The newest it-shop in Toronto’s plush Yorkville shopping neighbourhood doesn’t have a sign or even stock much clothing. Behind the pretty pink door at 30 Hazelton Ave., veteran luxury retailer Nicholas Mellamphy operates one of the most exclusive shopping experiences anywhere.
Cabine is personal shopping taken to the max. Named after the French term for in-house couture models, Cabine offers by-appointment-only shopping, mostly done a season in advance. Clients purchase from lookbooks, runway images and showroom snapshots. The process is more like buying a car than clothes, where lots of discussion and decision-making is done prior to placing the order to reduce the chance of returns. When the merchandise arrives, fittings are an opportunity to socialize and celebrate.
But don’t bother ringing the doorbell. Similar to private banking and members-only clubs, shopping at Cabine is by invitation only.
The boutique is part of a new wave of fashion retail: luxury personal shopping built on relationships, not algorithms and predictive analytics. “Restoring civility and elegance,” is how Mellamphy defines the new ultracustomized service, and it takes on a variety of forms.
For example, Power of Privé, founded by Vanessa Mulroney and Jane Hanrahan, operates private sales and trunk shows in Toronto and Palm Beach, often starting with a sit-down lunch with a designer such as London’s Emilia Wickstead or New York’s Adam Lippes. In Los Angeles, stylist Nicole Pollard of LaLaLuxe offers bespoke shopping excursions and personalized Paris runway albums for her clientele of Middle East royals and other assorted billionaires to shop from.
The demand for personal attention in high-end retail is so high that Alexandra Thompson of Wardrobe Apparel shuttered her Vancouver shop in May and is going appointment-only while continuing online sales.
“So many clients were booking private appointments, I realized, ‘why have a store?’” Thompson explains. Her second floor space in Yaletown is shared with Haberdasher & Co., a men’s custom suit and shirting business. Thompson estimates 40 per cent of her sales are also custom – whether it’s a Greta Constantine gown ordered in a hard-to-find size, or a body harness specially commissioned from British designer Imogen Belfield.
Many e-tailers already offer virtual stylists and chatbots, but in-person service allows for deeper connections with the most valued clients. MatchesFashion, which started with one boutique in Wimbledon in 1987 and later shifted its business online, offers private shopping, personalized trunk shows and “endless possibilities” at No. 23, its townhouse in central London, with another location coming this summer. Meanwhile, Moda Operandi, which began as a service that allows customers to preorder direct from the runway, has opened invite-only showrooms in London, New York and Hong Kong.
For streetwear maverick Ssense, personalization is not just for top clients; it was the creative concept behind their Montreal flagship, which opened in May. Shoppers visit ssense.com, select what they want from the 20,000 items in the warehouse, make an in-person appointment and choose a stylist. The Balenciaga tees and Off-White hoodies are whisked to the store within 24 hours.
“To me, that’s the most hyper-personalized experience you can get,” says Krishna Nikhil, Ssense’s chief merchandising officer. “You decide what products you want to see, when you want to see them, whether you want a stylist with you or not, whether you want your friends to show up.”
It also enables the store to know, for the most part, who they will be dealing with on any given day. Walk-ins are still welcome as there is some stock on site, and last minute requests can be brought from the warehouse within an hour while shoppers kill time in the 5th floor café. This transfer of goods, which used to take up to a week at the old Ssense store, has been accelerated with software conceived by an internal team.
The appointment could result in a purchase that’s as little as $25 for a pair of Nike socks, or no purchase at all. “There’s nobody going out of their way to get the product for you,” Nikhil says. “We’ve built the tech that makes that incredibly easy to do. There’s no one who is going to apply any pressure. We want you to have an exceptional experience.”
Even the Ssense flagship building itself, designed by renowned British architect David Chipperfield, lends itself to customization. The spot includes a space that Nikhil says can be adapted for art exhibitions or brand-focused installations. In July, Off-White designer Virgil Abloh installed a re-creation of his Chicago studio.
“Online retailers are … the new department stores,” says Cabine’s Mellamphy, who stepped away from his position as creative director of The Room at Hudson’s Bay in 2016. Meanwhile, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom have entered the Canadian market. “I realized big is not what’s needed in this marketplace,” he says.
So Mellamphy started thinking supertargeted, aiming at the small but stylish group of executives, social figures, film stars and royals who have followed his retail moves over the past 25 years. During runway season, Mellamphy heads to Paris and New York where he scouts the latest looks from more than 60 top designer brands, including Giambattista Valli and Jason Wu, with whom he has longstanding relationships.
Back in Toronto, Mellamphy sits down with each client for several hours, presenting suggestions and editing those down into a bespoke “buy." The clients buy in because they believe he won’t steer them wrong, and designers are accommodating because they appreciate that Mellamphy gravitates to the more exciting pieces in their collections rather than what’s safe. One of the challengers for department store personal shoppers, Mellamphy says, is that “they are at the mercy of what was chosen for the store.”
“This gives clients full access,” he says of his concept. “Whatever they want, they can have.”
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