When Bonnie Brooks stepped in her high heels into a cramped studio apartment in New York's Chinatown, she thought she was after an edgy new fashion collection to buy for one of her retail clients.
What she ended up discovering went deeper than just clothes.
"It was the designers themselves," says Brooks, describing the day about a decade ago when she encountered the U.S. design duo known as Proenza Schouler, today an internationally celebrated fashion brand, largely thanks to Brooks's unerring instinct for identifying the next big thing.
"I knew instantly they were huge talents. I wanted to buy their clothes for myself. And when a seasoned fashion buyer like me wants to do that it's obvious something's going on. You just know."
Being able to discern genius, even when hidden away, is a skill the youthful looking 59-year-old fashion industry veteran has honed during a nearly 40-year career.
She will bring that expertise to bear on The Catalysts series. As one of three panelists chosen by The Globe and Mail, her role is to select artistic and creative talent from a pool of candidates nominated by readers as being the best in their class.
It's a task Brooks is more than ready for. Born in Windsor, Ont., Brooks is known worldwide as an undisputed fashion authority who can see talent at a glance when others around her, including the talent itself, haven't a clue.
Brooks, the president of 343-year-old Hudson's Bay Co., has helped launch the careers of Stella McCartney and the late Alexander McQueen, in addition to Proenza Schouler and others.
She also among was the first to nurture George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg after encountering them in Toronto in 1984 following their groundbreaking design of the first Club Monaco store, on Queen Street West. Brooks endorsed them for a string of jobs which followed, from Tiffany & Co. stores to Four Seasons and W hotels around the world, including Tokyo, making the interior design firm of Yabu Pushelberg internationally famous.
"Bonnie followed a simple philosophy that anything is possible," Yabu says. "Her daring, unreserved and rather un-Canadian approach in reaching a goal was done with a measured boldness, without the brashness. I've never met a women who can cajole the best out of anyone, but in a most compassionate and nice way."
She brought the duo back to Queen Street West to help renovate HBC's flagship Bay store as part of a massive $212-million multistore revitalization project.
"I've always thought it important to be connected to a forward-thinking world," Brooks says.
"Especially in our world, the fashion world, it's important because we're always looking ahead, and literally so. We plan Christmas 18 months in advance; we trend forecast eight years ahead. We sometimes ask ourselves what season are we in really because we're always looking to the future."
Standing out is almost always the objective in fashion. It's a lesson Brooks learned early growing up in London, Ont., where she wore clothes her mother, Rose, sewed for her and her two older sisters. The looks were one-of-a-kind and they fostered in Brooks an appreciation for individualized style, one of the criteria she uses in evaluating talent.
"I look for originality and freshness," Brooks says in her rough diamond voice, which millions of Canadians have come to know from the national radio ads she does for The Bay. One of HBC's other holdings is the U.S.-based Lord and Taylor chain.
"A lot of people are creative or may even be geniuses, but what they are doing might not be relevant. So I also look for relevance, as well as purity – something which has authenticity and integrity and that can move forward without soon becoming stale. Something that won't be a flash in the pan."
She developed that steely eye slowly, over a number of years as she climbed fashion's rank and file to reach the top of Canada's fashion pyramid.
Her first job was not in Canada but overseas in London, where, following a European vacation when she was barely out of her teens, she landed a sales position at Biba.
The legendary British department store was then at the forefront of the fashion parade marching out of London's Carnaby Street and into the mainstream in the early 1970s. Brooks was very much at the right place at the right time.
"Before that fashion was just an extension of pop music," says Brooks, the former wife of rock musician Denton Young, whom she divorced in 1983, never remarrying. "But in the 1970s fashion really started coming into its own, and I was really very lucky to be part of it at that time."
Back in Canada, Brooks translated her seminal Biba experience into a job as a stylist and photographer's assistant at mass retailers Fairweather and Big Steel.
From there, she moved rapidly through the important backrooms of fashion, expertly navigating, for example, through the executive echelons of Holt Renfrew & Co. Ltd.
But the road to the top hasn't always been smooth. Brooks lost her job as president of Canadian retail chain Town & Country when owner Dylex pulled the plug on its 162 women's wear stores in 1991 amid a recession that was particularly brutal on clothing retailers. Unemployment led Brooks to rethink her options. In 1992, she became president of Kert Advertising and then in 1994 she was appointed editor-in-chief of Flare magazine. But retail being her first love in 1996 she returned to Holt Renfrew as senior vice-president of marketing, wiser, no doubt, from the diverse experience accumulated along the way.
That was followed by a longer period in Asia as a buyer for prominent Hong Kong retail chain Lane Crawford.
In China, where she moved to from Toronto in 1997, Brooks sparked her own fashion revolution. She took a domestic retailer and turned it into an international trendsetter, infusing it with designer brands that gave it instant cachet and credibility with powerhouse fashion publications such as Vogue and WWD.
Despite the runaway success of Lane Crawford, Brooks initially wasn't sure that Asia would turn out well for her. "I was really worried that I'd be cutting myself from my network in North America and Europe," she says.
But that great wall of self-doubt started to come down soon after she arrived in Hong Kong. Her network was more flexible than she originally had thought.
"I started bringing in a lot of Canadian talent to Hong Kong to build Lane Crawford," she continues. "Brands that were launching in Canada, we brought to Asia. We helped push fashion in Asia forward at a time when fashion was just starting to blossom over there. It was an exciting time."
Being part of a creative team of people, she emphasizes, is what has kept her on the edge of what's next.
"Some call it the zeitgeist," Brooks says. "But it's subtle. It's not something you can easily quantify. It's a way of looking at people and things and knowing whether or not there's talent there. It's part of being modern."