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BACK IN THE 1970S, Carolyn Weiner, one-time stylist of Montreal’s social elite and Holt Renfrew’s head buyer, came to Vancouver for a fashion show. At her hotel, she called down to the concierge desk to ask for a dresser, wanting someone to assist with her toilette. The concierge sent up a chest of drawers. “I will never cross the Rockies again,” she announced as she boarded the plane back to Toronto.
Thirty years later, Holt’s is crossing the Rockies in a big way. “Limos will pull up on to the magenta carpet leading into our front entrance,” says Gary Balaski, general manager of Holt Renfrew Vancouver. “Trees will be lit up with magenta lighting, strobe lights will dance across the sky, and 1,200 people—including our clients, vendors, designers, fashion industry senior executives—will sip champagne. It’s going to be a big party.”
Balaski gestures towards the bustling construction site across from his temporary 10th-floor office in the Canaccord Tower, overlooking Holt’s new Granville-and-Dunsmuir location. The chaotic scene below will, in less than two months, morph into the city’s most ambitious retail venture in recent memory. Set to open May 30, the new store—reportedly costing over $30-million—will, at 135,000 square feet, be more than double the size of the former space.
“I love that it used to be difficult to get big-name designers to come to Vancouver, because it was so far from Toronto,” says Balaski. “Now we’ll have so many famous names coming to our store.” This proud-poppa speech, given many times since Holt Renfrew president Caryn Lerner announced the expansion in 2005, is well-rehearsed. He steps back from the window and sits down at a meeting table. Impeccable in a charcoal Hugo Boss suit, clipped salt-and-pepper hair smoothed in place, he pours coffee. In the background, phones ring and email alerts chime. He ignores them, happy to draw a picture of the shopping experience Holt’s hopes to create.
You’ll pull into the underground parkade and toss your keys to the valet (he’ll arrange for your car to be detailed while you shop). Pass through the men’s department on the concourse level, with its reclaimed wood flooring and Dior, Ralph Lauren and Ferragamo boutiques. Ride an escalator up to the main floor and step into the full-service spa for a touch-up manicure or a facial. The on-site concierge will find theatre tickets for next weekend’s trip to New York, or book a dog walker. Here, too, on the main floor are purses, shoes and other accessories. Alexander McQueen. Chloe. Jimmy Choo. Coach. Fendi. At the new cosmetics department you’ll find more than 45 new product lines to play with, arranged by colour, not brand. And, in the fragrance section, Canada’s first Frederic Malle glass and steel, phone-booth-like cylinders, where you can experience the purest whiff of a perfume sample.
“When people are talking about global retail concepts, they will ultimately talk about this store.”
On the second level, women’s designer and contemporary labels, plus emerging names in what Holt’s calls its “World Design Lab,” are set off by simmering quartzite, glass mosaics and stone-laid flooring. Marc Jacobs. Dolce & Gabbana. Prada. Gucci. Chanel. Michael Kors. Helmut Lang. Stella McCartney. Book one of the five new personal shopping suites and let a personal shopper do the work. Carry on up to the rooftop restaurant, which opens onto a landscaped terrace highlighted with a palate of green and gold. Sidle up to the floating, elliptical bar for a cocktail.
“It’s all those things that will make this store worth coming to,” says Balaski, leaning back in his chair. “It’s a place of escape, of entertainment. Because nowadays retail is not just about buying a shirt, you know. It’s about buying an experience.”
Part of the experience is architectural. This is not the sort of department store your mother shopped at, with tiled aisles, plush-carpeted boutiques, and escalators in the middle of each floor, always going up when you want to go down. The second storey of the new Holt’s is wrapped in quilted glass, a new product designed for the store by local craftsman Nathan Allan, and at the entrance: Vancouver designer Omer Arbel’s installation of over 100 pendulum lights. The central core consists of a series of stacked but rotated ellipses—an atrium of circles within a square, topped by an enormous skylight. Brand boutiques surround a light-filled central courtyard whose elliptical openings connect the central spaces on each level to the sky above.
“When people are talking about global retail concepts, they will ultimately talk about this store in Vancouver,” says Mark Janson of Janson Goldstein, the New York-based architectural firm behind the expansion, which has also built signature stores for Georgio Armani, Ferragamo, Donna Karan and Saks Fifth Avenue’s Beverly Hills location. Janson speaks of a “dialogue” between Holt Renfrew, the customer and the city. “We’ve designed a glass façade at street level that provides unobstructed views into the interior while reflecting the colour, light and movement of the city.”
Part of Holt’s strategy may be to appeal to mid-market buyers—bring in Bay and Sears customers and try to move them up. “A longstanding Holt’s customer will always be a Holt’s customer,” says Vancouver-based retail consultant David Gray, “but to get all those new shoppers in the front doors, they’ll have to change their image of being snobby and inaccessible, and become attainable to a larger market. It’ll be interesting to see how they pull it off.”
The signs are promising. Retail in North America has been in expansionary mode since 2000. The media have partly fuelled this consumerism. “There’s an intense scrutiny of what celebrities are buying, and it’s the under-35s that are driving that market,” says Gray. “Generation Y has cash and credit, and has latched on to brands in a huge way—a drastic change in the last 10 years. Remember No Logo? It wasn’t that long ago.” Boomers, he points out, are engaging in less conspicuous consumption than they have in the past; even the most affluent spend their money on the experiential—high-end spa trips and luxury travel. It’s the younger group that’s driving the demand for products and labels.
The luxury market used to mean an elite set of stores for an elite set of customers, but now, says Gray, we’re seeing “a democratization of luxury.” Most luxury stores have added entry-level products that make them more accessible. The idea is to let more people “touch the brand.” Holt’s, like all elite global brands, is trying to reach a broader market. This represents a changing of the retail guard, and it can be risky. At what point do you lose the patina of exclusivity? If more and more people shop there, is it really exclusive?
“Vancouver’s mentality is aspirational right now,” says Gray. “We want to be a world-class city and we think of ourselves that way. We will see a spike in the first couple months as people come in for curiosity’s sake. But what will be telling is how many bags actually come out of the store.” Gray points out that our population is roughly equal to Portland’s. “Sure we’re part of the big three in Canada, but we aren’t a top-tier city. My biggest concern with Holt Renfrew is that they’ve overestimated the market. They have almost always made savvy decisions, and they’re the only successful department store in Canada at the moment. But doubling the space ties up a lot of money. This is a very aggressive move.”
“Our mentality is aspirational. We want to be a world-class city”
Is the Asian market the key to Vancouver? The growth of luxury retail can be seen right across North America, says Gray, including in cities without large Asian populations. “Chinese put a lot of value on the face of a brand, and with people moving up the income ladder, there’s been a huge swell in the middle- to upper-income class. Elite brands appeal to an Asian market, but these brands also want to be seen in destinations all around the world to reinforce perceptions of the travelling classes. That’s why you saw these brands in Maui, Whistler, or even Banff before you saw them in Vancouver. Now Vancouver has become attractive over and above the local population. And of course the Olympics have played in.”
Which is why, along with the building boom and soaring real estate prices, we’re seeing the emergence of Vancouver’s answer to Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue: the Burrard and Robson and Alberni corridors where, in the past two years, Gucci, Hermes, and Tiffany have joined the likes of Louis Vuitton, Coach, and Betsey Johnson. Then there are the luxury retailers—like Birks, Chanel, Hugo Boss, Dunhill and Cartier (which also doubled its retail space earlier this year)—down by the waterfront.
A few blocks away, another expert has her own take on the changes to the city’s retail landscape. “We can afford to take more risks now,” says Maria Leone, “because we live in a much more cosmopolitan city.” Her perfectly manicured hand raises an espresso cup briefly to her lips. “Our retail stores and restaurants compete on the world stage. This is very new. It’s not how it used to be.” We’re seated in the bustling L2 café in the basement of Leone, the luxury department store in Sinclair Centre that she founded with her husband, Alberto, 20 years ago. Her smooth face is age-defiant: she’s 60, a fact she reveals only after proudly mentioning her five grandchildren. She’s been head of merchandising for the iconic store since it opened in 1987, but today she quietly hints at retirement. “My children came with me on buying trips starting when they were very young. They were raised in this store. So it’s just a matter of passing the torch.”
A changing of the retail guard is evident at Leone, too. The rebranded L2 boutique on the lower floor is run by son Marcello (who does the menswear buying) and focuses on contemporary brands (and a younger clientele), with lines like Gwen Stefani’s L.A.M.B., Miss Sixty, J. Lindeberg and Y-3 by Yohji Yamamoto.
“My son dares to take more risks,” says Leone. “He shops for edgier pieces. And Vancouver is ready for it. We have the advantage of having lived here, working the floor of this store, and intimately knowing our city. We don’t have buyers living in Toronto and New York. We don’t make our decisions via what the numbers show. What I know inside as a gut feeling is always more accurate than a spreadsheet.”
A subtle jab at Holt’s, perhaps, whose buying team is based in Toronto. Barbara Atkin, arguably the country’s leading tastemaker for luxury fashion, has been with the company for 20 years, 17 as fashion director; she’s seen five presidents come and go. A woman of sophistication, confidence and power (she was recently profiled in Vogue), she’s also warm and genuine. “It’s her serious approach to an absurdist world ,” noted Olivia Stren in Toronto Life, “that makes her so endearing…she believes in her own hype.”
Atkin also believes that globalization has ripened the Vancouver market. “The further up the design pyramid you go,” she says, on the phone from her Toronto office, “it becomes one world, regardless of whether you’re in Vancouver or LA or Milan. We all aspire to the same designer labels we see in magazines or on TV. Our customers have elevated taste, and they travel more, so awareness is key. Today, clients are familiar with many designers and they shop the world. That’s your global customer: she lives in Vancouver but has a global mentality.”
Which means you retain her loyalty not by offering a wider selection than she can find in New York or Paris, but by heaping attention on her. Atkin points to Holt’s personal shopping program, founded in Toronto 15 years ago, as an important factor in the company’s success (2006 was its strongest year to date, with every location exceeding sales targets).
“It’s conventional wisdom that new money gravitates to iconic brands and Vancouver is a new-money town”
“I think the future of retailing is your relationship with a personal shopper,” she adds. “Much as we love that serendipitous experience of tripping on the next new thing ourselves, you need to build a relationship with a sales associate. As stores get larger, it’s hard to navigate through all that merchandise. I’m intimately involved in the buying for our store, but I’d never shop alone now. I need someone to help direct it for me, pull it together. It’s all about customizing something for yourself.”
Maria Leone agrees. “The same day Versace has a big show in Milan, you can go on the Internet and see it. So it’s not as if my customers wait for me to come back and tell them about the collections. It’s up to me to choose from the show what’s best for them. Sure, people are more savvy now, but they still want that personal touch. Nothing is going to beat dealing with someone you’ve been dealing with for 10 years. These are investment pieces, and you want a great fit and a personal touch.”
It’s conventional wisdom that new money gravitates to iconic brands—“Look at me, look what I can afford to buy”—and Vancouver is a new-money town. People surround themselves with purchases that make a statement. Of course, it only works if people recognize the brand. It’s like buying art: if you’re unsure of yourself you go for the well-known name rather than the more interesting or experimental piece.
“I think we’re going to learn a lot about our Vancouver shopper when we open the doors,” says Atkin. “How playful they are, how willing to experiment. Up until now I’d say that the Vancouver customer has been very label driven. They know their labels, they want their labels, and we’ve skewed our business that way.”
Yet the World Design Lab will be full of unheard-of designers, which means that the focus will be on style, not labels. “It’s great for the customer who’s found that the mega brands are not their piece of cake,” says Atkin. The Lab will carry 6267 out of Milan (“It’s based on simple silk scarf dresses that you layer with leggings. It’s just such a beautiful, easy way of dressing”), and Kale.lief + Hebber (“a small collection but very utilitarian, very functional, very Vancouver”). She mentions labels like Eskandar (“It’s from England, but very much a Vancouver label—easy, simple, laidback clothing made for layering) and Brunello Cucinelli (“It’s what I call stealth wealth—luxury under the radar. Beautiful, easy essentials with the best fabrication. Think cashmere and leather jackets; linen mixed with beautiful pima cottons”).
Few of these brands will be familiar to Vancouver shoppers, especially those who shop at Sears and the Bay. “This is a chance for us to see who’s going to walk in those doors and discover an incubator of newness,” says Atkin. “This is a time of experimentation.”
Also known as a $30-million roll of the dice. Wouldn’t it be safer to go with the high-end labels that will appeal to aspirational shoppers and broaden Holt’s market? The old Vancouver location had the highest per-square-foot sales of any Holt’s store in the country. If it ain’t broke, as the saying goes, don’t fix it. Why not stick with the tried and true?
“Because we can’t stand still,” says Atkin. “You can’t get complacent. You have to keep moving with your customer, pushing forward—that’s part of our mandate. And we believe Vancouver is ready.”