An Italian Fèsta at Holt Renfrew

TORONTO — Holt Renfrew & Co. is putting more emphasis on high-end designer labels and exclusive merchandise and there’s no clearer sign than the retailer’s Viva Italia 21-day celebration of Italian fashion, culture and food at the...

TORONTO — Holt Renfrew & Co. is putting more emphasis on high-end designer labels and exclusive merchandise and there’s no clearer sign than the retailer’s Viva Italia 21-day celebration of Italian fashion, culture and food at the chain’s 10 stores across Canada.

This story first appeared in the September 19, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The promotion kicked off here Sept. 10 with the opening of a Dolce & Gabbana women’s in-store boutique and an appearance by Naomi Campbell, wearing a Dolce & Gabbana dress. Aside from the Harry Rosen men’s wear chain, Holt Renfrew has a lock on the upscale and luxury market in Canada, estimated at $2 billion.

Holt Renfrew spent two years of planning and over $4.5 million to stage Viva Italia, the most ambitious promotion in Holt’s 165-year history and probably the biggest Italian event ever held on Canadian soil. U.S. dollar figures are converted from Canadian dollars at current exchange rates.

“Our goal is to dominate the markets we serve and deliver one-of-a-kind experiences and be recognized as one of the world’s leading lifestyle businesses,” stated Andrew Jennings, Holt Renfrew’s president and managing director, during an interview. “On that basis, our benchmark is Selfridges of London.” Jennings joined Holt Renfrew in February 1999 from the House of Fraser in the U.K., after senior positions at Stuttafords and Greatermans in South Africa and Harrods Ltd. in London.

The firm’s downtown flagship here will host more than 60 events during Viva Italia, including in-store appearances by designers Roberto Cavalli, Giorgio Canali and Laudomia Pucci. The gala was officially opened Sept. 12 by honorary patron Sophia Loren. A retrospective of some of Franco Moschino’s designs are being featured in the flagship. All told, some 75 Italian vendors are participating in the event.

The company expects a big return for its investment in Viva Italia, to the tune of $65 million in sales of merchandise associated with the promotion, as well as plenty of media coverage and new customers, said Jennings.

The upscaling is an attempt to further distance Holt Renfrew from the competition — which it sees as primarily Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom, even though those two chains operate only in the U.S. — among others where some of its Canadian customers shop, by carrying many labels exclusively in Canada. They include, Armani Black Label, Cacharel, Jaeger, Liliana Panconesi and Yves Saint Laurent and account for about 55 percent of Holt Renfrew’s annual sales of $255 million, according to Jennings.

“Part of our merchandising strategy is to make an authoritative statement with the world’s great lines. We are also working closely with our vendors to build more in-store boutiques.”

The retailer is making other moves to attract upscale shoppers. For example, it recently purchased a $3.2 million point-of-sale computer checkout system that will help it get a more accurate customer profile and track top clients down when new shipments arrive to arrange private shopping nights.

Holt’s recently added 20,000 square feet of retail space to its flagship here, for a new restaurant, as well as expanded the lingerie department to 3,400 square feet from 1,000. Shoes expanded to 4,300 square feet from 1,000. The flagship now has 125,000 square feet of selling space

Sales per square foot are about $544 at the privately owned company, but closer to $768 at its biggest stores in Montreal, Vancouver and here, according to Jennings. He hopes to boost the average to $640 by growing the chain’s total trading area by 15 percent over the next five years, including downtown Montreal, which has the potential to reach 100,000 square feet from the current 65,000.

Private label will continue to represent 25 percent of Holt’s business, even after the three private labels get consolidated into one called Holt Renfrew. All wovens are manufactured here and all knitwear is made in Italy.

Jennings previously predicted that private label would top out at around 40 percent of inventory, but that changed when customers demanded more Italian fashion and Jennings decided Holt’s would put on an Italian lifestyle extravaganza.

For the opening gala, Holt Renfrew drew 1,500 people, paying $130 each to benefit Villa Charities, which provides care for the elderly and assists individuals with development disabilities.

Viva Italia follows other special promotions at Holt Renfrew recently. Earlier this year, a Burberry promotion turned much of the store into a plaid experience from display windows, to awnings and carpets.

“It was a great relations building experience and it inspired us with a new way of merchandising,” said Barbara Atkin, fashion director. “It became another Christmas season and created new traffic because the facade of the store was plaid.”

In May, the retailer staged Blossoms, turning the store into 35 aromatic garden settings.

“Families used the backgrounds for photos and spent more time in the store,” said Atkin. “We know the weather can’t always bring people into the store so we need to create events.”

Other promotions were Girls’ Night In, which featured an open bar, facials and manicures. There will also be a Boys’ Night Out before Christmas where men can shop for the females in their lives, while enjoying oysters and martinis, as well as private shopping nights for credit card holders to preview each new season.