With a new AM House opening later this summer in Calgary, we wanted to chat to the guy making it possible: Can Altay. He’s the Brand Experience Leader for the region, an excellent style advisor and generally speaking: a hell of a guy. From the moment you meet him, Can’s warmth and energy is infectious. Something we quickly learned is deeply ingrained from his previous life across the ocean in Turkey. We sat down to chat all about his unique approach to life, style and the art of fitting someone’s psyche rather than their form.
We know you as the man in charge of our Calgary pop-up. Have you always lived there?
I am actually originally from Turkey. I was born in Ankara, and later moved to Izmir for my father’s job. I joined a military college in Izmir at only 14 years old. After four years of college, I enrolled in the Air Force Academy in Istanbul and stayed for 4 years before I joined the Turkish Air Force. One day, the fleet commander walks in and says “Three of you are going to Canada to represent the air force with NATO”. I was like “Where the heck is Canada?”. This was in 1993 for an exchange program to get flight training. So there we were, three young Turkish guys in a tiny town in Saskatchewan called Moose Jaw. I was 23 years old at the time and that was the first time I left the country. That was my first exposure to Canada. And after almost one and a half years, we finished our training and headed back to Turkey.
But you came back to Canada. What made you decide to return?
During my training in Moose Jaw, I met a really lovely girl there. She was visiting her family from Toronto.
We grew close and when I went back, she started visiting me in Turkey every couple of months. After a while, it got serious as it does. I made up my mind that I wanted to marry her. I basically left everything behind after that. My job, my family. I moved to Canada in 1996. We were married for 19 years.
How was that move for you?
When I moved to Canada I learned about the life of an immigrant. I came to a new country and this time with basically nothing, I had no job, no money. In the beginning, it was a tough time, my English wasn’t that good. I wasn’t a citizen, so I couldn’t join the Canadian Air Force. It was not possible for me to go to commercial flight school, because it was so costly. I was applying for the usual jobs like delivering flyers. At some point, I applied for a job at the gas station, and they did not hire me. I remember going there and asked, “How come you guys didn’t hire me?” The guy said, “Look at your resume. You’re an ex-Air Force pilot, you’re an electronic engineer’’. I also had a degree in electronics, and those are all great things but when you come to a new country it is sadly not worth as much.
How was Calgary different from Turkey and the life you knew?
I think the biggest difference is the culture. Turkey, being a very old country, coming from the Ottomans to the Turkish Republic today. It’s been around centuries, right? And I find people, they have deeper cultural roots and history versus Canada. It’s a very new country, a very young country. So there’s a short history of culture here, in fashion too. It’s not the country’s fault because they just haven’t been around as long. I have an incredible, tight knitted family in Turkey. Being away from them was and still is a little bit challenging for me, sometimes I get homesick.
But that’s one thing you learn when you leave home to go to a dormitory school, only seeing your family every summer. Leaving home so young, I think that matured me quickly. I have the utmost love and respect for my family and their emotional support, but I have been taking care of myself since I was 14 years old, so I was well prepared in that respect.
It’s interesting that you started in the military and ended in retail, how did this come about?
I worked different jobs for a while. Then one day, I’ll never forget, my now-ex-wife came home with a little cut-off from a newspaper, saying that the retailer Harry Rosen was hiring people. She said to me “You love fashion, you have good taste. Why don’t you apply?”, and so I did. And I got hired by Mike Peters, God rest his soul. He is no doubt in heaven, he was and still is my best friend.
I didn’t speak English that well, but I had a style, which was a little bit different coming from Europe and Turkey. You know, in comparison to the North American guys, especially in those years. I got working as a salesman. And I fell in love
Was it a natural transition for you?
It was interesting and different as an ex-military. But I truly enjoyed it because I think one of the main things in our business is people, and I love to get to know people. Some measure their wealth with money and their stocks and all that material stuff. I measure wealth with my relationships, and that is how I build my wealth. And retail gave that to me. Every day you are meeting different people, with different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different cultures, different genders, and it is a very dynamic life, and it’s very easy to fall in love with.
Do you think your military background helped you in your new path?
The military was a huge help because it teaches you survival mode. When you leave your country, your culture, your family and your loved ones, you are basically walking away from all your resources. They are the ones who truly energize you, they truly nurture you. You move to a new country and a new culture, and everywhere is so different. A new climate even. Many of my friends made similar changes in their life and ended up going back to Turkey. But I decided to stay and fight for it. I know one thing, and that is with hard work and passion always pays.
Is there anything from your Turkish culture, from your previous life that you bring into your work now?
That is a great question. When I look in the mirror, I like the man I see because of my previous life and I’m a confident man for that reason too. I think it was a blessing too, to bring some of my ethnic background – that warm Turkish hospitality. The thing about our people is that they are very warm blooded people.
My ancestors actually came in the late 1800s to Turkey. My grandpa and my grandpa’s mom. We are from a tribal nation called the Circassians. It’s a unique nation because they live in a very mountainous region in the Kaukas and they have fought with the Russian empire for years and years protecting their land. Maybe that’s from my ethnic background too, I fight with life and I overcome difficulties. I love challenge.
That’s what I’ve learned from my ancestors, living in Turkey all those years, getting to know that rich Turkish culture. That and the discipline of the military, the accumulation of those little ingredients, I think has created my formula today. I have gotten so much out of that. The wonderful relationships that I built. I joke about that sometimes and people are surprised when I tell them I’m one of the richest guys in the world. They are like ‘What kind of money, what wealth?’ I say, you know, my relationships. I have wonderful relationships in every place I’ve been through, Winnipeg, Moose Jaw, Calgary here now.
What does that warm hospitality look like, for the unfamiliar?
I would like to give those principles to everyone that walks into the store, with no judging and with no assumptions and I treat them as my family. And family is the most precious thing to me. And when they feel it, it is not about the transaction, it is about the companionship of life. I do not call them clients, they usually become friends.
I have a bucket list, one day I want to write a book about my experiences and stories with retail. You know, like driving 10 hours to drop off a package or flying to the US to drop off a wedding suit because it was the only way to ensure it was on time. Not even about their needs but sharing their highs and lows. Joining their weddings, their celebrations. Being there as another family member. I want to share all those stories.
You said you always were quite stylish, even before you got into retail. Is that something you developed in Turkey too?
It was always very important for me, I was one of those unique kids. When we were getting ready to have some months off over summer, I was the guy who would make his clothing list already. What I should be packing for my summer holiday. Making sure that when we got to the resort that I had the right outfits to wear, during the day, the night time, going to the clubs.
When I look back at my childhood, my grandpa was a very important figure for me. He was an extremely well put together man. He was an engineer and I spent most of my childhood with him, we had an incredible bond. I think maybe in his younger days he was a bit of a workaholic, but he was coming to a phase in his life where he said maybe to himself, you know, work is not everything. I want to make up for lost time. I was like three-four years old when he was like, “OK, pack your bag, let’s go”. And we would go to these beautiful resorts, five star hotels. So I was exposed to luxury that way. He was an incredible dresser, what a sharp dapper man he was.
Did the military have an effect on how you dress today too?
Oh yeah. There is that kind of expectation that you look well put together. You had to. If you didn’t have the creased pants and steamed jacket and perfectly crisp shirt, guess what? You wouldn’t see the city on the weekend, you’d be staying inside.
Has your personal style developed over the years?
I always say this, I don’t dress up to impress anybody. I dress up out of self-respect and that’s one thing I try to urge and teach the younger generations, the importance of self-respect and reflecting that through your clothing. I think that is how those phases have influenced my fashion sense today. That is still true. But there are definitely some changes in what I wear because the climate is always a huge factor in your style. I have definitely learned how to layer up properly in Canada.
Is there anything from these influences that you bring into how you dress your clients?
No, I don’t want my client to look like me. I want to capture their individual style. I always encourage my clients to be sure they have their own style. So they’re not like copycats, not just following all those influencers. You know, I want them to reflect their heritage, their family history, their character. That’s the one thing I always encourage in my clients, is to create their own image. That will give them even better self-confidence through their outlook. I am just here to assist them in a way. At the end of the day, it is their body, their lifestyle, their style, and they should reflect that.
I still push them and help them grow. That’s why I have a great experience in Alberta, showing my clients new and exciting things but letting them build on what they feel comfortable in…like their jeans. Like hey, keep your shirt and denim, but maybe put a nice sport jacket on when you take your sweetheart for dinner or something like that. Or you meet guys who are from the corporate world like in finance or law or tech. I can show them a direction to dress accordingly without giving up who they are.
Is that the most rewarding part of what you do?
To some people it is just clothing, they take it lightly. But I look at it as an art form because I don’t fit people’s physical realities. A tape measure does that for you. I fit people’s mindset and lifestyle. Made to measure is an incredible tool for that, especially for a guy who is not that cookie cutter, 38 regular, 40 regular. You know, we all have something unique about our anatomy. A low shoulder, or some of us, we have a little belly like I do right now. A properly fitting garment can completely change your perspective. I remember talking to one of my clients, he was oversized and used degrading words like “Can, I know I’m fat”, I said “No, you are not fat. You are wearing fat clothes”. And that was an eye opener for the client. When you start to cut his clothes in a flattering way, suddenly you see, they don’t feel that way anymore.
When you care about how people feel in their heart and mind, you build trust and I’m rewarded by those relationships. I have dealt with some of my clients for the last 27 years. Imagine that, they are still dealing with me! In some households I have dressed them for three generations. I worked with the grandpa, now I deal with the son and his grandchildren. That’s the most priceless thing ever.
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