By  on July 17, 2007

VANCOUVER, B.C. — Luxury chain Holt Renfrew has brought a cosmopolitan edge to this scenic city where the casual outdoor lifestyle rules.

The new three-level, $50 million, 137,000-square-foot Holt Renfrew emporium has the kind of international designer offering and architectural flair usually reserved for the world's premier shopping streets.

"You can plop this store down anywhere in the world and it would probably be the best-looking store in the city," Caryn Lerner, president and chief executive officer of Holt Renfrew & Co. Ltd., said during a tour of the store. "The luxury customer doesn't know borders. We have tried to tailor it to the Vancouver lifestyle, so there is a little more relaxed attitude. But that doesn't mean that this store is any less chic or elegant."

Holt Renfrew has expectations for bigger business here, with the 2010 Winter Olympics to be centered in Vancouver, and preceded by the extension of the Canada Line rapid transit train from downtown to the airport.

"This city is ready for it," said Gary Balaski, general manager of the store. "People here have been telling us for years they wanted this store. There is a casual lifestyle here, but the city is getting trendier, people are moving here from all over the world, and the Olympics is just one more piece of it."

Tourism is already booming in the city of 600,000, and from a larger perspective, the country's oil industry is generating enormous wealth. The nine-unit Holt Renfrew chain, based in Toronto, hit $540 million in volume in 2006 and is expecting to do well over $600 million in 2007. Holt Renfrew is the only major luxury player in Canada.

"We are on a journey," Lerner said. "Our Vancouver store is a very visible statement of what we have accomplished in the last three years, where we are today and where we see the future. We have the plans and the capital budget allocated for three to five years to expand and renovate every store we operate."

During Lerner's tenure, the company has stepped up remodels, particularly at the Bloor Street flagship and in Montreal; rebranded with a magenta and gray stripe design for packaging, signs, hangers, logos and advertising; taken ownership of its shoe business by phasing out the Brown Shoe license; returned children's wear to the offering after a 20-year absence, and solidified relationships with key designer brands including Chanel, Gucci, Prada, Akris, Giorgio Armani, as well as Ermenegildo Zegna, Canali and John Varvatos in men's wear. The Vancouver opening last month, Holt Renfrew's first in 10 years, is the crowning achievement.The new store stands out in an often overcast, gray urban landscape filled with moderate and mass retail, though luxury and aspirational brands have trickled in over the last four to five years, including Hermès, Wolford, Louis Vuitton, Coach, Lacoste, St. John, Gucci and Tiffany & Co.

Canada's first luxury shopping center, The Meadows Collection, will be in the huge Deerfoot Meadows mall, in Calgary, Alberta, by late 2008 or spring 2009, potentially providing some competition to Holt Renfrew. Whether Holt Renfrew opens a store in The Meadows Collection remains to be seen. Lerner sounded cautious, noting that Calgary might not have the population to support a second Holt Renfrew store in addition to the 45,000-square-foot unit already operating.

"We're watching and looking at other opportunities downtown, and in suburban Calgary,'' she said. "It's still a small city, but in the long term, we might look at opening a second store."

Holt Renfrew's new Vancouver store, at 737 Dunsmuir Street, is twice as large as the old one, which was at 633 Granville Street in the Pacific Centre mall and was the chain's second-biggest volume generator, at around $70 million in annual sales. The Toronto flagship on Bloor Street does an estimated $150 million in annual sales. The Vancouver store could equal or surpass the flagship in volume. "Bloor Street better watch its back," Lerner said half-seriously, citing a friendly rivalry between the two top stores.

The Vancouver store was created out of some vacant land, and specialty store space and a food hall in Pacific Centre. It's all about large windows and grand entrances for openness and natural light, extended vistas up and down and across floors so it's easy to spot the categories you want, details in the fixtures and furnishings to delineate shops, and exquisite floorings, from the white Greek marble that permeates most of the store, to the mosaic tiling in cosmetics and reclaimed distressed wood floor in contemporary sportswear.

"The client asked us to design something with the global marketplace in mind — not just Vancouver," said Mark Janson, of the New York-based Janson Goldstein architectural firm.

The most dramatic feature is the center atrium. It's composed of two oval-shaped, elliptical floor openings with views of all three floors that seem to pull traffic and promote circulation, and a 60-foot-high skylight diffused by a white grid. The atrium is designed to help shoppers get their bearings, since they can enter the store from either the 45-foot-high main entrance on Dunsmuir, the entrance on Granville, the sky bridge connecting to Pacific Centre, or the underground access from valet parking.There is also a unique facade that's wrapped in sheets of "pillowed" glass, for a textured bubble-wrap affect. The glass reflects the sunlight and the lights from the traffic at night so the store always sparkles.

With the merchandising, Holt Renfrew didn't hold back because of the city's casual reputation. For example, in cosmetics, there's Shu Uemura from Asia, which features $10,000 eyelashes, as well as cleansing oils and an experimental 1,600-square-foot space for Holt's Color Studio, showcasing a mix of color lines including Nars, Pout, Stila, Balmshell and Bobbi Brown; Holtscents, for niche fragrances such as Etat Libre d'Orange, Juliette Has a Gun and Frederic Malle; and Holtsceuticals, for wellness products such as bottled oxygen from the Vancouver-based Oxiaorganic, and organic skin care from Stella McCartney and Red Flower.

A most comprehensive department is accessories, with 12,000 square feet for Fendi, Bottega Veneta, Carlos Falchi, Burberry, Chloé, Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana, among other labels. In fine jewelry, there's Mimi So, Jennifer Meyer, David Yurman, Ippolita and Carlo Antonini.

The designer floor has been pumped up with 10 additional collections not seen in the old store, and is marked by a string of 600-square-foot shops for Akris, Armani Black Label, Michael Kors, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and Marni. The store also sells Balenciaga, Vera Wang, Burberry Prorsum, Nina Ricci and Stella McCartney, among other designers.

Holt created its third World Design Lab, an 800-square-foot space for emerging designers; the other two are in the Toronto and Montreal stores.

Also, the Vancouver store picked up Ronaldus Shamask, Arthur Mendonca, Philosophy, Miu Miu, Twenty 8 Twelve and K Karl Lagerfeld, for upcoming fall delivery. Other features: a full-service salon and spa, bi- and tri-lingual concierges and a rooftop restaurant, opening in November.

"We're very lucky with the space," Lerner said. "We've got three beautiful floor plates that are configured very well."

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