Louise Dirks is crazy about her new two-floor boutique. Rather than recycling the industrial theme that is typical in Toronto these days, interior designer Peter Turner has taken a different approach, accenting the space with ornate fixtures, peeling curio cabinets and other shabby-chic furnishings he collected during a trip to Buenos Aires.
The stunning centrepiece is a 1930s brass and glass staircase salvaged from a theatre.
“He put his heart and soul into this project,” Dirks says of Turner. “He moved to Toronto for four months to live and breathe it. The results are amazing and the store will look even better as it gets worn in.”
While she loves the decor, Dirks admits that the true pièce de résistance is the basement, which boasts 5-metre high ceilings. So far, big empty spaces have been a major contributing factor to Gravitypope’s success. “Storage space excites me more than showrooms,” she says. “We like to replenish our stores on a daily basis. That’s why it took me so long to open in Toronto. I couldn’t find a space suitable for storage, and making exclusive brands more available is our secret. If it’s selling, we keep buying it. It’s not something many other stores do.”
Dirks’s decision to finally move east had Toronto fashionistas blogging until their fingers turned blue. When the store, which specializes in contemporary clothing and shoes, opened last November, row upon row of covetables – many of which are not easy to find in Canada – put sparkles into the eyes of even the shrewdest of shoppers.
But pretty pumps and designer boots do not guarantee a thriving customer base. In recent months, two of Toronto’s top shoe boutiques – Chasse Gardée and Plum – closed their doors. While Dirks enjoys great success as the proprietor of two of Edmonton’s high-end shops, is she really prepared to take on Canada’s biggest city?
The answer, she says, is absolutely.
“Toronto wants what we sell,” Dirks says. “Our market extends to the east, especially through web sales. Customers are looking for unique or avant-garde items that aren’t as well-established in the Toronto marketplace. Lots of Belgian brands, European-made shoes, Italian boots – it’s an extensive and exciting collection.”
It doesn’t hurt that she’s had people asking her to make the move for some time now. “We’ve also had plenty of pressure from our customers over the years,” she says. “I guess you could say I finally gave in to the begging.”
And the competition?
Briony Smith, fashion writer and stylist with The Grid, a Toronto weekly, points out that some boutiques – like Jonathan & Olivia, located just across the street from Dirks’ trendy Queen and Ossington location – carry some of the same hard-to-find brands. “It will be interesting to see if Gravitypope manages to lure away any of the loyal clientele,” she says.
At the same time, Smith praises Dirks for her business acumen. “It’s a bit of a gamble to go small-fish-big-pond in such a crowded, competitive retail scene, but Dirks is obviously savvy. She keeps her larger Vancouver store alive and has invested in the right things to make the Toronto launch a success.”
The “right” things include signing on with a top public relations firm and throwing a launch party that included not only the requisite social media mavens but also the likes of John Fluevog and Marc Hare, both stars of the shoe design world.
Despite the risk, Dirks gamble appears to have paid off. A little more than one month after opening, the Toronto store ranked second only to the Vancouver location in sales, and it continues to do well. She credits the store’s extensive stock, some great publicity and her dependable staff, some of whom have relocated to Toronto to help launch the store.
Fashion writer Smith agrees that Gravitypope’s staff make the experience unique. She won a pair of Frye boots at the store’s opening shindig. When she picked up her prize, she found Dirks’s staff knowledgeable and polite – something, she says, that is unusual for Toronto. “It’s always nice to experience that in Toronto’s occasionally chilly retail climate.” AV is crazy about her new two-floor boutique.
Rather than recycling the industrial theme that is typical in Toronto these days, interior designer Peter Turner has taken a different approach, accenting the space with ornate fixtures, peeling curio cabinets and other shabby-chic furnishings he collected during a trip to Buenos Aires. The stunning centrepiece is a 1930s brass and glass staircase salvaged from a theatre. “He put his heart and soul into this project,” Dirks says of Turner. “He moved to Toronto for four months to live and breathe it. The results are amazing and the store will look even better as it gets worn in.”
From a small shop on Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue to a second location in Calgary to a large boutique in Vancouver, Louise Dirks has significant experience launching new stores. But, as U.S. based retailers like Ann Taylor and Nordstrom claim Toronto as their new markets, going east has become increasingly challenging. What’s Dirks’s secret? How does she plan to make it in the Big Smoke?
“A good staff, a great customer base and a solid web business are the reasons we’ve been able to grow,”she says.
But, she adds, if you’re planning to expand your business eastward, make sure there’s a backup plan. “If sales in Toronto don’t happen for us, we can rely on moving product through the web.
Ontario is the second-largest market after British Columbia for web sales.”
by Kerry Freek