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For independent Canadian designers, a physical store can build community and boost business

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The cleanly displayed leather wares of Eleven Thirty draw customers into the company’s downtown Toronto studio, where its bags are also created.

The cleanly displayed leather wares of Eleven Thirty draw customers into the company’s downtown Toronto studio, where its bags are also created.

Arash Moallemi

Across Canada, designers' store-front studios are more than a place to make and sell merchandise. Nathalie Atkinson investigates how independent neighbourhood boutiques entice visitors and encourage a sense of community, increasing pleasure and profit

With even Amazon rumoured to be launching its own take on fast fashion, pressures from the online retail industry are being increasingly felt by businesses of all sizes.

Among efforts to consolidate, shift and move online comes another unlikely solution for independent, small and mid-sized designers. Maintaining a shop around the corner is a strategy that's working for many enduring Canadian brands – coveted Comrags, Lilliput Hats and Ewanika in Toronto, the thriving Turbine label from Halifax entrepreneur and designer Lisa Drader-Murphy, and local Vancouver favourite Twigg & Hottie, among them.

The merits of a physical shop go beyond having a local presence and offering a personal touch. Depending on scale, it's a way to find cost efficiencies, become part of the urban fabric and find new and invigorating markets. Here, three Canadian designer retailers comment on the very different ways they find value in committing to bricks-and-mortar boutiques.

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Courtesy of Is This Menswear


For the owners of this made-in-B.C. brand of design-focused men's shirts and outerwear, opening an airy, Bauhaus-inspired space was just one more way of putting their civicminded philosophy into practice.

"I was on a trip to New York and went to Dover Street Market, surrounded by four-by-four pine beams crossing the room at their art gallery of a clothing store," designer Iain Russell recalls. "And I thought, why wouldn't people want to see that in Victoria, and why shouldn't they?" Russell teamed up with his father, a woodworking instructor at nearby Camosun College, to construct the warm exposed-wood components of the spare, modular interior.

"We already had quite a good local following for making clothes specialized for the environment that we were in," Russell says, "so it was natural to do a bricks-and-mortar store that was so tied to our identity."

Designer Iain Russell and business partner Jason Niles.

Designer Iain Russell and business partner Jason Niles.

The store is south-facing on its street "like a little light box," says business partner Jason Niles. He invokes the classic, "location, location, location," when explaining what might seem like an unusual choice to repurpose a dermatologist's office on a pedestrian-focused (and cyclist-heavy) back commercial lane. "Our location is unique in that we aren't in a district of retail shopping," Niles says. "We're taking the approach of seeing, long-term, how the city is going to grow, and planting a flag as an example of a neighbourhood entity showing change. It's an arterial road, facing a beautiful mediumdensity neighbourhood approaching Fairfield and Rockland. A transition zone from downtown Victoria wandering down to the ocean."

They're both interested in having more transitional spaces that aren't necessarily defined as retail stores or community centres. "I see us as everything from an office, showroom, store and art space with shows once a month," Niles says, adding that Is This Menswear recently participated in the Victoria Tea Festival with a kombucha tasting and art opening.

Niles's background is in urban planning, working in small towns and with local government on longrange goals. "Our store is on a slow trajectory, and that's what community development is – how to bring human values into business values."

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1014 Meares St., Victoria, 250-217-1505,

Arash Moallemi


The name of Alexa Schoorl and Mariel Gonzalez's emerging leather-goods label, Eleven Thirty, is a nod to their street address in Toronto's Little Italy, and with good reason. The storefront studio not only predates their nearly three-year design partnership, it's the reason for it.

When the designers met in June of 2013, each had her own leather accessories business. Gonzalez had recently outgrown her Chinatown studio and was looking for storefront space: "The week I signed the lease here our mutual friend suggested Alexa needed space too, and thought we could work something out," she says.

"We were both going to run our individual leather handbag businesses out of this space," Schoorl says with a laugh. "We were each other's competition!" They realized an affinity and respected one another's design sensibility, so they scrapped their separate ventures and joined forces.

The online store that complements the studio shop brings in roughly the same amount of business, all of it made-to-order, but the bulk of the company's work comes from wholesale accounts – over 50 in Canada, the U.S. and Japan. "For us it makes sense to have our hand in all the different pots," Schoorl explains, "because we can use the retail space as a studio. People come in and buy right from us, and we'd be in a studio anyway."

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Alexa Schoorl (left) and Mariel Gonzalez.

Alexa Schoorl (left) and Mariel Gonzalez.

Arash Moallemi

A storefront also cultivates customers from whom they also occasionally get feedback that helps improve products, like suggestions about the length of a strap on a cross-body bag or the leather detail around the zipper of a pony-hair backpack. "People have a lot of opinions, and it's a whole range of women [coming in] – mothers, daughters – with different styles," Schoorl says. "You can see which kind of person wants which kind of bag, and that helps us think about meeting the needs of different demographics."

Both women live within walking distance of their studio store. "Alexa has time for her kids, I have time to go to my [art] studio. It's nice to do that and then still grow here," says Gonzalez.

Today every Eleven Thirty bag is cut and sewn on the premises by one designer or the other. The open-concept workroom holds a cutting table, while bolts of leather and sewing stations are visible through étagères and behind fixtures displaying finished styles (including staples like the bucket bag and the Annie pouch) as well as prototypes. "Often, when we're designing the next line, we try different things out and whatever doesn't go into production is in the store, as a one-off," Schoorl says.

Adds Gonzalez: "Hopefully even as we grow we'll be able to keep this as a creative space."

1130 College St., Toronto, 416-588-1130,

Courtesy of Maison Marie Saint Pierre


"Each store has its own niche market and purpose, and starts with the idea that it could be a laboratory for a new customer, or a new service," Marie Saint Pierre explains of her boutiques. "When I opened the de la Montagne store, I knew that I could speak to a broader audience there and see people from all over the world [because it's] near all the hotels."

The designer's newest addition is a 2,000-square-foot boutique in Miami's Wynwood neighbourhood, a former warehouse in a burgeoning arts district that was once a manufacturing area. It's Maison Marie Saint Pierre's third shop (the other is at Centre Rockland in Montreal's tony Mount Royal) designed in collaboration with Gervais Fortin, and the company's first retail foray into the U.S. market since the label was founded in 1987.

Saint Pierre had originally considered New York, but several years of scouting trips left her cold. "It just felt like a business decision, not one of passion," she says. Any location in Manhattan would also have been such an investment that the opportunity for experimentation – an important retail priority – would be lost. "I didn't want a store in the U.S. to be a burden to the whole company," Saint Pierre says.

Marie Saint Pierre.

"Something is happening [in Miami], I felt it right away," says the multidisciplinary designer. "It's art, lifestyle and music – a very creative environment I felt immediately attracted to." The other not inconsiderable appeal, according to her sister Danielle Charest, VP and senior partner at Maison Marie Saint Pierre, is how Miami has emerged not only as an "international platform" (with residents and visitors streaming in from Europe and South America), but as a window into more of the American market that is crucial to future growth.

As with her other locations, Saint Pierre didn't want to be flashy with her newest shop. "I kept the same recipe – almost [using it] as an exhibition space, an art gallery," she says. "It enhances the product inside that the rest is very minimal."

Being there for Art Basel and seeing a community of art lovers meandering past the store "by the thousands, not by the hundreds!" was a highlight for Saint Pierre. "To see people talking about your work, from Japan, from everywhere," she says. "It's outside the premise of the [traditional] fashion store, in an environment that's detached from our industry. It's very exciting, and inspiring."

2081 rue de la Montagne, Montreal, 514-281-5547; Centre Rockland, Montreal, 514-738-5547; 2311 NW 2nd Ave., Miami, 305-603-7349,

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