Calgary’s Cabcity clothing company is quickly gaining popularity but success has come with a difficult life choice: sobriety.

Growing up in Calgary, Devakaran “Devo” Manickaraj came from mixed race parents, and faced racism at a young age. After high school, Manickaraj got into bartending early in his adult life, where he quickly gained local fame through the industry. However, Manickaraj struggled with alcoholism, creating problems with his career path. After turning to sobriety, Manickaraj has become one of Calgary’s most respected and successful fashion entrepreneurs.

Manickaraj was born in Vancouver but moved to Calgary when he was four in the mid-1980s. His father was born in Bangalore, India and his mother was born in Alberta.

“I remember people being not very open to it,” says Manickaraj about his parents mixed race marriage.

He recalls that there was a foster home down the street from where he grew up in the city’s southwest neighbourhood of Lynwood. He described the kids as “mean” and calling him ‘Paki’. Manickaraj says those were some of his worst memories growing up in Calgary.

After high school, Manickaraj bounced from job to job, becoming a jack of all trades. He worked as a car cleaner at Jack Carter Chevrolet, moved to construction, and even worked at Chapters in Chinook Centre. He was 19 and jobs were becoming stale quickly. Eventually he landed a job as a busboy at White Spot on Macleod Trail. Three months of hard work paid off and he was promoted to bartender, a move that would change Manickaraj’s life forever.

Manickaraj described the scene at White Spot.

“It was a restaurant, but it was so busy because it was one of the first in the city, and it was run by some old school industry guys in their 30s, who worked on Electric Avenue and all over the world, they were legends in the city. I learned old school skill sets that excelled me.”

Devakaran Manickaraj has been sober for 3 years, and has devoted much of his time to his clothing company, Cabcity. Photo courtesy of Michelle Hoogveld. However, a lesson he learned was that drinking and bartending go hand in hand. Manickaraj, now 33, realized that he had developed a drinking problem at 19.

“When I started bartending I started working with the senior vets, who had been drinking their whole lives and I was trying to keep up when I’d get off work we’d drink and I would end up blackout,” he says of his first memory of alcoholism.

Manickaraj continued to be a bartender and work in the service industry for more than a decade, with stints at Earl’s Tin Palace, Wurst, National 17th Avenue, National 8th Avenue and National Westhills.

Manickaraj explains the reason he loved bartending for so long. “It’s the most sensual thing you do in public. Going out and sharing a meal or having a really good drink, or sharing that experience, as a bartender you help create that.

“Just the sheer enjoyment I got, from people coming back and telling me they had the greatest time last night, because of places I recommended.

“And it’s like you’re working for yourself, you work for the company, but you work for your tips, so the harder you worker the more money you make. You can set your own hours, if you want to work 40 hours, if you want to work one shift a week, you have that freedom, that’s why I did it for so long.”

However, as many people understand, your 20s are for exploring, whether it be through travel, school or different career paths. Manickaraj experienced all of this.

In 2007, Manickaraj dropped out of post-secondary studying journalism in Calgary, to help his uncle shoot the Indian railway for the BBC in Mumbai. While abroad he practiced his passions in  photojournalism, graphic design and Photoshop, to perfect his skills and use them to start his own clothing company.

When he returned to Calgary, Manickaraj had made the connections to start selling his clothing line through a local skateboard shop, but his dream was cut short when all his material became damaged in the finishing process.

Manickaraj fell back to the only job he knew how to do well that makes good money: bartending. “I was using it as an escape, I believed the only way to build my brand, was to be out there wearing my product, out in the bars drinking, and people would see it, and that was my reasoning for drinking.” – Devakaran Manickaraj

From 2007 to 2012, Manickaraj continued to practice his passion of photojournalism while trying to get his new and fresh clothing brand, Cabcity, off the ground, but he says alcohol was holding him back.

“I was using it as an escape, I believed the only way to build my brand, was to be out there wearing my product, out in the bars drinking, and people would see it, and that was my reasoning for drinking.”

Manickaraj describes the intense toll that alcohol was taking on him. “I would be hung over and it would last a week, someone would email me and I would be laying in bed and I’d look at it and not even care. Someone would call me and I wouldn’t even answer my phone, because of that alcohol induced anxiety that just wraps in your brain forever to just keep you down.”

11 years had gone by since Manickaraj had started drinking heavily as a 19-year-old bartender. Encroaching 30, Manickaraj started to feel that he hadn’t accomplished what he want to accomplish and changes had to be made.

A job change was also imminent. General Manager of National 17th Avenue Chris Joyce took the steps to send Manickaraj in a different direction. Joyce said, “Devo was one of those people that I just got along with straight away, and we had a chemistry with music.”

“In the beginning, Chris and I started spinning vinyl records together on ‘bring your own record night’, we’d play records and drink.” Manickaraj remembered his early DJ days.

But the job change also brought the transition from alcohol to sobriety, Manickaraj recalls, a decision that changed his life.

“I went the hardest I had ever been before I turned 30, I was scared to turn 30. Then I turned 30 and nothing changed. But, after that, I was done! It wasn’t a new year’s resolution or anything, I was just done!”

Joyce says he took Manickaraj decisions to quit very seriously. “I’ve seen it bring a lot of good people down, and I just thought it was important to support him. Booze is a crazy thing, and if you don’t have a handle on it, it can go south and go south fast.”

Through his local fame from bartending, Manickaraj quickly gained notoriety spinning records. Kyle Dexter, former Ceilis Irish Pub Manager and current partner of DSD Promotions, remembers when he first met Manickaraj.

“We brought him to help build our late night traffic on Friday and Saturday nights. He has a lot of contacts in the business, he just knows what everyone in Calgary is feeling.”

Becoming a DJ had given Manickaraj a new-found freedom, allowing him to focus on his other passion that he had started a year earlier in 2011, Cabcity.

Manickaraj says it was his love of photography and Calgary that helped spark the idea for his unique clothing company, Cabcity. The name stands for  Calgary (C), Alberta (AB), and city.

“A Cabcity is an underground culture. When you go to a new city, you jump in a cab and ask ‘where is the best bar, restaurant, best place to find girls, with the best music is?’ And if that taxi driver is on point he’ll know where to take you … You want that guy to take you to a warehouse party, where you have to crawl under a fence to get in and the DJ is only spinning records, that’s Cabcity.”

It has been three years since Manickaraj quit drinking, a decision that changed his life for the better. Leaving the Dj life on the back burner, his upstart Cabcity has spawned a brand new company, DSD Promotions.

Armed with business partner Kyle Dexter and Peter Steell, DSD Promotions makes clothing products for other companies, including National, Wurst, Hayden Block, Grit Construction, YYC Food Trucks, Proof and BK Reality.

Cabcity is a stand-alone lifestyle that is also a clothing brand. Cabcity has a devotion to culture, and its main goal is to bridge local communities into arts, fashion, and food. Commerce is in sight, but the main focus is notprofit, but a catalyst for culture.

“Cabcity may stand for Calgary Alberta City, but more importantly it represents the people within any given city that give that place it’s individual vibe,” Dexter says of Cabcity.

Manickaraj is extending his business west to Victoria this summer, but stresses that the focus is still on the community that he grew up in.

“I can make a really well-made product in Calgary and provide that to this community as a representation of what this community is, hard working.”

Joyce supports local entrepreneurs like Manickaraj saying that “It just diversifies our economy and we’re not going to be stuck in a rut, where we rely on oil and gas so much.”

“Devo is a true mentor, in many ways, whether he is teaching the ways of his business or inspiring people with his positive outlook on life,” says Dexter.

pbrand@cjournal.ca

Editor: Amber McLinden | amclinden@cjournal.ca