Holt Renfrew's Bloor Street store
Armed with a fresh vision and strategy, the 180-year-old Canadian department store is making a statement.
It’s a week before Christmas, and Holt Renfrew’s flagship on Bloor Street in Toronto is a buzzing hive of well-heeled holiday shoppers seeking out last-minute gifts and gowns amid the glorious chaos. Next door, 11 floors above, I’m sitting in a quiet, stately office with Holts’ president, Mario Grauso, and fashion director, Ketevan Gvaramadze. Both are new to the company—barely four months into their roles—but they are already reminiscing about the latest Fashion Month, spring/summer 2017. The industry’s biannual pilgrimage, running from New York to London to Milan to Paris, affects every business decision Grauso will make for the next six months. “For me, that’s where it all starts,” he says. “It’s where all the ideas come together.” This explains why, just a few days after starting at Holts, Grauso headed off to the shows—a glam but exhausting circuit of back-to-back presentations, re-sees (an opportunity for editors and buyers to have a closer look at the collections) and market appointments. It’s a full-on schedule that leaves you physically drained but creatively supercharged.
Unsurprisingly, one of the hottest shows on the fashion calendar made a major impact on Gvaramadze. “Oh, my God, Balenciaga...” she says when I ask what her favourite show was. “It was everything for me. It made my Fashion Week.” Grauso shakes his head. “But the girls couldn’t walk in the shoes!” (He has a point. Spandex-encased stilettos are tricky.) “Yes, but you have to dream!” she counters. “It’s important to look at things that inspire you.” Creative clashes are part of the process, it seems. Grauso admits it’s a bit “like a negotiation with your family about how you’re going to decorate the house.” After the pair returned home, many hours were spent debating fashion fantasy versus reality, for both the shop floor and their revamped spring magazine, a 195-page lookbook that serves as a snapshot of the season. And, being the first magazine under Grauso’s leadership, it will also act as his unofficial debut – Canada’s first glimpse of the new Holt Renfrew.
When Grauso was announced as incoming president last July, insiders weren’t exactly surprised. He is the former president of Joe Fresh—which, like Holt Renfrew, is owned by the titans of retail, the Weston family—and, with over 20 years of experience as a fashion exec at the Vera Wang Group and Puig, he is well known in the industry.
New appointments aside, big change was bound to happen one way or another at Canada’s oldest high-end department store. With Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom venturing north of the border and Simons expanding beyond Quebec, the luxury landscape in this country got a lot more crowded in 2016. It’s a new reality that Holts had been bracing for since 2015, when it began shuttering its smaller outposts—a strategy implemented so it could focus on multi-million-dollar expansions at its major stores in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto’s Yorkdale and Bloor Street locations as well as a massive merger with Ogilvy in Montreal and a swanky new opening at Square One in Mississauga. That one is an extravagant behemoth: 12,077 square metres with towering ceilings and marble floors, a personal shopping “apartment,” a master tailor and a leather artisan who will add custom embossing to your handbag. Grauso also promises that Holts will offer more concept shops showcasing the world of the designer: Look for Brioni and Loro Piana this year.
These changes allow Holts to offer a deeper assortment of products from a wider range of brands, but, much like other big retailers, it still has challenges to face. “Canada doesn’t have the large base of high-end shoppers that the United States does,” says Maureen Atkinson, senior partner at Toronto retail consulting firm J.C. Williams Group, who adds that in a market of limited growth size, the more you cut the pie the smaller the slices. “If all these companies are targeting the same established luxury customer, there certainly isn’t enough business for them all.” In other words, it’s not a bad idea to find another pie, a.k.a. a new customer.
This is partly why Grauso immediately thought of Gvaramadze when he found out he would be joining Holt Renfrew. The Georgian-born stylist, with her platinum pixie cut and penchant for wearing Gosha Rubchinskiy tees with oversized Céline trousers, is an unusually edgy choice for Holts. And that’s the point. “Ketevan is always pushing fashion,” says Grauso. “She has this eye and an ability to mix streetwear with more obvious designers in an interesting way.” In case you missed that, he said “streetwear”—which implies youth. It’s an idea that comes up again and again in our conversation. It’s also a deliberate shift away from the retailer’s more traditional persona. “We’re definitely considerate of Millennials,” says Grauso. “They love luxury, and I want them to see Holts as a place to look at fashion and get inspired – whether they’re able to buy it yet or not. How young people are shopping now is a new chapter that we, as a department store, have to consider.”
Speaking of how Millennials shop, Holts knows that it has to up its e-commerce game, stat. The 180-year-old retailer launched beauty online in 2015 and accessories in 2016, and the aim is to roll out select ready-to-wear categories later this year. “We got into it a little late, so we’re trying to play catch-up,” admits Grauso. “But it’s not just about rushing and getting things up; I want it to look a certain way. It has to be true to the new message of Holts.”
That’s one reason its magazine (and its toned-down aesthetic) is so important. “It’s more than just a catalogue,” says Grauso. “It informs everything else: the windows, the website, the ad campaigns.” Gvaramadze, who also handles the look and feel of their Instagram account, gives a definitive nod. “It’s our point of view,” she says. “It’s who we are.”
And who is that exactly? “Holt Renfrew has always brought the newest and best fashion to Canada; those are our roots,” says Grauso when asked about his vision. “We’re just going to be tougher [with the DNA]—editing the roster and bringing on new designers who are having a moment.” This will include investing in more boundary-pushing brands (Comme des Garçons, Sacai) and creating a dedicated space for them in all Holt Renfrew locations. “Young people are really thinking outside the box, so [creatively] advanced designers are going to be key,” says Grauso. “These are brands that touch both mother and daughter. When a collection can do that, it becomes really important to us. There’s something for everyone, but it’s an edited something for everyone.”
Hana Tajima for UNIQLO spring 2017 Image by: UNIQLO
Designed in collaboration with Hana Tajima, UNIQLO’s inclusive offering launches on February 24.
Hana Tajima, a multi-disciplinary artist and designer, has been producing a line of modest wear with UNIQLO since 2015. This season, the collection arrives at UNIQLO stores in Canada for the first time. The line includes drapey tunics with ties to change the fit, crisp collarless linen blouses and softly pleated trousers in a pleasing palette of navy, white, rust and olive green along with a range of hijabs and abayas. It’s all part of the Japanese basics purveyor’s “Life Wear” concept, which promises clothing for all. Indeed, the lavender duster coat and striped cropped trousers could seamlessly blend into anyone’s wardrobe—something Tajima says is intentional. Here’s how New York-based, London-raised Tajima is pushing back against homogeny in fashion through her empowering designs.
What’s your design process like?
"I design by draping on a form, a lot of the time I don’t know what the collection is going to be before I start. The draping process helps define it. A lot of asymmetry was coming out in my work, which accentuates the feeling of movement in these pieces."
How has the line evolved since it began?
"We started off just in South East Asia, and for those countries it was a about bringing a different aesthetic to mainstream fashion. Because we were dealing with a hotter climate we were using really lightweight fabrics. The more we introduced the collection to other places around the world, the more we had to differentiate between seasons. The essence of it stayed the same, but the colours and fabrics have been adapted. The colours that sell the best in South East Asia very vibrant pinks and yellows, but here of course it’s black, navy and white. It’s really interesting to see those dynamics."
What is it like to work with UNIQLO? Are you flying to Tokyo a lot?
"Oh, there’s a lot of travel to Tokyo, which on a personal level is really fantastic. They’re so dedicated to the perfection of an item and my approach has always been to refine and redefine what a shirt means, or what an individual item means."
How does it feel to see a global brand take on this line?
"It’s really fantastic. I think it’s not just for Muslim women but for any sort of minority. Having a voice on a global platform is really inspiring and empowering. It’s indicative of a push back against a homogenous identity and what it means to be a woman."
Was there a need that you heard women express that wasn’t being met before this collection?
"There’s definitely a correlation between the androgynous look and modest wear. And I think that where they intersect is this idea of redefining femininity. There are demands from both sides. From women who want to wear modest clothing for either religious or cultural reasons to women who want to redefine what it means to be feminine. For me, the process ends but the design gets transferred to the person wearing it. I want to provide details and different ways to wear a piece to allow people to interpret these designs in their own way."
Hana Tajima for UNIQLO
When you’re talking to someone who is perhaps not the core customer for this line, are there misconceptions about modest wear?
"The term modest wear as a concept is tied to a certain cultural background. But it’s opening up. The name itself is sort of awkward and there’s still judgement about the person wearing it. But I think that the more we open that term up to mean something more inclusive, the better it’s going to be. And weirdly, fashion is considered something less weighty..."
"Exactly. But it allows people to connect because it gives us something to relate to. It lets people drop their guard and really connect with each other on a human level."
Hana Tajima for UNIQLO
From left: Alexander Wang, Christopher Kane and Lacoste Image by: Imaxtree
The basic knit is reinvented and a new trend is born.
When was the last time you thought purposefully of a cardigan? The button-up knit with preppy roots emerged as a hero piece on the runways of New York and the message continued in London. Like denim and the white button-down before it, the cardigan was taken apart and reinvented by the likes of Christopher Kane, who presented holographic, slightly oversized versions. In New York, Alexander Wang sent model Stella Lucia down his party-ready runway in a loose, borrowed-from-dad knit that read as anything but precious. Lacoste, Ulla Johnson and Dion Lee took a fuzzier approach, while Tory Burch and Victoria Beckham represented the more sophisticated end of the spectrum.
The takeaway? Whether undone, artsy or preppy, the cardigan is infinitely versatile and, for the first time in many seasons, covetable.
Christopher Kane Image by: Imaxtree
Tory Burch Image by: Imaxtree
Victoria Beckham Image by: Imaxtree
Lady Gaga performs at Super Bowl 51 in 2017. Image by: Getty
Lady Gaga's makeup was inspired by... Lady Gaga.
About 111 million people watched the Super Bowl this year in America. I'm not American, and I don't like football, but I did tune in for the halftime performance by Lady Gaga, and can safely presume I was not the only one to do so. The makeup artist responsible for crafting the singer's look – which, in addition to being watched in HD by millions, needed to hold up through an aerial show – was Marc Jacobs Beauty ambassador Sarah Tanno. In an exclusive Canadian interview, she tells us about the process for deciding on the makeup direction, what it was like backstage and the exact products she used beneath that crystal mask.
We wanted everything to feel of the moment yet timeless — we have been dreaming of this moment for years. My inspiration for Gaga’s makeup look was…Gaga. I looked at every era from her career and created something that felt iconic to Gaga and just elevated it into something new. I wanted her to be able to look back at this 10 years from now and have it feel timeless. Also, after seeing the custom embellished Atelier Versace looks, I focused on a colour palette that would complement the iridescent and pearly pieces.
We're usually on the same page. It was a casual conversation that started with agreeing we wanted a red lip. Next I just started trying things on her in rehearsals to see how it looked on stage and with her choreography. Sometimes the way she moves can inspire me to go in a different direction.
It was during a rehearsal that I first shared my vision with Gaga. I started doing her makeup as I usually do, and I wanted to do the Super Bowl look I had in my mind, but I didn’t tell her. But as soon as I started, she totally knew! So we discussed and tweaked the look from there.
For the Swarovski crystal design adorning Gaga’s eyes, I worked with a friend at Face Lace in London. We collaborate often. It was a really wild process to determine the shape, where to place it and most importantly what tape to adhere it with that wouldn’t ruin the integrity of the makeup underneath. It was made with a decal made out of crystals that Gaga was able to peel off quickly and gracefully go on with the show.
For the eyes, I applied a shimmery pewter cream shadow using the Marc Jacobs Beauty Twinkle Pop Stick Eyeshadow as a base, then blended a vibrant lavender liner from the Highliner Eyeliner collection (in Violet Femme 82) and a range of purple shades from the Style Eye Con No 7 Plush Eyeshadow Palette to make her lids really stand out. I also layered two black eyeliners (Marc Jacobs Beauty Magic Marc’er Precision Pen Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner and the Highliner Gel Eye Crayon in Blacquer) to ensure the winged liner was bold and budge-proof. I also used two mascaras, Velvet Noir Mascara, and Feather Noir Mascara, to create insane amounts of volume and drama. And voila! The eyes aren’t going anywhere, even after ripping a rhinestone mask off mid-performance.
Gaga and I figured out how to do quick change make-up a while ago. We love a challenge. There’s nothing like a quick switch in the middle of the world’s biggest stage!
It’s a different process from red carpet and television. It takes several calculated steps to create a look for stage that’s seamless and weightless — plus budge-and-sweat-proof. Gaga and I joked as I was doing her make-up that it’s a “million layers!”
It was very zen for the most part. Gaga had her best friends there as we got glammed and we just hung out and watched the game!