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October 17, 2017
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Over the past decade, Toronto has seen a number of shop collectives pop up between the fast-fashion chains, department stores and designer boutiques that once solely characterized the city's shopping landscape. While the factors behind their emergence might seem obvious (it's just too expensive and too risky to go it alone in this economy), the real reasons for their success - economics included - are more complex. 

Laura-Jean Bernhardson is the owner and founder of Fresh Collective, which recently expanded to Roncesvalles, branching out from its firmly planted Kensington Market and Queen Street West roots. She started the collective back in the early 2000s, a process that grew "organically" from a boutique showcasing her own line of knitwear called Fresh Baked Goods.

Shopgirls Gallery Boutique

She describes the evolution: "I had a store that I started in 1999 with a partner. We found after a certain period that we were both asking, 'How do we give it more energy?' So we came up with the idea of finding one or two designers to essentially act like roommates. We had someone come in on Tuesdays and handed over the keys and said, 'Have a great day!' and that freed us up to do other things, including making more of our product. Word spread amongst the design community and people started approaching us asking if they could be a part of it. Over time we grew to have seven members and I realized: this is a concept, we're a collective."

This concept - in which designers each work one day a week at the store and contribute to overhead costs - not only helped her pay the rent, it attracted more customers. A friend of a particular dress designer, for example, might pop in and become enamoured by the work of the other artists that share the space. Perhaps one of the most important perks is that it also fostered a community of support. "For a lot of people, it's their first attempt at having their own business," Berhardson says, "so they're facing a lot of loneliness as they're seeing all their friends advance in more stable careers. To be around a group of other entrepreneurs also living their lifestyle, it helps to make sense of it for them."

This group dynamic is something that Bernhardson works hard at nurturing and for this reason she is very picky about the designers she chooses to take on. She stays in touch in the broader design scene, attending craft and independent fashion shows to suss out the up-and-comers that might flourish in the collective environment. It was at the One of a Kind Show where she met and recruited one such individual, Sherri Cameron, designer of the children's wear line, Cute Stuff. Cameron had previously heard about Fresh Collective but was intimidated to apply, worried that since it already hosted two other children's designers that the environment would be competitive and cut throat.

"But it's a really supportive environment," she says, admitting that her preconceptions were completely off. "Everyone wants you to do well. And there's a real mix: young designers and moms in their forties; really successful lines plus people who are just starting out. You always have someone to answer your questions and encourage you."

Cameron herself is one of the moms in the mix, and finds the Fresh Collective model accommodates her various roles and responsibilities. She has more time to take care of her family and to pursue other professional opportunities. "I also do freelance work," she says. "Occasionally I'll get a six-month contract and go work full-time for another company, and they [Fresh Collective] have been very supportive of that."

In an industry dominated by women of childbearing age, in a city where registered daycare costs an average of approximately $1250 a month*, the collective model, with its greater flexibility, is not only favourable, it seems totally necessary. 

Word spread amongst the design community ... Over time we grew to have seven members and I realized: this is a concept; we're a collective. 

Michelle Germain, owner of Shopgirls Gallery Boutique in Parkdale, opened her collective in late 2007 after having her first child. "I was working for HBC for four years and then at Holt Renfrew as the advertising manager there. Then I had a baby." Although she says running her own business is its own can of worms, it allows her to spend more time with her kids than she would if she had stayed in the corporate world. 

Unlike Bernhardson, Germain is not a designer herself. But opening a shop collective appealed not only to her change in lifestyle but also to her background in the fashion industry: "I was exposed to a lot of creative folks. I would admire something that they were wearing and think 'Why can't I find that anywhere?' I already had a roster of names of people I wanted to work with." 

She modelled the initial concept off Fresh Collective, having the designers themselves work in the shop to promote their wares. But eventually her marketing instincts kicked in and she decided the store needed a more professional sales staff. "Our goods are higher priced, because a lot of them are made in Canada, so it's helpful to have people with a strong sales background," she says - people who can explain the quality of the products to their customers. 

Today Shopgirls carries the work of 50 designers on consignment - everything from clothing and jewellery to home decor, stationary and gift items. Germain continues to manage all the marketing and public relations, putting her 15 years of industry experience to good use. Her past life on the corporate side has also keyed her in to why emerging designers are drawn to this new model as opposed to pursuing more traditional routes: 

"Fashion Week is good if you're at a certain level in your career, and you want to go beyond Canada, you get great media exposure. But if you're just starting ... I don't know any designers that have that kind of money, unless they have rich parents or some other funding! The majority don't." 

The shop collective model allows new designers to test out their product before enduring the expense of producing a full collection. "It's one thing to be creative and have beautiful designs, but you have to know your market and demographic," Germain cautions. "That gives you something to start with, so you're not just guessing." 

Laura-Jean Bernhardson is of a similar mind. She describes how working at Fresh Collective gives designers a better understanding of what their customers want. "On Saturday I had seven customers try on dresses that they told me they need to be able to ride a bike in. That's the kind of understanding of your market that you just don't get if you don't meet them and see them interacting with your products." 

To this end, she also offers exclusive workshops, which she has dubbed 'Fresh Collective University,' covering topics like brand development, sales techniques and building a client base. Like Germain, she knows that being informed is crucial to breaking into an industry in which it's becoming increasingly harder to be successful. 

Whether the shop collective model will continue to play a role in developing new talent in Toronto's design community in the long term is yet to be seen, but for the past decade it has helped open doors for many talented designers who otherwise, in the face of inaccessible alternatives, may have given up before they even got started. As Bernhardson says, "our model really helps make the impossible possible for a lot of people.


Photographs courtesy of Shopgirls Gallery Boutique.

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