boulevard.

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How low key is Coppley’s presence on York Boulevard? Coppley, Noyes & Randall Wholesale Clothing isn’t even the name of the company anymore

Coppley Apparel, after nearly 140 years, is moving a short distance away into a newly constructed, three-storey building on MacNab Street. The departure will mean the end of an era, and one of the city's last great downtown, pre-Confederation stone buildings will be put up for sale.

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New Coppley Factory

There will actually be two property listings — one for the main five-storey main building that opened in 1856 and the other for a connected structure built in 1907.

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It will raise fears from heritage preservationists about the buildings not having a specific heritage designation. Coppley has been leasing the buildings from the Toronto-based Enkin family. The family ran the company from 1950 until 1998 before selling and Coppley is currently owned by Individualized Appareal Group, but keeping ownership of the buildings. They have resisted numerous heritage designation efforts by the city even though it would have helped them qualify for restoration subsidies.

Hamilton at one time had a vibrant textile trade — second only to the steel sector — with the long-gone Imperial Cotton Company on Sherman Avenue North and Mercury Mills on Cumberland Avenue among others. But now, Coppley is the last survivor from that era and is bullish about staying in Hamilton.

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"We felt it was important to stay downtown because of our connection with the downtown core and because most of our (260) employees live there," said Coppley spokesperson, Donalda Pelletier.

The company is named for former owner George Charles Coppley (1858-1936) who later served as mayor of Hamilton from 1921-22. The business prospered through the 20th and 21st centuries under different proprietors by focusing on high-end men's suits and jackets and selling tailor-made suits with a two-week turnaround.

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You can't do that with an offshore production facility if the customer is in North America.

Its business strategy belies a low-keyed presence on the street. The biggest clue about what goes on inside is a weathered sign at the corner of MacNab that says "Coppley, Noyes & Randall Wholesale Clothing." And that's not even the name of the company anymore.

But to go through the main door, past the offices and courtyard and push through the plastic vertical drape door, you step into a fascinating workplace in transition. There you see mostly women workers, from various cultures, who often don't speak the same language as the person in the next workstation.

They toil at their sewing machine stations, some of which have computerized controls. There are pieces of suits and jackets hanging all around, tacked down with pins and marked with chalk waiting to be worked on.

Different floors handle different functions and garments move from one level to another using a continuously moving conveyor.

An intriguing part of the tour is a blocked-off corridor in the basement that once led into some kind of a tunnel toward Cannon Street that was long ago sealed off, says Pelletier. It's not clear what the passageway was for, but underground infrastructure redevelopment through the '60s and '70s apparently forced it to be filled in, she said.

One company memento that will certainly make the journey to MacNab Street is a world map with push pins that mark the hometowns of employees. Europe, Central America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia have the most markers.

It's a symbol of how the company has relied strongly on immigrants for its workforce. \"In my experience, no young Canadian has ever wanted to go into the needle trades. It was always an immigrant industry," says Larry Enkin, 91, who worked at Coppley for nearly 50 years after his father Max purchased it.

Max Enkin was notable for bringing Holocaust survivors to Canada after the Second World War to work in the industry, pushing the federal government to let them into the country. About 2,500 tailors and their families made the journey between 1948 and 1949 working at various textile mills in Canada. A documentary film and book called the "Tailor Project" is being put together to tell their stories.

"We always had an interest in immigrants. When the Vietnamese boat people came (in the 1970s), a lot them worked in our factory. It's a history of new immigrants coming to the country and finding work in the clothing industry. Now a lot of Syrians work in the trade," Larry Enkin says.

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Repost with select edits from TheSpec