John Walke unveils new Superstein line after November fire at Toronto designer’s store

Designer John Walke of SUPERSTEIN interviewed by students at Centennial College journalism, with Jessica Moy,Janice Yeung, Ken Lobsinger (business manager and media relations) and Christina Cheng

by Janice Yeung

Toronto- “SUPERSTEIN is kind of a joke,” said the Toronto fashion label’s founder, John Walke.
In a guest interview at Centennial College’s Morningside campus on February 16, Walke walked journalism students through his road to becoming a fashion designer.

He arrived at the college with his partner, boyfriend Ken Lobsinger, who is also the vice president and manager of business and media relations of SUPERSTEIN.

The two spread out hand sewn underwear briefs, t-shirts with SUPERSTEIN logos printed all over them, and graffiti-covered fisherman caps on a teaching desk in front of the classroom.

“What I do, no one else really does it that way,” Walke said.

He insists on hand silk-screening each fashion item that he sells, hence he works day and night manufacturing products that are sold at his store at 460 Parliament St.

His store also accepts custom-made orders. Lobsinger said there have been quite a few customers who have asked for fitting sessions and Walke has been very willing to create personalized clothing items for them.

Born in Moncton, New Brunswick, Walke was a Catholic altar boy who grew up with a group of Jewish friends.

“I grew up across the street from the only synagogue in Moncton,” he said. “When I visited Montreal after coming to Ryerson for fashion design, I saw my first Hasidic Jew and found out they hadn’t changed their look in centuries.”

He then drew some designs based on Jewish culture, took a family name from a friend that sounded Jewish, and created his first couture fashion label Gloria Superstein in 1987.

Designing Bar Mitzvah jackets and Jewish American Princess hoodies, Walke brought samples of his products to New York where the line was picked up by Patricia Field, a fashionista now famous for doing costume designs for “Sex and the City”.

But he ran out of finances after a few seasons, and was forced to stop the fashion line and find other ways to make a living.

He worked for various companies that would seem unlikely for his personality, including designing children’s Mouse Gear for Disney, opening a restaurant called La Rouge and serving art director for Town Records in Canada.

It was while at Tower Records that Walke admits he felt bored with his life, and decided to restart his brand SUPERSTEIN.

He’s since evolved from mainly Jewish themed clothes, towards creating more street wear, including silk-screened underwear. He’s just started to sell electric city bicycles, which don’t pollute and don’t make noise.

Still, being a fashion designer has always been Walke’s niche and passion. He saw a deficiency in the fashion field of genuine handmade items produced from scratch by the designer, and decided to build his brand upon a concept of “hand sewing each fabric two metres at a time, not shipping anything, or contracting anything out to anyone.”

“I just get up every day and I print fabric, cut and sew,” he said. “I go to bed thinking ‘I can’t wait to wake up tomorrow and just sew stuff’, I just make and make and make and wherever that ends up, it ends up.”

At first, his clothes attracted a mainly gay clientele, including a producer for a porn show.

When asked if being a gay designer was challenging, Walke answered, “I’m just gay, who isn’t gay in this business, honestly?”

Walke, 46, said that he is also “a billion other things before [being] gay”.

“There are a lot of layers to me,” Walke said. “I don’t identify a whole lot with that.”

Describing himself as a “freak”, he explained his respect for transsexuals and people who have undergone sex changes.

“I had a restaurant in Montreal called La Rouge,” he said. “That district was notorious for all the trannies and cross-dressing hookers. Every place in the neighborhood would not let them in or serve them anything. But I didn’t care. Everyone’s just a person, I can’t even imagine treating anyone different than the way I treat everyone.”

He also feels strongly about bullying incidents targeting gay students in high schools. Mentioning one instance where he himself was called a “fag” as a teen, Walke easily brushed it off by saying that usually the bullies are usually the ones with issues because they do not know who they are themselves.

When asked to provide a vision for SUPERSTEIN in the future, Walke said he is content with what he has now.

“I have met lots of investors, people who want to buy into my brand, but I’m not interested in signing away anything yet,” he said. “I am having a lot of fun developing it, and I realize there is a lot of value to it, but it’s not for sale yet.”

Having been named “the designer to look out for” by VOGUE back in 1987, Walke is still one of Canada’s fashion designers who possesses great potential. The producers of the Golden Globe awards recently expressed an interest in a joint venture for the swag bags for A-listers and other Hollywood celebrities. Last month, he was scheduled to unveil his new line of clothing with models wearing bright yellow leopard prints and graffiti hats forming a flash mob at the Drake Hotel in Toronto, to mark their anniversary.

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