Secret Shopping Toronto (The National Post)

Secret Shopping Toronto (The National Post)

The arrival of chic and subtle boutique studios makes by-appointment browsing a preferred alternative to mall mania.

As the market goes more mass and anonymous, Toronto entrepreneurs (and dissatisfied customers) are turning to alternative retail ventures like loft studios, with all the comforts of home and then some, that are more the descendants of mid-century designer salons than of Tupperware parties.

Poa Studio: Spa & Boutique

When Catherine Pacak opened her multi-brand Poa Studio downtown (416-3640-2761, www.poastudio.com) two years ago, she offered both bookings and set hours for casual drop-in shopping. But now, by popular demand, the studio has evolved into a strictly by-appointment only operation. 

You'd expect a shopping experience that's booked in advance to be one with pressure to buy but, says Pacak, it has the opposite effect. About 80% of her client base are executive women who are too busy to shop, and don't enjoy the experience when they do, so Poa is a welcome change. 

At her airy loft in the downtown east core of Toronto, Pacak caters to career women aged 35 to 60 with everything from cocktail dresses and suiting separates to tailored jackets, toppers and knitwear, all in sizes 2 to 16. There's Iris from Montreal, Oui from Germany, and other hard-to-find labels from Paris (bags and belts) and Brazil. It's a busy clientele for whom "by appointment" (seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.) seems to be, surprisingly, more convenient. "People just 'book it in' and make it happen." They appreciate the personalized service, too. 

Last week, Pacak had a client from Vancouver who'd heard about Poa from a friend and was in town on business ("she came direct to Poa Studio from the airport"). After the client's visit, Pacak had the alterations done and shipped the clothing to the woman's office, so it was there on her return home.

"At the end of the day," Pacak says, "it's all about relationships; people enjoy doing business with someone they know, and I have great relationships with my clients." Personal attention to clients means that Pacak keeps them in mind and makes more astute buying decisions for upcoming seasons.

Indu Parewal

For Indu Purewal, the decision to launch a loft boutique instead of a traditional store was more a matter of quality control and creating her own intimate environment to match the tone of her debut womenswear collection, Indu (688 Richmond St., Ste. 301, 416-850-9049, daily noon to 5 p.m., other times by-appointment), and testing the waters before starting to wholesale to other retailers. 

Behind a nondescript black door in a converted button factory near Queen Street West, Purewal's 1,500-square-foot space is devoted to a very civilized retail experience. In one area, there is a flat-screen television with comfy club chairs and sink-in sofa for husbands or children to watch movies, sports (or play video games). There's also WiFi and a big wooden table, so busy clients can check e-mail or do work between browses. A long bar made from reclaimed wood, where Purewal prepares hors d'oeuvres, cappuccinos and even meals for clients while they browse, stretches along one wall; it's like the ideal home kitchen. Surprisingly, the space doesn't double as her home (she lives elsewhere): It's all designed to put clients at ease so they can enjoy the ultimate shopping experience.

Purewal moved to Toronto two years ago from London, where she worked and travelled frequently doing sports marketing. In England, direct showrooms and private retail venues are not uncommon: Just flip through the back pages of Tatler or British Vogue and there are dozens of ads for direct-to-client sales boutiques and home parties from independent designers and wholesalers.

Purewal had always had a keen interest in fashion and found something lacking in the selection available in Canada, so she launched her own retail venture, supplying a selection of unavailable styles from labels such as Paul Smith, Thomas Pink and others to private clients in Toronto, both through word of mouth and Verity, the downtown women's club she'd joined. When the time came to launch her own collection, she turned to some family-run artisan factories in northern Italy, near Lake Como, where the tradition of handwork and attention to detail in garments produced in small quantities is still very much alive.

The result is a simply gorgeous debut collection -- a few dozen perfectly designed pieces (sized S-M-L, $295 to $995), in fine fabrics, that look much more expensive than they are. There are casual day dresses, with tucks, pleats and embroideries, sculpted jackets made from hundreds of rows of cut and sewn silk and wool, as well as skirts with layers and layers of chiffon embellished with vintage brass hardware. 

For summer weddings, charmeuse cocktail dresses in tangerine, soft turquoise, purple and fuchsia have co-ordinating jackets, or a series of goddess-inspired sand-coloured silk tunics and dresses have twisted straps and empire waists banded with contrasting jacquard. One effortlessly elegant and universally flattering strapless "sack" tea dress (for lack of a more apt descriptor) comes in two layers of silk jacquard that begins as a band at the bust and comes in again, finished at the hem with tiny knife pleats. 

In another grouping, a showstopping topcoat is made of hundreds of pieces of black and white cotton sewn in a floral motif, all stitched by hand like a quilt. Inside, the seams and bindings are as beautiful as the exterior stitches, so much so that you could practically wear any of the garments inside out.

Like Pacak, Purewal makes every effort to accommodate the needs of her clients, whether it's quick alterations and special sizing or after-hours appointments. Both studios will even host cocktail parties for girlfriends who want to do double duty and catch up while shopping together. 

The thing is, offbeat retail ventures like these are as much about the service they provide as the clothing they sell-- that extra dose of customer service that seems an oxymoron in the mainstream marketplace. Their retail counterparts could learn a thing or two.

OBSESSION OF THE WEEK 

Mirvish Village

Kensington Market started Pedestrian Sundays, but now they're so popular, they're expanding uptown. Tomorrow is the inaugural Pedestrian Sunday in the Annex's Mirvish Village (every second Sunday of the month this summer) with Markham Street from Bloor to Lennox closed to car traffic from noon until 9 p.m.

Mirvish Village is home to numerous quirky, eclectic new and vintage boutiques with unusual offerings, like these Margiela-inspired rings made from the stems and tines of sterling-plated antique silverware (from $25 each, from Karen Found It, 588 Markham St., 416-535-7432). There are also hard-to-find pop culture artifacts, films and independent bookstores that specialize in everything from art and underground culture to comics and architecture. They will all be participating with special displays and sales in front of their shops. 

Fine artists, whose studios occupy the Victorian semis on the street, will show off their work at street level, and there will be a fashion show, courtesy of the newly-reopened treasure trove Vintage Bride. Restaurants like Butler's Pantry, the Victory Cafe and Southern Accent will offer delectable eats out front (though local fave Central will be closed, undergoing a Restaurant Makeover by designer Brenda Bent and chefs Susur Lee and Corbin Tomaszeski). 

A tango dance troupe will perform from 5 to 7 p.m., and in this showcase, the public is welcome to join in. There will even be a visit from the homemade EcoRocket Velomobile (kidscan2007.ca) and a display of walking sticks hand-carved out of hardwood roots. Free, Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.

Fashion Steals and Deals

Today's your last day to catch the major Clearance Sale at Sunny Choi (1020 Lawrence Ave. W., Ste. 201, sunnychoi.com) and stock up on cocktail and evening dresses, pantsuits and separates. Choi's evening suits (reg. $850 and up) are now $99.99, with coats (reg. $1,100-plus) starting at $199, and separates, at $19. 

Two other designers, Sunrise Fur and Canadian womenswear designer David Dixon, are also participating in the sale, with similarly jaw-dropping deals. Today, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. - Beginning Friday, the Montreal leather lifestyle emporium M0851 (which, despite its name change, will forever be remembered as Rugby North America) is hosting a big Summer Sample Sale at its Toronto store (23 St. Thomas St., 416-920-4001, m0851.com). 

There are big savings on the signature super-soft leathergoods -- wallets, pouches, purses, duffels, totes, messengers and business bags -- in neutral colours and hot seasonal shades, plus savings on current collections. - There's a Face a Face Trunk Show at Rapp (788 College, 416-537-6590, rapplimited.com) today, featuring loads of cool sunglasses and eyewear from the French artisan brand. - At Heaven Cashmere (37C Hazelton Ave., 416-920-9835, heavencashmere.com), the cashmere and silk basics are 30% off, and HC's own knits are discounted even more, among the rack of raw silk dresses, tunics and capris by Trudelle Laker, with her co-ordinating obi belts and jewellery. 

Open Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. - Spynga, the new yoga-fusion studio (spinning + yoga, get it?) in the Hillcrest neighbourhood (1415 Bathurst, 416-588-SPYN, spynga. com) has opened a green-conscious retail boutique so you can strike a pose, then strike a pretty pose. The space offers natural rubber mats from Jade Harmony ($70), graphic slogan bamboo and hemp tees from San Fran yummy yoganista favourite Josh Podoll, and Canada's own Halfmoon Yoga Props, from B.C., which makes recyclable, biodegradable and hypoallergenic Eco-Mats ($42) made from TPE (thermal plastic elastomer), alongside holier-than-thou candles from Red Flower. 

Watch this space next week for details on the upcoming Silk & Accessories Charity Sale from a certain historic French house and a Midnight Magic Pyjama Party for Harry Potter.

Author: Nathalie Atkinson

Date: Saturday, July 7, 2007

© CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc.

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