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A Montreal icon redesigned from Toronto? Gasp Add to ...

I had mixed feelings when I learned about the merger of Holt Renfrew and Ogilvy, Montreal’s oldest and finest luxury department stores. The project has been in the works for some years but is now official.

Holt Renfrew’s collections will move three blocks south, into the much larger Ogilvy building, which will be further extended by a new wing built on the site of a former hotel.

Nobody knows what will happen to Holt’s lovely art-deco building in the heart of the Golden Square Mile, a few steps east of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Will it be transformed into yet another condo tower with high-end boutiques at street level?

Conservationists fear that, despite its patrimonial value, the building will be disposed of as any ordinary piece of real estate. A spokesperson for Selfridges Group, which owns Holt’s and bought Ogilvy two years ago, didn’t make things clearer by saying that they “would be open to a commercial offer that would profit the neighbouring community.”

The future megastore, located at the corner of Sainte-Catherine and Mountain, will bear the impossible name of “Ogilvy, part of the Holt Renfrew & Co. collection.” In French, the name is even more ridiculous: “Ogilvy, membre de la collection Holt Renfrew & Co.” A camel is a horse designed by committee, the old saying goes – I guess the committee that designed this name was a really huge one.

Holt Renfrew president Mark Derbyshire sees the future mega-store as “Ogilvy reimagined by Holt Renfrew.” This is not promising, since in Holt Renfrew is truly lacking in the imagination department. The Montreal Holt’s looks like any high-end store in any other large city – same brands, same layout. The men’s department, hopelessly conservative and boring, is for the typical North American businessman. For women, the choice is larger, from the unaffordable international brands to middle-of-the-road collections and a section of hip clothes for teenagers.

Ogilvy is miles apart. Its collections and boutiques are more exciting and more European. There, you’ll find French perfumes like L’Artisan Parfumeur, an original selection of purses, scarves and hats, French retailers such as Gerard Darel, Collange Lingerie and Anne Fontaine, fabulous European shoes such as Chie Mihara and Pas de Rouge, as well as celebrated Montreal designers like Marie Saint Pierre.

Its women’s wear section is filled with (relatively) affordable collections with a touch of fantasy, from Taifun to Airfield and Marc Cain to Cambio. On the whole, the merchandise is more stylish yet slightly less expensive than at Holt’s.

While Holt Renfrew’s buyers work from Toronto – they buy the same stock indiscriminately for all the chain’s stores – the buyers for Ogilvy have always been Montrealers who know their clientele’s tastes.

Ogilvy’s, a Montreal landmark since 1866, has always been the most beautiful of the large department stores that used to line Rue Sainte-Catherine. It’s the only one still standing, after several renovations. After the language law transformed the face of downtown Montreal, it lost its “s” and hired impeccably bilingual staff, but always kept the special character of its Scottish heritage, as shown by its green tartan shopping bags and the bagpiper who still tours the store every day at noon.

It will be a loss for Montrealers – and visitors – if Ogilvy is “reimagined” from Toronto and loses its identity.

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