Boutiques and Designers Left Hanging
Why are we more willing to spend extra on locally grown food but not locally grown clothing? The city’s fashion designers and hyper-local boutiques want to know.
Illustration by Rodrigo Lpez Orozco
On a Saturday afternoon, Meese Clothing’s new and second location, on 124th Street, bustles with activity. Through thick, black-rimmed, square glasses, owner and fashion designer Tressa Heckbert’s eyes hit every person entering the Canadian-only apparel store and, every time a shopper touches a piece, she tells them of its origins. To prove it’s real Canadiana, a large map of the country, behind the register, is pinned with numerous paper moose cut-outs (the “meese”), illustrating the origin of each design the shop carries.
Meese’s new space opened last October. It’s tall and narrow, about half the size of its 1,100-square-foot location in St. Albert, which opened in 2007. “We are offering a unique shopping experience between the two stores. We carry completely different styles with both locations,” Heckbert says. “There was nothing in downtown [Edmonton] like us yet, so it’s great for us local girls to be selling here.”
Though its future isn’t yet certain, Meese is beating the odds experienced by a number of locally focused retailers. Even on Whyte Avenue, the most walkable, commercial strip in Edmonton, boutiques like Morse Code and Nokomis bent to the pressures of expensive leases and unpredictable traffic, and closed before their 10th years.
Despite her optimism, Heckbert and other designers-cum-retailers still ponder the fate of their peers, especially Nokomis, one of the city’s most cherished boutiques, which closed in January after eight years of offering its popular house line and racks of all-Canadian attire. The store also gave a platform for designers Heckbert and Sabrina O’Donnell, of the four-year-old designer boutique Sabrina Butterfly Designs, before they graduated into the business owners they are today.
Jessica Kennedy was a partner in Nokomis when it opened in 2002. She took full management in 2009 and was the one left to lock its doors for the last time in January. She says, “We made the decision to go big or go home, and we went big. We probably tried a bit too much, too quick.”
In 2007 she moved the store into its third and final incarnation: a bright, 1,600-sq.-ft. space in the heart of Old Strathcona. “I always knew Nokomis would be a success, and she was for eight years. In the end, the way I tried to make her successful just didn’t pan out.”
Kennedy lists a few reasons for its closure: leasing an expensive space; wholesaling the house line across Canada; and trying to keep up with the demands of manufacturing and selling clothing at the same time. However, the biggest blow came from the 2008 recession.
While Alberta experienced the biggest decline in retail sales in all of Canada, Kennedy’s store was hit by the ailing economy and never bounced back like most of the province’s businesses. Monthly retail sales in the province grew from $4.7 billion in the month of February 2009 to $5.24 billion in 2011, but Kennedy’s store remained in a lull.
She won’t divulge the numbers but says the growing overhead wasn’t being matched by customer growth. “It’s a matter of attracting new customers, and people who weren’t already heading to independent boutiques weren’t about to start.”
Nokomis’s house line stopped production in 2009 and, eventually, Kennedy called it quits. She’s now the store manager at Anthropologie in West Edmonton Mall. “As much as I loved every moment of being at Nokomis, I couldn’t physically hack it anymore,” she says. “I wish love was enough.”
“There are an awful lot of people that will go to the farmers’ market and spend 30 per cent more on their carrots than they would at Safeway, but that’s a two-dollar decision,” explains Edmonton designer Stanley Carroll, who, in his decades-long career, has watched his own share of retail ventures rise and fall. “It becomes different when you have to start making a 200-dollar decision to support the independent designer, and that’s a hard reality.”
Sid Assaf, an architectural designer who once tried his hand at fashion design, says, “We’re spoiled in Edmonton in that we’ve had things stay relatively cheap for a long time.”
In 1995 he partnered with Louise Dirks, owner of the gravitypope empire. Assaf subleased a small downtown space from Dirks to sell his own line, Asid, alongside major couture imports. “I closed as soon as Winners and Dots came in,” he says. “I knew I had to do something else the day a guy walked in wearing a Jean Paul Gaultier sweater that I had on the shelf for $400, and he had just bought it for $40 at Dots.”
For 21 years his former partner, Dirks, has grown her mid- to high-end fashion import businesses – gravitypope for shoes and gravitypope Tailored Goods for clothing and accessories – to include stores in Calgary and Vancouver. But between her Vancouver and Edmonton clothing stores, she says her home base has proven the most difficult location to sell high-priced fashions, local or not, because there’s a much smaller market.
Though the brands that Tailored Goods carries are mostly European-made, Dirks says that she hasn’t considered selling local because until a few months ago, Nokomis was just around the corner and, so far, only Stanley Carroll has approached her to carry his lines. “We’re discussing a local line right now by a young designer, but we haven’t come to any agreement yet. We certainly would consider [carrying local] more now.”
The shoe store, which has remained successful for years, does carry one local designer – the house-line gravitypope – but it is a different matter. “We have a wider range of shoes available,” she explains, “from sport to luxury to fashion. With the clothing store, we put all the focus on luxury and the higher-end market. It’s a very exclusive and unique product range.” And how is that going? “The only thing that has helped to sustain gravitypope Tailored Goods in Edmonton is the fact that I have the [clothing] store in Vancouver.” The reality is in other cities consumers will pay top dollar to enjoy higher-priced fashions. Case and point: Edmontonian Min Kang, owner and designer of Oak + Fort, opened the label’s first store in Vancouver years before the Whyte Avenue location put up its sign four months ago.
“You’re always fighting for a small piece of the pie, especially with all the giant chains coming in,” says Dirks about the Edmonton market. “H&M, Target, Joe Fresh at Superstore – it’s disposable clothing that’s cheap, yes, but it kills independent retail in so many ways.”
“Cost – we’re always conscious about cost,” says the Bamboo Ballroom‘s co-owner Anastasia Boruk, whose store carries local labels such as Suka and cinder+smoke. “Because it’s hard for these small companies to produce the goods, a lot of times they can’t get the bulk discounts that bigger lines would. It makes their clothing sometimes even double cost-wise, and then you have to pass it on to the customer so the designer and store can make a profit.”
She continues, “People wanted cheaper price points, and we decided to bring in some cheaper lines to mix with more of our expensive ones. We’re still independent, obviously, but we’re a little different in that we want to keep it open at all costs. We’re going to do what we have to do and be flexible.”
“People don’t understand that when you produce something domestically, with domestic fabric, it’s going to cost a bit more,” says Kelly Kleiber, who opened all three C’est Sera boutiques after leaving a career in commercial retail. Although the stores don’t carry local lines, they carry independent Canadian labels and the majority of its accessories are Edmonton-made. For Kleiber, having that inventory “is about educating the customer, saying what happens when you shop locally, what happens when you support your Canadian designers, and how that actually has value.”
As co-organizer of the popular Royal Bison Craft & Art Fair, a semi-annual “alternative” expo attended by thousands each time, Victoria Wiercinski knows consumers will pay more for local products. But there are challenges with getting Edmonton-made goods on store racks, some economical, some cultural.
Wiercinski acknowledges that consumer’s sometimes perceive “locally made” to mean cheaply made and expensively priced.
“I think we’ve lost that artisan culture. We’re so used to manufactured goods. I think as a retail culture, people really expect the same level of quality as machine-made goods from handmade things,” she says. “I buy that for sure: If you’re going to be spending that much money on something you want to make sure it’s quality-made.”
She says a second, bigger challenge to fostering a local fashion industry is finding a small, affordable space within a centrally located area. Although Edmonton has more retail space per capita than the average Canadian city, 27.7 sq. ft. to 18.8 sq. ft., according to Colliers Canada, the majority of it is located in shopping malls and “power centres” such as South Edmonton Common. In fact, the city has more mall and power centre retail space than any major city in the nation, double the amount of Montreal and Vancouver, but finding something small and conducive to boutique-style shopping is challenging at best.
Wiercinski wants to open a “Royal Bison-ish” store for local artisans’ fashions and artworks, including her own, in a central location. It sounds easy, especially since the downtown’s retail lease rates are amongst the cheapest in Canada (US$44 per sq. ft., compared to US$53 on Calgary’s 17th Street and US$194 on Vancouver’s Robson Street), according to Colliers International.
But, so far, her search has been fruitless.
Most building owners don’t return her calls and others are more interested in “highly reliable, no-gamble” corporate prospects. In one case, she was told the power to the building was shut off and the owner wasn’t interested in turning it back on. “He was just waiting to have a highrise put on top of it,” she explains.
Darren Snider, principal leasing broker at Avison Young Commercial Real Estate, explains, “It’s hard to find space under 1,000 square feet. It’s just another one of those hurdles that makes it tougher for an independent or start-up to get going.” He also notes that, unlike areas like Whyte Avenue and High Street that have historic buildings which are already long paid off, new-building owners buying in developing areas may have heftier mortgages. So, Snider says, the decision to lease, or not, isn’t just made by owners – “it’s made by your bank.”
He says that although Edmonton’s office-leasing market isn’t as hot as it was a couple years back, retail hasn’t slowed down. In fact, retail vacancies are at a historic low – he estimates less than three per cent. Leasers are more hospitable to big box stores with a corporate identity, and inventory, to fill a large store space, like those around South Edmonton Common. “One may have to be creative, even lucky, to find the right space.”
Complicating matters is Edmonton’s climate, which makes malls – and therefore expensive-to-lease stores – more hospitable to shoppers. Designer and retailer Maggie Walt, of Maggie Walt Design, who just marked the seventh anniversary of her boutique on Jasper Avenue, says, “Weather just kills us over the winter months, this year in particular has been tough.”
But she’s found novel ways to combat the cold. In addition to private shopping parties, Walt also hosts fashion shows, bazaars and fundraising events in the basement of her store, dubbed the “Fashion Underground.”
“I constantly have to come up with ideas to keep the store alive without putting my designs on sale and clearance.”
Wiercinski also wonders if creativity with space is truly the key to making indie retail work in our city because “independent stores are fighting against an army of salary-people whose jobs are to make your retail experience amazingly beautiful and interesting.” This is definitely a city full of creative people, she says. Some are partnering to share the abundance of square-footage, like Headcase Hats, which opened its second location in the Kaj Clothing space on 124th Street. (The arrangement recently switched. Now local line Kaj sells from a corner of what’s now Headcase’s second location.)
But if fashion designers can’t find retail space, they can almost certainly find a table at any of the new craft markets that have cropped up. At fairs like Royal Bison, Make It! and Handmade Mafia, local artisans can interact directly with customers. There, and at farmers’ markets and websites like Etsy, makers sell their goods at prices they decide, without lowering costs in order to wholesale to retailers, or paying overhead on a leased space. For instance, a Royal Bison table, at $35 to $70 per weekend, is much easier to accept than risking debt by opening an outlet.
In addition to her store, Sabrina O’Donnell continues to wholesale Sabrina Butterfly to nation-wide retailers and she participates in numerous hand-made markets that travel seasonally around Canada. She calls them her “bread and butter” – the sustenance for her retail store.
And this spring there was a glimmer of hope when Kang opened the Oak + Fort outlet.
Kennedy says they’re all on the right track – and they have to be for the sake of Edmonton’s conscientious, “indie-minded” shopper. “The customer is there, we have to keep working and keep educating her about the benefits of shopping local,” Kennedy says. “They [shop owners] have an uphill battle, but I think it’s worth it.”
Carroll sees the same efforts more simply: “There is something addictive about retailing. It’s the sense of freedom, to some extent you do it despite your better judgement.”
Carrying Local Lines
Bamboo Ballroom 8206 104 St.
foosh 10544 82 Ave.
Headcase Hats 10125 124 St. and 301, 10368 82 Ave.
Key Lime Yoga & Athletic Wear 12, 975 Broadmoor Blvd., Sherwood Park
Maggie Walt Designs 11217 Jasper Ave.
Oak + Fort 10416 82 Ave.
Meese Clothing 10240 124 St. and 31 D Perron St., St. Albert
Sabrina Butterfly Designs 6421 112 Ave.