By  on May 23, 2013

Holt Renfrew is wearing its conscience on its well-appointed sleeve.

H Project, which launches today in three Holt Renfrew units, is a new retail concept for the Canadian luxury chain. In-store shops being piloted at the Toronto (Bloor Street), Calgary and Vancouver stores range in size from 250 square feet to 300 square feet. A 400-square-foot permanent shop in the fall will be unveiled at the Yorkdale store.

H Project offers a collection of products with a green element or charitable component.

The program is the brainchild of Alexandra Weston, director of brand strategy at Holt Renfrew, who combined her love of travel with her interest in doing good. “I was inspired by my family and background,” said Weston, whose maternal grandparents founded footwear giant Bata Shoes and whose husband, Galen Weston Jr., is executive chairman of Loblaw Cos. and the son of Galen Weston, chairman of Holt Renfrew, the Selfridges Group in the U.K. and Brown Thomas in Ireland, among other retail holdings.

“I grew up traveling a lot,” Weston said, adding that she spent one Christmas in India and a few years later spent New Year’s Eve on a boat on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar. “Culture and travel have always been a passion,” she said. “I’d bring back a bangle or a bracelet.”

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Holt has seen success with products that have great stories, and Weston wants to take that to the next level. “I want to find a permanent home for like-minded products,” she said. “There’s a new movement in the industry that involves telling the story.”

Items for the shops were chosen for the artisanal method used to make them, the uniqueness of the materials — such as upcycled salmon skin — or the way the products celebrate a culture, Weston said. H Project designer collaborations in some cases will be sustainable or have a charitable tie-in.

Weston is talking to Margherita Missoni about doing something special for H Project and looking at Maiyet, a collection that works with master craftsmen and artisans from places such as Colombia, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Mongolia and Peru.

“I see this as the heart of Holt Renfrew,” said Weston, who is working on “expanding it into the store and giving other brands in the store the H Project stamp” of approval. “A lot of brands we carry speak the same language. This is where we want to move as a brand,” she said of Holt.

“We set a very reachable goal” in terms of sales, Weston said. “I want to push the concept and give it room to grow. Sales per square foot will initially be slightly lower than the rest of the store.”

H Project will launch with over 30 brands and 150 stockkeeping units from around the world. They include Acca Kappa botanical beauty travel kits; Aiayu pillows, blankets and knitwear, developed by a Danish knitwear community; Aish Indian jewelry; Areaware fauna pillows; Cornelia Guest handbags; Jenny Bird’s Guardian Tusk jewelry, with a portion of sales going to the World Wildlife Fund; Liya Kebede’s LemLem apparel collection, made by traditional weavers in Ethiopia; Lizzie Fortunato accessories; Rodin oil elixirs for hair, skin and nails, and WeWood timepieces made of wood.

H Project shops, which are designed to look like an art gallery, integrate technology into the setting with listening stations and three sets of digital touch screens playing vendor videos. The shops are staffed with H Product ambassadors, who are responsible for championing, explaining and selling the products. There’s even special packaging for H Project, a branded tote bag, but no tissue paper, in deference to the environment. “We’re asking local artists to create designs for the bag so it becomes collectible,” Weston said.

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