Chantal Lévesque was looking to enhance her Shan luxury swimwear brand, so she took the plunge and created a custom-made factory with a built-in retail component to show off her wares.
"I did it to improve the quality of our product," the Quebec-born fashion entrepreneur says.
The sleek grey-and-glass building, designed by acclaimed Montreal architect Renée Daoust, cements Ms. Lévesque's position as an award-winning international fashion manufacturer and retailer. Located here on the edge of Highway 440, it is seen daily by 50,000 commuters driving to and from nearby Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport.
A bikini-clad woman on a gigantic billboard marks the spot.
Completed in 2005 and spread over 35,000 square feet, it replaces an original factory building which was less visible to the public eye.
Inside, cutters and sewers in neat rows produce Shan's signature form-fitting bathing suits and matching cover-ups made from the finest printed silks and embellished with metal hardware imported from Italy.
One hundred people work there, including Ms. Lévesque, a vivacious 55-year-old blonde who received a designer of the year award at the Mode City Show in Paris in 2011. Equivalent to an industry Oscar, this was validation for her 25-year-old Canadian brand, which beat out 600 other swimwear and lingerie companies from around the world.
Her swimwear is artful, not meant for daily laps in the pool, but for showing off at poolside, or on the deck of a yacht. Tops and bottoms sell separately, starting at about $225 a piece. Men have their choice of trunks with matching T-shirts, all made according to the highest standards of haute couture.
Accessories such as wide-brimmed hats, flowing tunics and ultra-suede totes easily push a Shan swimsuit purchase into four figures. But there appears to be no shortage of clients willing to pay the price.
More than 70 per cent of Shan's business is overseas, sold through 500 retail locations worldwide, including luxury department stores such as Harrods in London, Printemps and Le Bon Marché in Paris, El Cortes Ingles in Madrid and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.
Shan merchandise is also available through top-flight resorts such as the Wynn Las Vegas and The Breakers Palm Beach in Florida, in addition to a standalone store in Miami.
Russia and other former Soviet countries such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Ukraine represent growing markets, says Shan vice-president Jean-François Sigouin, Ms. Lévesque's life and business partner.
But the biggest sales take place closer to home, at the retail boutique housed within the company's own factory.
Located in between a sports store and a ceramic tile shop, the Shan factory store is not your average roadside shopping experience.
The custom-made 2,700-square-foot boutique is flooded with natural light; contemporary art lines the wall. The spacious change rooms contain slippers and bathrobes. The lighting is flattering – important when you're buying swimwear.
The boutique occupies a prominent corner of the Shan factory building, and glistens like a jewel with chrome, glass and mirror. Less visible space includes behind-the-scenes essentials such as accounting and shipping offices, design studios, a communal kitchen and dining room for staff.
"When you build a factory with air conditioning, when you invest in your employees, you build your brand," Ms. Lévesque says.
All the merchandise is sold at full price, and sales at this location exceed $1-million a year, Mr. Sigouin says, adding that proximity to the highway has boosted sales. "It's our own building, we are the owners, so we could give more square footage and a great experience of shopping at our store. It also doubles as a showroom and I invite retailers to come here to have the full experience of our retail offering."
According to John Crombie, senior managing director at Cushman & Wakefield Ltd., the outlet mall concept is rapidly growing in Canada as indicated with the recent arrival of new developers such as Simon Property Group Inc., the McArthurGlen Group and Tanger Factory Outlet Centers Inc.
"Simon is building a 350,000-square-foot premium outlet mall in Milton, [Ont.,] opening this summer and Tanger bought Cookstown Mall with RioCan [in 2012] and the mall there is undergoing a huge expansion in the next 18 months," Mr. Crombie says.
"Many retailers like the outlet mall concept because of strong sales and a lower capital costs of setting up shop. As for Shan, the fact that they don't discount the product in an outlet format is likely indicative of its current popularity and consumer desirability.
"That said, retail sales in outlet malls general exceed typical shopping centre and/or street-front retailing so I'm not surprised by this trend that Shan is experiencing."
Besides the factory location, Shan merchandise is sold in Canada through Holt Renfrew and boutiques located on Montreal's Crescent Street, the tourist town of Saint-Sauveur in the Laurentians and in Toronto, home to the brand's flagship store on Avenue Road.
Located on the street level of the prestigious Prince Arthur condo building, Shan's retail neighbours include nearby Louis Vuitton and Chanel. The competition for consumer dollars is stiff.
"It's not cheap to be here," concedes Mr. Sigouin without disclosing how much Shan pays to be close to the Mink Mile, the name given to Toronto's most exclusive shopping district on Bloor Street West.
But Thomas Bollum, a broker with Avison Young, says Shan's strategy to ally itself with a prestigious address should pay off.
"That location says 'luxury' and 'exclusive,'" Mr. Bollum says. "It is certainly not a high-traffic centre-stage-type position, but people who love the brand will find it and shop it."
At 2,000 square feet, the Yorkville location is smaller than the factory store, but it is large by luxury retail standards.
"At their price point, Yorkville is certainly a good location for sure," Mr. Crombie adds. "Not many shoppers will spend $500 on swimwear. You need to be where the rich go to shop and that's the Bloor-Yorkville area.
Mr. Sigouin allows that "it is a lot of space [to rent] for such a small item of clothing as a bathing suit.
"But we felt we had to be here to make ourselves better known as a luxury brand. For us, it is a destination store, a jewel in the crown. There is a feeling of luxury in just having so much space."