For the past two years, the Toronto-based Holt Renfrew has put a spotlight on designers, exclusive European imports, A-list parties and renovations, giving a contemporary spin to an old, established business, founded in Quebec City in 1837 as a hat and fur shop.
It has come a long way indeed, with a recent flurry of activity that makes U.S. retailers appear anemic by comparison.
“To be a leading fashion store, you need to have events and happenings. It’s an absolute essential ingredient,” said Andrew R. Jennings, Holt Renfrew’s president and managing director.
So what if there are really no upscale threats in Canada for Holt Renfrew to fret over? “Our competition isn’t Canada. It’s the capitals of the world,” said Jennings. “We want to be a world-class business.”
It’s already part of Wittington Investments, controlled by billionaire Galen Weston, who is also owner and chairman of Holt Renfrew and who seems bent on expansion. Aside from Holt Renfrew, Weston’s high-end retail holdings include Brown Thomas in Ireland, and Selfridge’s in the U.K., just purchased in July. In the past, Holt Renfrew had considered buying Barneys New York.
Given the international reach of Weston’s empire, retail experts have speculated that Holt Renfrew could move into foreign markets. It’s building up recognition and deepening designer offerings that have global appeal. And, there’s no room to grow domestically: The chain, with nine retail units and two clearance units, has tapped all the Canadian markets affluent enough to support a luxury business.
This year, things seemed to gel for Holt Renfrew. A two-year, $33-million renovation of the four-level Bloor Street flagship here was completed in time for the fall “Flick” promotion celebrating the Toronto Film Festival and fashions from movies. Seal, William Macy, Jack Black, Benicio Del Toro, Robbie Robertson, Kim Cattrall and Fran Drescher, along with designers Kate Spade, Roberto Cavalli and John Varvatos, came to the party. In another clever marketing ploy this fall, Cavalli designed a co-branded Holt Renfrew/American Express store card.