Lauded as one of the world’s most livable cities — with the Pacific Ocean on three sides and a mountain range shadowing it on the fourth — Vancouver’s residents celebrate its natural wonders with an eco-centric spirit all their own.
This story first appeared in the July 10, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“As a major cosmopolitan city on the Pacific Rim, Vancouver is at the center of international trade and tourism with a thriving port, the largest in Canada,” explained Gary Balaski, general manager of Vancouver’s Holt Renfrew, the prime luxury retailer in the region. “The [run-up to the] 2010 Olympics have encouraged unprecedented investment and growth in infrastructure, residential and business development, including the retail sector.”
“We find Vancouver to be a city with a variety of international and local designers available to shoppers,” said Dace Moore, designer for Vancouver-based dace. “The boutiques here are fantastic. The shopping is amazing. This is something we realize more and more coming home [after being] away from the city.”
The past five years brought a convergence of fashion, film, music and art in Vancouver, or “Hollywood North” as it is dubbed, due to the influx of movie projects. That elevated the communal fashion sense from layered fleecewear with anorak raincoats to updated styling, with shoppers now sporting smart denim pants, trendy T-shirts and one-of-a-kind jackets.
The increased style awareness also accompanied the city’s fervor for earthwise concerns and heightened demand for green-designed lines. This eco-desire, as well as the eight area design schools, provided a foundation for a vibrant crop of hometown independent designers.
“Given the geographic location, there are strong connections to Asia, a cultural diversity and beautiful natural surroundings,” explained Debra Walker, executive director of British Columbia Fashion Week, next scheduled Sept. 22-26, and featuring shows by local talent. “Our designers are not afraid to try different things with design and fabric. We are a new city, testing standards as a teenager would, and creating new traditions.”
“Independent, small designers define Vancouver,” asserted Sarah Murray of Fashion High, a not-for-profit network of fashion industry professionals. “There are lots of entrepreneurs. When it comes to sustainability, there is a real dirt-to-shirt movement here.”
The indy spirit also is opening doors for designers. Allison Smith, designer of Allison Wonderland, said, “After the quotas were lifted for offshore manufacturing, local factories lost work or closed down.”
As a result, Vancouver factories chose to produce smaller runs. “When I started my line 10 years ago, it was impossible to find stores willing to carry anything local,” Smith said. “Now ‘local’ or ‘Made in Canada’ is a whole category.”
“Vancouver is transitioning from a needle-trade-based to a design-based fashion industry,” observed Glencora Twigg, an owner of the Twigg and Hottie boutique. Big-volume manufacturing has moved offshore, so smaller factories in the region produce lower volumes for up-and-coming independent designers. “Vancouver’s strength is its youth. There is a huge enthusiasm for our young designers — many working with eco-friendly fabrics and applying larger sustainable practices into their businesses.”
The five-year-old boutique in the Main Street shopping area showcases over 50 Canadian designers, tagging items as “Canadian Made,” “Locally Made,” “Sustainable,” “Recycled” and “One-of-a-Kind.”
“For our Vancouver customers, a local design is enough,” says Wendy de Kruyff, owner of Dream, a 15-year-old boutique in the Gastown neighborhood. “Eco-friendly fabric is a bonus — it’s the tourists who find it more interesting.”
With the greater merchandise assortment, the Vancouver shopping scene has thrived with a mix of formats and decentralized fashion districts. Big-brand stores and boutiques are blended in all kinds of shopping set-ups: urban malls, strip centers, shopping villages and street-front shops.
The independent spirit does not mean the mainstream has taken a backseat to upstarts, however. Anticipating an infusion of tourist dollars before, during and after the 2010 Olympics, Toronto-based Holt Renfrew opened a 137,121-square-foot store on May 31, 2007. Still within the footprint of downtown’s upscale Pacific Centre, the unit doubled the Canadian retailer’s floor space from the its other site in town, adding a salon and spa, with rooftop fine dining coming next year. H&M also came to town, opening two additional Greater Vancouver units last year.
Other Pacific Centre retailers — like Banana Republic, MaxMara, Club Monaco, Hugo Boss and Esprit — also are bullish on the downtown mall. This spring the first western Canadian Teenflo store opened.
The walkable downtown core has attracted other high-end design outlets like A|X Armani Exchange, BCBG Max Azria, Club Monaco and Mexx, next to homegrown Canadian retailers Roots, MAC, Lush, Aritzia, Boys Co. and Lululemon on fashionable Robson Street.