CBC Investigates

Toronto socialites behind high-end fashion business admit leaving a trail of unpaid debts

A Toronto fashion designer who has dressed international classical music and opera stars owes tens of thousands of dollars to former friends, business partners and employees, a CBC Toronto investigation has found.

Former friends and employees say Wayne and Rosemarie Umetsu owe them tens of thousands of dollars

Rosemarie and Wayne Umetsu operate a high-end fashion boutique and workshop. They owe tens of thousands of dollars to former friends, associates and employees for unpaid loans and wages. (atelierrosemarieumetsu.com)

A Toronto fashion designer who has dressed international classical music and opera stars owes tens of thousands of dollars to former friends, business partners and employees, a CBC Toronto investigation has found.

Rosemarie Umetsu's designer apparel has graced the stages of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Canadian Opera Company and New York City's Carnegie Hall.

Umetsu and her husband, Wayne, operate a high-end fashion boutique and workshop in Toronto's Yorkville neighbourhood. Off the stage, the Umetsus are socialites known for hosting sophisticated parties where they rub shoulders with Toronto artists and celebrities.

The extensive client list of Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu includes Chinese pianist Lang Lang, Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman and Toronto Symphony Orchestra music director Peter Oundjian.

But several former friends, associates, and employees of the Umetsus tell CBC Toronto that the couple's refined image and lavish social life is propped up by a long history of unpaid debts and wages.

"They're just big con artists," said Markus Kopp, an engineer and former close friend of the Umetsus who said he is owed approximately $30,000.

Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu's website features a photo of Chinese pianist Yuja Wang performing in one of the fashion boutique's dresses. Wang is one of many high-profile musicians to wear its fashions. (atelierrosemarieumetsu.com)

The Umetsus acknowledge the outstanding debts. They insist they're the result of various cash flow problems, misunderstandings and say they will pay some people back.

"We're sorry," Wayne Umetsu said in an interview.

CBC Toronto has found some debts dating back well over a decade and more than a dozen claims for wages made by former employees.

In 2007, an Ontario Superior Court judgment ordered Rosemarie Umetsu to pay more than $68,000 to a former friend who had loaned the couple $78,000 between 2004 and 2005. The Umetsus say the money has not been paid back. 

In 2006, a similar judgment ordered the Umetsus to pay a former business associate $35,000. A writ for the seizure and sale of the couple's property was also granted.

The money has not been paid, the Umetsus admit. They said they disagree with the court's ruling.

'A lot of parties'

Markus Kopp's relationship with the Umetsus began about three years ago.

"We would go to a lot of parties, have great dinners, great conversations about music and art," Kopp said.

He said that in 2016, Wayne Umetsu asked to borrow $10,000, which was promptly paid back with interest.

A short while later, he made a similar request. Kopp lent Umetsu $29,000 in two instalments.

The site also features a photo of actor Donald Sutherland and director David Cronenberg at one of the events the Umetsus hosted. They said food and wine at such events were provided free of charge. (atelierrosemarieumetsu.com)

But unlike with the first loan, Kopp said, Umsetu began to miss the payment deadlines.

"That's when the excuses started," he said. "That's when it all kind of went south."

Their friendship deteriorated, Kopp said, and he was no longer invited to the Umetsus' dinner parties or other events.

He felt they were "pushing" him out of their social circle.

Eventually, communication broke off, and, Kopp said, he felt he had no other option but to take the couple to court. The legal action is ongoing.

In a written response to questions about Kopp's debt, the Umetsus say: "We were unable to pay him within the agreed time frame as our cash flow was entirely dependent upon sales, which were slow."

Kopp now has a more critical view of the Umetsus' refined social life.

"I think they supplement their lifestyle by stealing from people," he said.

Engineer Markus Kopp loaned Wayne and Rosemarie Umetsu just under $30,000 in 2016. He said he has not been paid back and filed a court action; the case is ongoing. (CBC)

The couple said they offered Kopp "smaller amounts" with a series of post-dated cheques but that he wanted "a substantial sum" that they were not capable of paying.

Asked about their lifestyle, the Umetsus say many of the parties they host are business expenses that they cover with an "entertainment fund."

They say the wine and food is provided free of charge by companies they have a business relationship with.

"We don't spend a cent," Wayne Umetsu said of the wine and food.

Their debts notwithstanding, the Umetsus said they make important contributions to the artistic scene in Canada by hosting concerts for emerging musicians and subsidizing their performance wardrobe.

Employees not paid

The Umetsus also have a history of not paying employees, according to several who spoke with CBC Toronto, as well as court documents and information provided by the provincial Ministry of Labour.

In August 2016, Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu was convicted of violating the Ontario Employment Standards Act and fined $5,000 plus a 25 per cent victim surcharge.

In 2007, Rosemarie Umetsu was ordered to pay $10,542.13 in unpaid wages to a former employee. A writ for seizure and sale of her property was later granted by Ontario Superior Court.

And in the past 10 years, 15 employment standards claims for unpaid wages have been made against the Umetsus, according to Ministry of Labour records.

Generally, not all employees who have not been paid take legal action or even inform the government.

Kai Lee is one of several former employee of Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu who struggled to get paid for their work. Wayne Umetsu said he had issues with Lee's workmanship, but a series of texts that Umetsu showed CBC Toronto does not mention any problems with Lee's work. (CBC)

Kai Lee, 24, a former music student who met the Umetsus in 2008 through friends, developed an interest in fashion design. In 2014, he approached Rosmarie Umetsu about working for her. 

Lee said his trouble began in the spring of 2017 after he invoiced the Umetsus for several weeks of work.

"It was a really unpleasant situation," Lee said. "They kept stringing me along."

After several months of struggling to get paid in full, Lee said Wayne Umetsu stopped responding to his texts and emails. He said he's owed more than $600.

Asked about Lee's payment, the Umetsus say he wasn't paid in full because they were not happy with his work.

In text messages and emails from this time viewed by CBC Toronto, Wayne Umetsu gives Lee several reasons for the delay in payment — but the quality of his work is never mentioned.

'They were always late, always behind'

Arezou Zamani was also working for the Umetsus during the same period as Lee. She said she also struggled to get paid and has been owed about $1,000 since last November.

"They were always late, always behind," said Zamani, 39. "It was a really horrible experience for me."

Zamani is from Iran and has been living in Canada and studying fashion design for the past three years.

The Umetsus say she wasn't paid in full because of a "cash flow issue." They said they intend to pay Zamani eventually.

About the Author

Trevor Dunn

Trevor Dunn is an award-winning journalist with CBC Toronto. Since 2008 he's covered a variety of topics, ranging from local and national politics to technology on the South American countryside. Trevor is interested in uncovering news: real estate, crime, corruption, art, sports. Reach out to him. Se habla español. trevor.dunn@cbc.ca