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TORONTO — That old-fashioned retail razzmatazz is back — but you have to go up to Canada to catch it.

For the past two years, the Toronto-based Holt Renfrew has put a spotlight on designers, exclusive European imports, A-list parties and renovations, giving a contemporary spin to an old, established business, founded in Quebec City in 1837 as a hat and fur shop.

This story first appeared in the October 30, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

It has come a long way indeed, with a recent flurry of activity that makes U.S. retailers appear anemic by comparison.

“To be a leading fashion store, you need to have events and happenings. It’s an absolute essential ingredient,” said Andrew R. Jennings, Holt Renfrew’s president and managing director.

So what if there are really no upscale threats in Canada for Holt Renfrew to fret over? “Our competition isn’t Canada. It’s the capitals of the world,” said Jennings. “We want to be a world-class business.”

It’s already part of Wittington Investments, controlled by billionaire Galen Weston, who is also owner and chairman of Holt Renfrew and who seems bent on expansion. Aside from Holt Renfrew, Weston’s high-end retail holdings include Brown Thomas in Ireland, and Selfridge’s in the U.K., just purchased in July. In the past, Holt Renfrew had considered buying Barneys New York.

Given the international reach of Weston’s empire, retail experts have speculated that Holt Renfrew could move into foreign markets. It’s building up recognition and deepening designer offerings that have global appeal. And, there’s no room to grow domestically: The chain, with nine retail units and two clearance units, has tapped all the Canadian markets affluent enough to support a luxury business.

This year, things seemed to gel for Holt Renfrew. A two-year, $33-million renovation of the four-level Bloor Street flagship here was completed in time for the fall “Flick” promotion celebrating the Toronto Film Festival and fashions from movies. Seal, William Macy, Jack Black, Benicio Del Toro, Robbie Robertson, Kim Cattrall and Fran Drescher, along with designers Kate Spade, Roberto Cavalli and John Varvatos, came to the party. In another clever marketing ploy this fall, Cavalli designed a co-branded Holt Renfrew/American Express store card.

In fall 2002, Viva Italia was the big promotion, with Sophia Loren the patron honoree. In the spring, Holt Renfrew takes a cue from Macy’s annual spring flower shows, with its own floral affair. There’s a twist, though. At the last show, “We took nuances of perfume houses and interpreted that into gardens,” Jennings said.

The big question is whether Holt Renfrew can sustain the momentum each season. Even a Bloomingdale’s or a Neiman Marcus runs out of steam from time to time. But Holt Renfrew’s efforts to entertain exceed special events. The retailer in the past three months has imported some quintessential European fare, such as a tartinery modeled after Tartines in Paris, with the Pôilane bread flown in from Paris three times a week. There’s also a Links of London shop selling silver cuff links and neck pieces, as well as Pout, a saucy color cosmetics line from London, which in North America is sold only at Holt Renfrew and Henri Bendel in New York. Diane von Furstenberg cosmetics, added in September, can be bought only at Holt Renfrew in Canada.

“Seventy percent of our cosmetics business is exclusive in Canada,” Jennings said.

In addition, the flagship has a 2,000-square-foot “world design lab’’ that wraps around an escalator and showcases new lines such as Trash Couture, a contemporary line out of Paris, or reinvented lines such as Cacharel, and a new luxury leather hall for such handbags as Tod’s, Burberry and Louis Vuitton. About 18 months ago, luxury watches were added.

Holt Renfrew does have a high percentage of private label, which represents some 25 percent of its apparel volume, but only occupies about 15 percent of the 20,000-square-foot second floor of the Bloor Street flagship. The bulk of the private label business is in cashmeres, sweaters and pants, which get very high turns. “In cashmere, we did $1 million in private label sales in the six weeks before Christmas,” noted Mario Manza, senior national manager of customer service. Private label is in better to bridge price points.

Holt Renfrew does about $250 million [U.S.] in annual sales, but Jennings said it has been tracking 20-percent increases in main floor sales due to the extensive renovations and the uberhoopla. The Bloor Street flagship, with 150,000 square feet of gross space, including 130,000 for selling, accounts for about 30 percent of the chain’s volume. During July and August weekends, 60 to 70 percent of customers shopping the flagship are tourists. As part of a private company, Holt Renfrew does not disclose profits, though Jennings said the store is profitable and has increased its profitability over the past three years.

Branches generally remain true to the high-end, high-energy strategy, with the 65,000-square-foot Montreal unit, on Sherbrooke Street, being the biggest. Its main floor will be renovated in the spring, and over the next four years, the unit is projected as growing to 100,000 square feet.

The company is also considering expanding the 60,000-square-foot Vancouver store in Pacific Centre, and the Yorkdale and Sherway Gardens units in Toronto could be increased by up to 50 percent. The chain also has stores in Place Sainte Foy in Quebec, on Sparks Street in Ottawa, Eaton Centre in Calgary and Manulife Place in Edmonton.

Bloor Street’s main floor renovation, conceived by the Toronto-based burdifilek interior design firm, draws distinct lines between cosmetics, fine jewelry, soft accessories, handbags and men’s wear, giving each area its own character and space, a sort of specialty store within a specialty store experience. The individual brands and the image of Holt Renfrew aren’t at odds. Cosmetics brands have designed their spaces, but in Holt Renfrew’s specified Corian and laminate finishes. The men’s area, too, has a unified, distinctly masculine look in macassar ebony and antique bronze with gold underlay fixturing. It recently added John Varvatos, Zegna and Paul Smith.

“There’s a congruency all the way through these departments. We don’t want to look like a fruit salad,” Jennings explained. “Vendors have an identity within the envelope of Holt Renfrew. This is the new view. Everything we do is neat, sophisticated and with a point of view. We are not a department store.”

Next year, the concourse level for casual men’s wear and home goods will be overhauled.

Selling space has been added by converting 20,000 square feet of office space; the new accessories wing was formerly a drug store that Holt Renfrew took over four years ago, and men’s wear was previously a linen shop. To further boost traffic, men’s sportswear moved down to the concourse level, clothing was moved up to the main floor and a street-level entrance to the men’s wear department was created.

The second floor for designers was completed about a year ago, along with departments for lingerie, hosiery, shoes, eveningwear and coats. There are hard shops for Giorgio Armani, Holt’s biggest single vendor, as well as Dolce & Gabbana, Yves Saint Laurent, and Akris. Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren will be renovated next year.

Changes at Holt Renfrew have accelerated since Jennings was named its president and managing director in January 1999, succeeding Joel Rath, who retired. Jennings, a 30-year veteran of retailing, was managing director of House of Fraser plc in the U.K. where he was instrumental in getting the company listed on the stock market in 1994. Before House of Fraser, he was director and general manager of Harrods.

Under Rath’s leadership, Holt Renfrew upgraded some stores, brought in some top designer brands and opened new stores in Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto, establishing the company as a national chain. However, Jennings — who each year to benefit United Way runs up Toronto’s CN Tower, the tallest structure in the world — has added flair and showmanship to the retail recipe.

“Andrew Jennings has taken some remarkable initiatives,” said Ron Frasch, chairman and chief executive of Bergdorf Goodman. “He’s got the right leadership approach to that business. It’s a real partnering with vendors, with great marketing ideas that have created excitement. The store has a buzz which is hard to get. In a country with 20 million people and in a market that has struggled, Andrew has figured a formula that has worked. He’s gone back to the basics — great product, great environments and terrific marketing. Those are the fundamentals of being a good retailer.”

“Only a handful of stores demonstrate such exuberance,” observed Ken Walker, vice chairman of FutureBrand, the brand consulting and design firm. “There’s Harvey Nichols in London, Breuninger in Stuttgart, Bergdorf Goodman, and then there’s Holt Renfrew, with its accessible elegance. There is a level of exclusivity, yet it’s not intimidating. There is an attitude of being out front with certain brands like Peck, the Dean & Deluca of Milan, and even if it is not totally exclusive, it looks like it is.”

Walker, a former store designer, also credited Holt Renfrew’s visual team with balancing the architecture, merchandise and imagery so that no one aspect dominates. “There’s an attention to detail that makes the whole store come alive.” It was particularly evident at the recent Flick event. “No matter what department you went into, it was celebrating the film festival,” Walker said. Moreover, the trappings appeared permanent. For example, a Ron Galella exhibit was done on walls with large photos of the celebrities he photographed over the years. There was also a collection of celebrity photos by Gary Lee Baas, and some vintage Hollywood gowns courtesy of the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Costume Museum.

“One thing has been clear from the get-go: Holt Renfrew has really packaged themselves as a specialty store versus a department store,” observed Diego Burdi, creative partner of burdifilek.

Before the onset of the renovation, “Holt had a long list of wants and needs, and wanted a unique retail environment. When we heard them say this, and when we looked at the property, we decided that we wanted to give it a sense of authority and focus that said to the consumer, ‘We are in the know.’ But we didn’t want to create a blanket statement.

“In a department store, or fine specialty store, it is important we create a house or umbrella that many brands can live under.”

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