How one Canadian retailer is breaking the mould.
At a time when Canadian luxury players are facing unprecedented competition in an increasingly dog-eat-dog market, one retailer has managed to avoid the conversation altogether. For Montreal-based Ssense – which launched in 2003 as a fashion boutique in the Old Port and is now a global e-commerce force—it’s business as usual. But then again, Ssense has always operated outside the comfy confines of the traditional fashion sphere. How? With unconventional buys, strong connections to art, music and creativity and a sophisticated blurring of streetwear and high fashion long before Yeezy and Vetements made it de rigueur. Ssense’s success has been built on doing things entirely its own way.
The company started out as a physical storefront 14 years ago, and COO Bassel Atallah, who founded it with his two brothers, Rami and Firas, says they had their eyes on the digital prize from day one. “It was the early days of the Web, and Rami saw a big opportunity in luxury e-commerce,” says Atallah. “Back then, brands were very reluctant to sell online, so we opened the store to make them feel a little more comfortable with the concept. Then, in 2006, we launched the website. We’d all finished our studies by then and had more time on our hands.”
That’s right – finished their studies. CFO Firas, the eldest, was just 25 years old at the time, CEO Rami, 24, and Bassel, 21. In other words: They’re Millennials—a fact that, combined with their blatant fashion-outsider status (their backgrounds are in banking, computer engineering and mechanical engineering), might explain their unorthodox approach. “We cater to a Millennial audience because we are in that age group ourselves,” says Atallah. According to Ssense, almost 80 percent of its customers are between 18 and 34—an astonishing stat for a luxury retailer, given that, among high-end brands, luring Millennials has become the golden ticket no one knows how to cash. It’s a huge win that Atallah attributes to an internal culture of innovation and outside-the-box thinking. “If you come to our offices, you’ll see that the average age of our employees is in that bracket as well,” he says. “Millennials are hyper-connected; they live in the present, and they tend to make the trends instead of follow them—there’s a real energy to that.” Let’s state the obvious: Building a luxury business around selling $1,500 hoodies and $2,000 sneakers to 22-year-olds is risky, to say the least. But given that Ssense now employs over 300 full-time staffers, receives 32 million page views a month and has had 82 percent compound annual sales growth since its first year, it looks like it’s working.
Atallah insists they didn’t initially set out to challenge the status quo or upend the system. “We were young and didn’t have a lot of experience, so we naturally took a more analytical, engineering approach,” he says. “It was a lot of trial and error, more by need than by intention.”
This year will see Ssense continue to swim against the retail current. The company is in the process of constructing a five-storey David Chipperfield-designed flagship store in Montreal. Set to open later this year, it will be not only eight times larger than its original shop but also, according to Atallah, fully “digitally integrated.” When pushed for more information, he says that with the rise of digital, “the concept of physical retail is undergoing its biggest transformation in history.” He also adds that whenever the concept of merging online and offline is introduced, “people tend to expect a ‘store of the future.’ We are rethinking the role of the physical space as a means to crystallize our brand vision in a tangible way.”
The decision to invest in bricks and mortar in an increasingly digital culture may seem, again, counterintuitive, but that’s what we’ve come to expect from Ssense. “Almost 90 percent of sales in the luxury industry still happen off-line,” says Atallah, “so there is definitely a huge opportunity there, not only financially but also in terms of making another connection with our customer.” And as a self-admitted “Canadian retailer with a global mindset,” taking that IRL connection beyond Montreal via physical flagships in other cities will be the next step in Ssense’s boundary-busting vision. “We want to continue to build Ssense into the best company it can possibly be—to achieve its full potential,” he says. “We’re growing at a fast pace, and there’s a lot going on, but there’s plenty to be excited about in 2017.”
Not a lipgloss, not quite a balm.
Fogo Island Inn is located on a remote island off the northern coast of Newfoundland – two flights from Toronto, an hour-long ferry ride and a two-hour car ride kind of remote. The property is unabashedly luxurious and architecturally mind-blowing (propped up on stilts, it looms over the Atlantic), and its owners are firmly committed to social and environmental responsibility, an ethos also embraced by Burt’s Bees.
That’s why the natural beauty brand chose this locale to present its newest innovations and how I found myself in the inn’s movie theatre wearing an apron and whisking together a nourishing formula of oils, iron oxide and beeswax. “The skin on your lips is very thin compared to anywhere else on your body,” says Abina Antwi, senior innovation scientist for Burt’s Bees, as she encourages me to keep stirring. These ingredients make up the new Tinted Lip Oil, which was designed especially for dry lips. Each of the six shades provides a sheer wash of colour – from peachy nude to rosebud pink – and hydrates lips for eight full hours. The longevity is thanks to the beeswax, which thickens the formula to help keep the moisturizing oils contained on the lips.
Fogo Island Inn
All of the brand’s beeswax is sustainably sourced; half is from Uyowa, Tanzania, where hives are kept 40 kilometres outside the city in the Moyowosi-Kigosi Game Reserve to protect them from pollutants. “When you look at our skincare philosophy, we don’t put silicones in the products and then drop in a bit of sunflower oil and just call it [natural],” says Antwi. To wit, the lip oils are free of parabens, phthalates and petrochemicals. Naturally.
Burt's Bees Tinted Lip Oil ($12), at burtsbees.com.
Gather your friends, put on your favourite dress and join us for an exclusive evening for the official launch of the new feminine fragrance by Guerlain. Be the first to experience the fragrance inspired by Angelina Jolie. Indulge in hors d’oeuvres and cocktails as you wander the exquisite Guerlain boutique and receive an exclusive appreciation gift with your purchase. PLUS, all guests will receive an exclusive parting favour.
110 Bloor St. W, Toronto.
Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Tickets: $25* (for two guests)
Space is limited
Click here to RSVP and confirm your donation of $25*.
*Partial proceeds will be donated to the UN Refugee Agency
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!