Like any retailer with longevity, Holt Renfrew has had its share of twists and turns, ups and downs, ownership changes, image transformations, product and store expansions, and early in its 175-year history, a revolving door of partners.
But a string of ambitious and visionary businessmen — among them W. Galen Weston, Alvin J. Walker, Len Shavick and the enterprising young Irish merchant William Samuel Henderson who founded the store in 1837 — kept Holt Renfrew a step ahead of the competition through most of its history.
The story begins in spring 1834, when Henderson arrived at Quebec City with a shipment of caps and hats that sold out quickly, encouraging him to cross the ocean again and again to replenish until he decided to set up permanent shop in 1837, the year Queen Victoria took the throne in England.
“It’s remarkable how long this company has survived. The company always met the needs of its customers. It was responsive and very customer-focused,” observed Derrick Clements, the archivist for the Weston family, which owns the Selfridges Group Ltd., comprising Holt Renfrew, Selfridges in London, De Bijenkorf in the Netherlands and Brown Thomas in Ireland, and is said to control about 200 companies including Canada’s largest food retailer, Loblaw’s, and fashion brand Joe Fresh.
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On the 11th floor of the Weston Centre in Toronto, in a prosaic storage area housing the Weston archives, Clements has arranged a colorful array of articles from Holt’s storied past: a turn-of-the-century top hat that a customer presented to Weston in the Sixties; a flag marking Queen Victoria’s Jubilee; Diet Coke bottles commemorating Holt Renfrew’s 175th birthday this year; decades-old photos of a dog sled team that appeared at the front of the store for a promotion in 1926 and one with Sophia Loren getting a private viewing of Holt’s best furs, as well as medallions commemorating Holt Renfrew as the official furrier of England’s royal family.
There are documents, memorabilia, newspaper and magazine clips from the past. Yet for the soft-spoken Clements, who has a master’s degree in information from the University of Toronto, there’s just not enough.
“I wish there was more. Very few companies keep proper records. Maybe banks do. They are more inclined to keep meticulous records considering their whole business is based on records.” But generally, it’s merely “a hodgepodge” of the corporate history that survives, he said.
In the summer of 2000, Clements was hired by the Westons to better organize and maintain the corporate records and keep the history of the Weston holdings alive.
“We try to collect ephemera and the memorabilia associated with events and anything especially of a graphical nature that’s of importance,” he said. “There is more of an effort now.”
After a few minutes chatting with Clements, the story of Holt Renfrew and why it’s lasted so long in an industry so beset by consolidation, unfolds. Of course, it helped that the store never went bankrupt and stood out across a vast Canadian landscape with a small field of retail competition. However, Clements emphasizes Holt’s leadership and the personalities behind the business as being integral to its longevity and prosperity.
Interestingly, they’re not necessarily “master merchants” or retail showmen, the kind of leaders typically associated with great fashion retailers in America, in the tradition of such late and great merchants as Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus or Marvin Traub of Bloomingdale’s. Instead, Holt’s executive tree sprouted leaders with savvy business sense and a vision for keeping one or two steps in front of its competitors.
The name Holt Renfrew comes from G.R. Renfrew and John H. Holt, two businessmen who rose up through the ranks to run the company, when it was built upon an owner-management model. Hard-working employees over time could earn partnerships, and because the company was small, there was greater opportunity for individuals to rise in standing. As partners came and went, the name changed every few years or decades.
In the early days, Holt Renfrew was really a furrier, with the company’s first fur catalogue dating back to 1851, which Clements believes has disappeared. He noted the catalogue of 1891 is the earliest that still exists. “It’s pretty graphically simple, though the cover is somewhat lavish for 1890, with colored graphics. It was intended for mail-order purposes. It was not very big, five inches across, six or seven inches tall, and maybe a dozen pages. It’s a fur catalogue. Catalogues were probably all the rage back then.”
In the Twenties, the company shifted to a broader apparel assortment and at one time had a glove company. Other accessories were certainly sold, and there are old photographs depicting Holt Renfrew in Montreal selling golf apparel in the late Twenties or early Thirties.
George Richard Renfrew was born in Quebec in 1831, the son of a grocer. Though little is known about his early life or education, around 1854 Renfrew, along with another young businessman, V.H. Marcou, were sent to Quebec City to manage the business. John Henderson of Montreal, who had taken over the company from his brother, Holt founder William S. Henderson, wanted them there.
According to Clements, things must have gone well for Renfrew and the business, because in 1862, the company became Henderson, Renfrew & Co. After Henderson’s retirement, the name changed again, as did the partners, this time to Renfrew & Marcou. Eventually, Marcou retired as well, and the business became G.R. Renfrew & Co. Under Renfrew, the firm prospered and expanded with a store in Toronto.
According to some historical reports, Renfrew created a merchandise display at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 in England, where Queen Victoria bought a fur muff, among other items, and was so impressed that she presented Renfrew with a Royal Warrant as “Furriers in Ordinary to Her Majesty.”
Renfrew, who apparently also had business interests in textile manufacturing and utilities, died in 1897.
John Henderson Holt was born in Quebec in 1850. A cousin of George Richard Renfrew, he started at the bottom of the business and worked his way up. The archives indicate that Holt joined Henderson, Renfrew & Co. in 1857 as a clerk, and bought a partnership in 1860. In 1867, Holt bought out Henderson’s remaining interest. He became president in 1900 and the company was renamed Holt Renfrew & Co. Ltd. in 1908.
According to records, in 1909, Holt Renfrew became a joint stock company with the stock closely held by company executives. After earlier expansions by other leaders, Holt grew the company by adding stores in Montreal and Winnipeg. He became a widely respected businessman and philanthropist, and actively managed the company until 1919, a few years before his death.
Renfrew was succeeded by Lorne Webster, who was born in Quebec City in 1871 and was a well-known businessman and politician. Webster explored the possibility of selling the company but sought the advice of a young New York furrier with a strong retail reputation, Alvin J. Walker. Walker’s report, according to historical records, impressed Webster to such a degree that he hired Walker as a vice president, and soon Walker became pivotal in elevating Holt Renfrew’s fashion appeal.
When Webster died in 1941, Walker became president and stepped up the expansion by opening branches in Ottawa, Hamilton, Edmonton, London and Calgary in the Forties and early Fifties. Several shops in some of Canada’s grande dame hotels were created but have since been closed. In those same postwar years, Walker headed the company’s couture buying team on regular trips to leading fashion houses in Paris, New York, London, Rome, Brussels, Madrid, Florence and Milan.
“In the post-World War II years, Holt Renfrew moved into couture,” Clements said. “The store became an early Canadian adopter of Christian Dior. It was a very important step in that postwar period. Other Canadian retailers were trying to do much the same, trying to get a bit of that couture. Holt was under Alvin J. Walker then, and he was successful in bringing Dior to Canada. A number of years later, in 1951, the contract became exclusive.”
In the book “Couture and Commerce” by Alexandra Palmer, there’s a quote from Christian Dior about Walker: “He had no previous experience in the fashion world, but I liked him and felt complete confidence in him from the start. His role was to provide my castles in the air with a solid foundation.”
Business improved and Walker had another brainstorm — move the Montreal store on St. Catherine Street to Sherbrooke Street, a sophisticated location close to the Ritz-Carlton hotel. In 1937, to mark the 100th anniversary of the business, the move was made. Holt Renfrew in Montreal relocated to a stone building with a streamlined Art Deco modern design. It was indeed a bold move to make during the Depression, which underscores Walker’s intuitive sense for the business. Walker himself was not flamboyant or boisterous, which Canadians wouldn’t be comfortable. Yet as Clements suggested, “He seemed to have a sense that the company had to differentiate from other retailers.”
Walker’s son-in-law, Len Shavick, eventually took over the business. “He was another solid businessman who had a good sense of how the fashion industry was evolving,” Clements said. “He was also not flamboyant, but he seems to have been a careful caretaker of the business and moved the company forward in terms of the fashion it offered. He was a good steward of the company.”
Shavick also oversaw the establishment of the Toronto flagship at 50 Bloor Street West, which opened with 100,000 square feet and quickly became a retail landmark.
Holt Renfrew entered a less illustrious period in the Sixties and Seventies, when it was owned by CIT Financial Corp. and subsequently, Carter Hawley Hale, a former retail conglomerate that was based in Los Angeles. However, in 1986 the Weston family purchased the business from CHH, and the renaissance began. Weston invested heavily to restore Holt’s position as Canada’s leading luxury emporium and to fuel growth in a country with a small population of around 26 million at the time, yet where the largest cities, principally Toronto, were getting increasingly cosmopolitan and international in flavor. (Canada’s population is currently about 34 million.)
The Weston family has taken a long-term view of the business, investing for the future and not for immediate returns by spurring renovations and expansions and introducing fashion boutiques. At one time, the well-known store designer Naomi Leff was brought in to design new interiors and boutiques, including spaces for Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani. An upscale Holt Renfrew magazine called Point of View was launched in 1987, renamed Holts in 2000, and eventually split into separate men’s and women’s editions.
In 2005, the chain launched another rebranding exercise and a new logo in a strategy led by Alannah Weston, the daughter of Galen Weston. Other changes included the return of children’s wear to the store, taking ownership of the shoe business, which had been leased, and the construction of new and larger stores in Vancouver and Calgary.
Over the last two decades, presidents have come and gone more rapidly than in the past, including Michael Brickell, Joel Rath, Andrew Jennings and Caryn Lerner, reflecting the more turbulent character of the retail industry in the modern era. They all contributed to expansions, renovations and image and service upgrades.
Mark Derbyshire has been running Holt Renfrew as president since January 2010 and was previously Weston’s chief talent officer. Derbyshire, working with the Westons and the board, first drew up a five-year plan. He spent his first couple of years returning the company to the fundamentals, with a renewed focus on the customer, motivating sales associates to know more about their clients and the products in the store, and strengthening partnerships with vendors. With a new foundation for the business in place, the stage has been set for moving the company forward with its most aggressive agenda of square footage expansion, as well as innovative retail concepts to raise the profile and better satisfy vendors and shoppers.
Behind the scenes, it’s still the Westons setting the direction.
“They are experienced retailers,” Clements said. “When they took over in 1986, they quickly moved the company forward, changing the retail environment, beginning a process of rejuvenation and major renovations. They had a keen sense that the retail business had changed and Holt had to move forward to still be a fashion leader. Mrs. Hilary Weston [W. Galen’s wife] was deeply involved in the direction of the company in terms of design and fashion. The Westons were very much interested and have been involved in terms of bringing in new designers and international names.”