Toronto-Malabar Costumes

At first glance, Malabar Costumes doesn’t seem to be someplace spooky—certainly no place to lose your head over.  Yet in the 1950’s someone did just that; in a horrible elevator accident .  And urban legend was born.

In 2000, the Toronto Ghosts and Hauntings Research Society accompanied a film crew to the Toronto location where they were told by a staffer that an elevator repairman haunts the area because he died there.  In truth, someone was decapitated by the old pull-type elevator.  A salesman, impatient for the arrival of the vehicle, opened the grate and attempted to locate the car.  Unfortunately, the car found him and it was a fatal event.  The salesman was very well liked at Malabar and the loss was a shocking tragedy.  Could his spirit still be reconnecting?  Not likely.

Instead, if there is a spirit in residence, it is likely the ghost of someone who never set foot in the building.  The founder of the Malabar Costumes chain, Sara Mallabar, was a legend in her own right and her son Harry, along with master cutter Luigi Speca who now owns the store, have a well deserved reputation for stunning, well made costumes in high demand for stage performances.

It wasn’t easy.  Sara Mallabar was born in Scotland in 1863 to staunchly Presbyterian parents.  Her engineer father moved the family to Tres Riviers, Quebec, when his children were schooled in the French Catholic schools but they were forbidden to speak French at home.  Then at age 14, the family moved to Winnipeg and Sara got her first job, and her life path was changed forever.

Sara had a passion for sewing and her first job, in a dry goods store, allowed her to learn about fabric.  It also allowed for her to meet a traveling salesman.  John Mallabar had come west to join the Mounted Police but found his personality leaned more toward sales.  After two years of courtship, John and Sarah Mallabar married and had a son James and daughter Tanyss.  The family operated a variety store in Winnipeg..

Tragedy struck.  John contracted tuberculosis (then known as consumption) and they knew the social stigma and the Canadian climate would be their undoing.  Sarah had two brothers building railroads and speculating in silver in Mexico, so John and Sara moved their family to join them.  John opened a bicycle shop and Sara a small shop adjacent, and a third child was born.  As John’s TB continued to worsen, Sara was tasked with running both shops and gave birth to a fourth child, Harry Mallabar, in 1899.  About that time, Sara’s oldest brother died in a horrific head on train crash and Sara was distraught.  Within the year her husband died of his illness and just a few months after that her other brother was killed, also in a train collision.  Sara was widowed and alone in Mexico, unable by law to own property because she was female, and raising four small children.

Not to be defeated, Sara moved the family back to Winnipeg,  John Mallabar’s estate amounted to just $300 and by 1904 Sara was broke and living in a one bedroom apartment, unable to keep her children clothed and fed.  Her sisters agreed to take in the two eldest children, but Sara had no choice but to turn the two youngest, including young Harry, over to an orphanage.  This was a decision Harry could never come to terms with and forever changed the family dynamics.

Sara took the last of her money and visited a Winnipeg fortune teller.  The woman advised Sara that success would come to her “in an unusual trade” and that she should surround herself with fabric.  Sara took this to heart and by 1906 had a small business making costumes for local church pageants and Winnipeg’s society functions.  It took four years to earn enough to be able to bring her children home, but she did and taught them her trade.  By  1920 the Mallabar family business was ready to expand to other parts of Canada.  She left her oldest son in charge of the Winnipeg store and sought to open shops in Montreal and Toronto.  Sara’s second son was involved in World War I and Harry spoke no French so it was decided that Tanyss would lead the Montreal store and Harry would take on Toronto.  Harry was sent by cattle car and in 1923 opened the first Toronto Malabar Costumes on King Street near John Street.  Harry elected to drop the second L from the Mallabar name supposedly to differentiate his store from the Winnipeg store, but given his feelings toward his mother it seems likely that decision was based on more than just business. 

Harry held tightly to ill feelings toward his mother and the trade she had forced upon him.  He forbade his own children from joining the business, insisting instead that they get university educations.  Grandma Sara was rarely discussed and the cousins of the family were not close.

Yet Harry was hugely successful in his own right.  After the King Street store burned, a replacement was found on Spadina and in 1958 the current store opened on McCaul Street. As Sara aged, she spent her remaining years traveling between the three stores, overseeing their operations and lending creative assistance.  When travel became more difficult, she chose to settle in Toronto near her youngest son Harry and she died in 1953.  About a year later, the one person who came close to her legendary gift applied to work at Harry’s shop.

(This photo originally included Sara Mallabar, but Harry used india ink to blacken her out)  

Luigi Speca is Italian born and trained in Rome in the traditional exquisite European hand tailoring.  He came to Canada to seek his own trade and when he arrived at Malabar he had the good fortune to find a childhood friend, Clementine, who helped with some communication and introductions.  As Harry had done for all his applicants, he handed Luigi some bulk material and tasked him with making a gentleman’s suit.  Luigi took only one set of measurements and then disappeared for three days.

When Luigi returned, Harry and his brother Jim (who was visiting from Winnipeg) were less than impressed that it had taken so long.  Opinions quickly changed, however, when the three piece suit fit Harry perfectly, had all of the legendary Italian extras, and was completely hand stitched.  Luigi was hired, taught to use commercial sewing machines, and Sara Mallabar’s dream was reborn.  While Luigi had never known Sara, he greatly admired her work and even now, at age 75, he keeps a close emotional tie to her family and her values.  Luigi acquired the store after Harry’s death in July 2000 at age 100.

Some say Sara still oversees the day to day business at Malabar Costumes.  Her portrait hangs in the shop and many say they feel her presence.  Some even claim to ask for help and guidance, and are rewarded with her assistance in everything from getting the copier to work to coming up with fresh ideas.  A former employee claims to have seen an apparition of a woman moving among the finished costumes.  Could this be Sara doing some quality assurance from beyond?

Although no Mallabar family members are connected with Malabar Costumes these days, they are still a big part of Canadian Society.  Descendents of oldest son Jim have costume and formal wear shops in Manitoba and British Columbia (although the stores do not carry the Malabar name).  Sara’s great grandchildren are grown professionals in all walks of life, and Harry’s granddaughter Laurie is part of  The Storytellers School of Toronto and her great grandmother’s history is one of her favorite tales.  Laurie’s sister and a cousin or two are also living in the Toronto area and another sister lives in Collingwood.  Friends and family of Harry Malabar created The Harry and Jean Malabar Costume Awards to recognize outstanding work by costume design students in the Ryerson Technical Production stream of the Theatre program. The Awards are open to all third and fourth-year costume design students.

Malabar Costumes carries a line of excellent quality Halloween costumes to rent as well.  This Halloween, the really in crowd won’t be caught dead in anything else but a Malabar design.

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