Wednesday, June 15, 2011

the Hudson's Bay Company

Since my move to Toronto, i've been fascinated by the re-branding that has occurred with the Canadian heritage brand, Hudson's Bay Company. While the department store still very much remains on a mediocre and shoddy level of quality and aesthetic back where i'm from (Alberta), the same cannot be said for the stores here in Toronto. In fact, they're nothing short of spectacular!

Back in 2008, Bonnie Brooks was hired as the new president of the Bay, using her experience in the industry to drag the company out of the slump that it was in. Brooks was responsible for revitalizing Hong Kong's Lane Crawford department store and served as editor-in-chief for the Canadian fashion publication, Flare. She has been accredited for refreshing the Bay by dropping approximately 800 brands and introducing 220, including Brian Atwood, Pierre Hardy, and Balmain - and with successful results, as the Bay celebrated its most profitable year ever in 2010.
Back in 2009, the Bay on Queen St., here in Toronto, opened up a newly renovated and massively expanded designer women's department, colloquially known as "the Room", at a time when unemployment in Toronto was just under 10%. Commissioned by the company, the internationally renowned Toronto firm Yabu Pushelberg designed the space and completed it "under $200 a square foot," Brooks stated, adding that Saks Fifth Avenue spent $650 a square foot renovating the Third Floor at its flagship Manhattan store. Impressive. Then again, we're not sure the Room is at a level comparable to Saks just yet. Housing items like a $21,000 Balmain sequined dress and $300 Elie Tahari jackets may have seemed like an extravagantly foolish, and somewhat arrogant, move on the company's part, but others thought it may have been a necessary one. At a time when consumers were trading down, the Bay was making a bold move upmarket. John Williams of Toronto retail consulting firm J.C. Williams Group Ltd. stated that, "They won't succeed by carrying on doing the same things they've been doing for the last decade. And their target market has got to be something that's middle- and upper-income. Wal-Mart, Zellers, Costco and Winners have a hammerlock on that lower end." Being more than double its former size and featuring 40 new brands after its renovation, including some European haute couture, Brooks defended the expansion saying, "We're not building this for today. We're building what I think is a proper foundation for Canada's leading department store."
Though the Room only occupies about 5% of the sprawling 1 million-square-foot Queen St. store, Brooks stated the she expected it to generate more than that percentage in sales, citing $15 million a year as the target. Not too shabby for a single department in a single location for the company. Then again, when you're housing dresses that cost almost as much as some people's annual salary, you had better hope that it delivers - and then some. "It will help raise the average selling price per square foot, which is the name of the game." Unfortunately for the rest of the country, the Room is unique to the Queen St. location. However, Brooks added that she is adding more exclusive merchandise to all 92 Bay stores across the country in a bid to double sales to $300 per square foot, levels enjoyed by some U.S. department stores. Since its inception, the Room has become the destination for lavish events revolving around fashion, being set as a playground for sartorialists and fashionistas everywhere. Among its more recent events, the Room celebrated with a trunk show for Proenza Schouler and the exhibition of "When Tommy Met Anna", profiling street style photographer, Tommy Ton, and his relationship with his muse, Anna Dello Russo, Editor at Large of Vogue Japan. 

"The Boys". Designers Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough of Proenza Schouler

How adorable is this?

In addition, HBC also paired up with fashion GODDESS and icon (we just adore her) Jeanne Beker to launch a collection of womenswear for the store, called Edit. Having collaborated with Brooks on the possibility of creating a line for the department store, it turned out that the two were old friends, as it was Brooks who introduced Beker as a columnist in Flare while she served as editor. The small collections includes everything from a classic boyfriend blazer with ruched sleeves ($15) to a flowing camel jacket ($195), and is aimed at women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.

In more recent developments, the Bay has also been very busy injecting various lines of affordable fashion into their stores. With the rise of H&M, Forever 21, and Canada's own Joe Fresh, the "trend" of budget-friendly retailers seems to be something that the department store has shown interest in. Noticing the massive success and appeal of this movement, Brooks approached Saul Mimran (yes, of Joe fame (his brother, actually)) to commission a new clothing line called Moon, exclusive to the Bay. When you pair affordable fashion with the taste of the Mimrans (who are responsible for Joe Fresh and Club Monaco), you best brace yourself for a dose of classy (and really, who doesn't want to be classy?)

And finally, it was announced earlier this year that HBC had secured the exclusive franchise rights to bringing British retailer, Topshop and Topman, to the Great White North come early fall, allowing them to "open both shops within their own stores and also stand-alone stores". "It's a material step towards cementing The Bay as a world-class department store that delivers the ultimate fashion experience to our savvy customers. Topshop and Topman have a brave and irreverent approach to style" stated Brooks. Mary Homer, Topshop's managing director, added that they've "wanted to open a stand-alone store in Canada for some time, and the large site within The Bay allows us to bring the full Topshop experience to the customer in an undiluted way. The concept will stay true to Topshop's stores in other major cities, offering up-to-the-minute affordable style with fashion authority."

So, with the addition of all these pretty new marketing toys within HBC's arsenal in a relatively short amount of time, I think it's safe to say that Bonnie Brooks has done a phenomenal job of rebranding the department store from a musty, outdated brand to one that is polished, sophisticated, and relevant. Since my move here, they have successfully re-positioned themselves in my mind, as a consumer, as a high-quality, widely-accessible department store that rivals that of Holt Renfrew, and other luxury retailers - perhaps even eclipsing them with their ferociously rapid pace and smart thinking. However, these changes seem mostly limited to that of Toronto's downtown core. In order to truly revolutionize the brand, gain exposure and reputation, and provide accessibility to all Canadian consumers, I think it would be necessary to implement at least some of these changes into other locations at every major city in our nation. No doubt, a change that would take some time to implement. But a necessary one at that, in my opinion. Nevertheless and, once again, Brooks has done an absolutely fantastic job with this heritage company. The Hudson's Bay Company has the ability to rise to the top once again. It is the matron of all department stores in North America, and as such, should start acting like one again.


  1. Thank-you for such a indepth analysis on the changes in the Hudson's Bay Company. I'm looking forward to some of the new lines going out in the fall!

  2. fantastic article Lance!! become the editor of a high fashion magazine already will ya!

  3. I 100% concur with all of the above, well written and well put! I am so psyched for Topshop to get here, it's going to be amazing. And HBC is pretty fucking premium, I have to agree. The Mimran's are amazing, as is Bonnie Brooks, who I am now going to voraciously google. Lots of amazing Canadians in fashion, and no one knows! Time to take Zellers down, HBC. Love it, Bass!

  4. I've been pretty impressed with The Bay these days, even in Edmonton. Great article!