Montreal’s fashion retailers are the subject of Part 4 in a project exploring the city’s fashion history. The project is initiated by the Festival Mode & Design, with support from the City of Montreal.
Reitmans, Le Château, Dynamite, La Vie en Rose, Laura, Tristan, Marie Claire, Lolë, Frank + Oak, Aldo – and then some. Montreal fashion retailers have been a pervasive force on the Canadian landscape for almost a century, since Herman and Sarah Reitman founded a shop on St-Laurent Blvd., in 1926. Even earlier, department stores, starting with Dupuis Frères in 1868, then Morgan’s, Eaton’s and Ogilvy’s – among many others – made their mark on Ste-Catherine St.
The retail chains have gone forth and multiplied, thriving for the most part. Their secret: the powerful vertical model, in which the company controls every part of the production chain from sourcing material to designing stores.
Some have faltered – Bedo and Jacob are no more – and some are struggling. But others are booming, embracing the new digital world and going international.
Two successful startups are Frank & Oak and SSense, both of which started online only and then turned to bricks and mortar. And then there is Aldo, which went from a kiosk in Le Château stores in 1972, then branched out to become a global powerhouse in the shoe business. With 3,000 points of sale, 25,000 associates and an estimated $2 billion in sales annually, the company has constantly innovated and embraced technology.
Now founder Aldo Bensadoun has donated $25 million to found the Bensadoun School of Retail Management at McGill University.
Quebec is an entrepreneurial society, ready to embrace change, says Herschel Segal, who founded Le Château as a menswear emporium in 1959 on Victoria Square with a “Whale of a Sale.” But that was not Segal’s creative spark. At the start of the swinging 1960s, Segal discovered Carnaby St., loved the fashion and brought it home. That was the start of Youthquake and a whole new era in fashion for the masses.
“What happened in the ’60s broke the mold,’’ Segal says. “There were no boundaries like there were in the past. You did what you wanted, smoked what you wanted, slept with who you wanted. It was freedom, a burst of freedom that swept the fashion world.
“Fashion was part of the revolution. There’s another one going on now.”
You have to look at the customer’s changing taste, Segal says.
Fast forward five decades and meet two new entrepreneurs, Ethan Song and Hicham Ratnani of Frank & Oak. They started online in 2012, rapidly ramped up the menswear collection, opened physical stores, developed a women’s collection and opened a women’s store.
“Today, every brand needs to be a global brand. It’s this balance of being authentic locally but building a customer base globally,” Song says.
“We recognized the needs of a new generation of customers,’’ he adds.
Also, he notes, they recognized that the new form of distribution is digital – either through social media or e-commerce. “The channels are always evolving – in the end it’s about being present in your customer’s life and building a very clear brand identity.”
Song reports a community of 3 million members globally: “In clothing and apparel, in some ways it’s not so much what you buy but how it makes you feel,’’ he says. “So building a community around the product allows you to express that.”
At last count, Frank + Oak had about 10 permanent stores. “Physical experience is complementary to the digital. But also it allows us to be localized, to be present in our neighbourhoods. So it allows us to build communities as well.
“The key to retail success in today’s world is to really know who your customer is and stay focussed on that customer.”