Annick-Isabel Marcoux, the head of downtown Toronto's new Hard Candy Fitness centre – or, as it's known to many, "that gym owned by Madonna" – looks as cinematically futuristic as the luxury fitness facility she runs.
Wearing a cocoon-like white jacket and a sci-fi platinum pixie cut, Ms. Marcoux fits right in with the gym's shiny red chrome exercise equipment and furniture, which looks like it belongs on a starship.
It doesn't resemble any fitness centre you have seen before, and there is a reason for this: Ms. Marcoux argues that Torontonians are eager to experiment with their workouts.
"People who are coming in are open-minded, curious. They're trendsetters," she says, pointing out that Hard Candy's distinctive programming (there's a cardio training class wherein participants wear stiletto heels, for instance) calls for a more adventurous set. "If we'd opened in downtown Montreal, I'm not sure if it would have been as good of a fit."
When it comes to health, Torontonians are hardly stuck in their ways. It's one of the reasons the city was chosen as the eighth location, and only the second in North America after Mexico City, for the swank global chain that boasts one-of-a-kind workouts co-developed by Madge herself. The gym also offers fitness experiences one would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere: a rope-pulling machine, a stairmaster-treadmill hybrid that approximates the motion of cross-country skiing, and yoga classes one can take while tethered to a wall.
Toronto is, in many respects, an ideal locale for outside-the-box fitness concepts. With a population that's dense and diverse enough to support unorthodox lifestyle ventures, and prosperous enough to shill out for boutique services, it makes sense that the city would make its way onto the radars of national, and international, service brands.
It also doesn't hurt that the construction boom has made for plenty of sleek new spaces within and beyond the downtown core, such as Hard Candy's roomy, well-windowed facility on the fourth floor of the recently-completed Aura condominium tower at Yonge and Gerrard demonstrates.
"You would never be able to get 42,000 square feet in New York," says Nicole Winhoffer, Madonna's personal trainer and the brains behind Hard Candy's fitness routines.
"It's a terrific space," says Brent Leffel, president of New Evolution Ventures, an equity partner in the Toronto club. He explains that Hard Candy seeks to be simultaneously aspirational and welcoming. "It really makes a good statement for the brand. This really kind of embodies everything that we're looking for, globally."
Other high-concept fitness entities have taken a similar attitude, beyond the confines of the city centre's glass towers.
Just north of the Junction is The Monkey Vault, a gym opened in early January that specializes exclusively in parkour – the French extreme sport that typically involves bounding between man-made obstacles such as walls, railings and scaffolding in an outdoor, urban setting. The Monkey Vault replicates these structures and teaches its members how to creatively and gymnastically interact with them. Though his gym is still young, owner Dan Iaboni says that business has been promising. Word spreads quickly in Toronto.
"I think Torontonians are really willing to give their opinions and share great places and secrets with other people," Mr. Iaboni said. "At this place you get to be like, 'Hey, look, I climbed over a wall!' And suddenly your friends are like, 'Holy crap, where'd you learn how to do that?'"
"It's a vibrant city that's really eclectic, so there are a lot of different people coming in to try the classes that we're offering," says Catherine LaVallee, centre manager of Yyoga, the Vancouver-based yoga "lifestyle centre" chain that opened its first location outside of British Columbia, on Queen near John Street, in late October. "That really makes for a diverse experience in here."
Torontonians are also happy to pay a premium for the right fitness fit, whether that be for a $20 drop-in class at Yyoga (a standard rate for Toronto studios) or $90 unlimited monthly parkour sessions at The Monkey Vault. A Hard Candy membership rings in at $99 per month in addition to a one-time joining fee.
"There's a fitness facility probably every block here," Ms. Marcoux said. "There's a lot of investment in health. It's engrained in the lifestyle."