By Zenith Wolfe
Ask Andy Tait about the leather jacket he’s wearing and he’ll have many stories to tell.
The Hintonburg resident has worked as a costume designer for films, TV movies, and live theatre over the last three decades. His costumes have been featured at shows in Ottawa, Toronto, and Wakefield, while others have travelled around the world.
But well before his version of Frankenstein’s monster stumbled onto the stage at Little Ottawa Theatre in the late 1980s, Tait owned a modest second-hand clothing store on Elgin street.
It was hard to find when it first opened in 1980, on the second floor of a building above a hairdresser called Johnny Shampoo. Tait ultimately decided to call his store Andy Upstairs to get rid of the confusion.
“They’d stand in front of it and say, ‘Where’s this goddamn Andy Upstairs store? It’s supposed to be here,’” Tait said. “Then they would say ‘Well, wait a minute, Andy Upstairs. Oh my god, he’s upstairs.’”
Tait specialized in leather jackets. A vintage trend had been growing in Ottawa, but only a handful of stores (Le Château, Ragtime, The Bay) catered to this market. He said Le Château was the only store with fitted vintage options, and they were mostly made for women.
This niche appeal made Andy Upstairs a hot spot for the punk rock scene. Music fans and band members would come in to look through his stock before concerts.
And sometimes they came just to chat. For as much as Tait was a salesman, he was also part of the punk rock community and liked recommending bands to customers.
“I would be attentive to them, and I really wanted to talk … just to shoot the breeze,” he said.
Tait’s conversational attitude wasn’t limited to the store, according to his close friend John Zimmerman. They first hung out at a live concert in 1979 after he overheard Tait criticizing the band’s performance. As a friend of the band, Zimmerman confronted him.
“I had a bitter taste in my mouth over that. But we ended up – just the two of us – going to this disco in Byward Market and we started talking. By the end of the night, we realized we had a lot in common,” Zimmerman said.
They both had tongue-in-cheek attitudes and a dark sense of humour. Zimmerman appreciated Tait’s honesty and bluntness.
Tait was just as unafraid of speaking his mind in front of his competition. Anne-Marie Bergeron started a vintage store in Ottawa soon after Andy Upstairs opened. She said when Tait visited for the first time, he briefly looked around her store and said, “I don’t have much to worry about.”
“It crushed me, because I had always looked up to Andy,” Bergeron said. “Funny enough, once you get to know Andy, he’s got a wicked sense of humour. To this day I tease him about that comment because I’m still in business. He’s not.”
Andy Upstairs closed in 1987. Tait’s rent had increased to $1500 in eight years, up from the original $750. Alongside the Ottawa community’s dwindling interest in vintage clothing, his business was unsustainable.
While looking for new work, a filmmaker friend offered Tait a job as a costume designer. This sparked his new career, and he has since worked with many directors, including Nadia Ross.
Tait created costumes for the lead characters of Ross’s international show 7 Important Things (2013), and for Hau: Out Loud (2022) in Berlin. One of his costumes for Hau: Out Loud allowed a character to transform genders on stage. Ross said Tait’s understanding of how clothing conforms to the body, as well as his attention to detail, made this costume possible.
“He fixes problems without you actually knowing that there’s a problem,” Ross said. “He will find the outfit that will perfect the body part for the purpose of the character.”
Even though Tait sees a big difference between giving fashion advice to a punk rocker and helping to design a film’s wardrobe, he loves both. He continues to sell vintage clothing at Flea 613 (this year at Carleton University’s field house), and he often receives praise from old Andy Upstairs clients.
“People still come up to me and say ‘Andy, remember that coat I got off of you? Well, I still wear it. It’s one of my favourite items,’” he said. “The people who are buying from you really thank you for what they’ve purchased … I get a kick out of it too.”