Toronto’s best new retailer is gravitypope, and it hails not from New York but Edmonton
The emphasis on style over label gives the shopper the rare opportunity not only for self-expression but discovery.
Long neglected by fashion’s global A-list, Toronto is suddenly the sweetheart of savvy New York and London retailers. In the past few months, Ann Taylor, Express, Intermix, James Perse and Free People have joined JCrew and Topshop and set up shop here in our relatively prosperous and bustling metropolis. And of course the really big guns — Target and Nordstrom — aren’t far behind.
These retailers come with fat marketing budgets and international brand recognition that must strike a chill in the upstairs offices at Holt’s and HBC. Arguably, with the arrival of these slick new chains, comes the pall of sameness, as one urban centre’s high-street offerings become almost indistinguishable from any other’s.
Which is why it comes as such a welcome surprise to discover that of all these new entries, the very best to arrive on the local scene comes from (drum roll, please) Edmonton.
Snobs we Torontonians may be about our stylishness versus the West, but ever since Louise Dirks opened the first gravitypope in Edmonton 22 years ago, followed by stores in Vancouver and Calgary, Torontonians in the know make it a point to make a shopping pilgrimage when visiting those Western cities.
The already bustling Queen and Ossington location of gravitypope is opulently outfitted by Dirks’s fave designer Peter Turner, with tattered-chic Louis XVI furnishings as well as a knockout 1930s brass and glass staircase reclaimed from a landmark Buenos Aires theatre — and the cognoscenti have been delighted to discover that not only has Dirks imported her brilliantly curated collection of footwear but has applied the same critical eye to a collection of apparel and accessories for both men and women.
What distinguishes gravitypope is that although it carries shoes from the likes of Alexander McQueen and Commes des Garçons, and clothing by Hussein Chalayan and Rick Owens, most of the pieces on offer have more bang for the buck when it comes to style than mere label appeal. This emphasis on style above the more fleeting appeal of fashion labels or trends gives the shopper the rare opportunity not only for self-expression but for discovery. On a recent visit, I came away with a pair of killer heels from T&F Slack, a well-priced London-based brand I hadn’t yet come across and hope to see more of.
Which is not to say that gravitypope doesn’t deliver the big-name goods. On the floor, right next to pretty things from new emerging labels, are shoes from Chie Mahara, Veronique Branquinho and Opening Ceremony, bags from Want and jackets from Gary Graham and Paul Smith. But the point is that it takes some confidence and style savvy (not to mention a sense of humour) to opt for a pair of pants from a lesser-known line called Pants and a skirt with a Skirt label.
It is tempting to see the shop’s innovative curatorial spirit as a Western approach, but Dirks is having none of it. “I’m not sure it is something of the West that gravitypope brings, however the gravitypope mentality is unique and fresh,” says Dirks, who makes it a rule to hire creative types on the floor and involve them in buying and merchandising.
“We are a very lateral thinking company,” says Dirks. “I launched my business with the belief that creativity enlightens life.”
Searching for style enlightenment, I found myself in the good company of some very pretty people whiling away an afternoon at the Toronto gravitypope the other day. One well-attired gentleman, trying on a pair of combat boots with an all-black sole was deep in discussion over the relative merits of black-on-black with his similarly style-obsessed salesperson. At the cash, a young blond ran to embrace a top-knotted sales clerk dressed in the manner of a postmodern geisha, yelling, “I know you from the Vancouver store!”
After feasting on the store’s satisfying gallery of footwear, I found myself on the mezzanine level sniffing goth-looking black metal candles from Mad et Len and trying on suddenly fabulous, formerly unfashionable blanket bags from Pendleton. Says Dirks, “I love to find unique, interesting, beautiful products. I also love to choose the ‘fashion’ from the more popular mainstream brands. It’s the combination of the unique with the popular that makes for a complete shopping experience.”
What so many stores forget is that the thing we all love about shopping is the thrill of the hunt. Without the sense of creative self-expression and discovery that Dirks has built into the mix, what’s on offer would be just another rack of clothes.
Karen von Hahn is a Toronto-based writer, trend observer and style commentator. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.