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Frank and Oak’s millennial look now also for women

The series: We look at decision makers among Canada’s mid-sized companies who took successful action in a competitive global digital economy.

The urban, entrepreneurial, tech-minded, creative man has a uniform, and Montreal-based retailer Frank + Oak, which has capitalized on the look, is now reaching out to women.

There’s the slim-cut, untucked shirt, the slim jeans, with each pant leg rolled up once, over Blundstone-like boots. And given the time of year, add a tuque, pushed up and back. It’s the silhouette of the millennial set.

As a clothing maker and retailer, with physical stores across Canada, typically in the trendier part of town, Frank + Oak has capitalized on this basic, young look and has this year extended it into women’s wear.

Clothing maker and retailer Frank + Oak has capitalized on a certain kind of millennial look. (Photo: A counter at Frank + Oak’s Laval location in Quebec. Courtesy of Frank + Oak)

The decision came about in a collaborative way, as told by chief executive officer and co-founder Ethan Song.

The company tries to maintain a collegial, all-inclusive feel, which it had from its beginning as the two-man tech startup Modasuite in 2010, specializing in a kind of online personalized shopping/custom-fitting service. In 2012, Mr. Song and business partner, Hicham Ratnani, friends since high school, changed course and turned the company into its own maker of men’s wear and a standalone retailer. Yet women’s wear was also considered all along.

“I definitely don’t think that, when we first started, our goal was to create a gentleman’s club. I think it was just a brand that was targeting men, but our brand values were always inclusive of women,” Mr. Song said.

“The big question was more like when and how [to introduce women’s wear], and I think that we basically thought that this year was a good year to do that transition,” he said, noting that the men’s wear business was now big enough that women’s wear could be added to its existing operations.

And the introduction was not just about clothes. Mr. Song bills Frank + Oak as an “experience first” company.

The company is about defining young entrepreneurial types, being a lifestyle brand. And this is depicted in its blog posts, playlists and videos, as well as its own print magazine Oak Street. The message is clear. It’s all about formulating the traits and needs of a particular kind of independently minded, plugged-in customer that the company envisions – and those aspiring to be that. As Mr. Song has said in speeches, “retail companies have to start thinking like media companies, and media companies have to start thinking like retail companies.”

The company is about defining young entrepreneurial types, being a lifestyle brand. And this is depicted in its blog posts, playlists and videos, as well as its own print magazine Oak Street. As CEO Ethan Song has said in speeches, “Retail companies have to start thinking like media companies, and media companies have to start thinking like retail companies.” (Photo: Frank + Oak’s Chicago location. Courtesy of Frank + Oak)

In a sense, it’s a new version of what used to be identifying with a fashion label through its ads. “People are not shopping so much any more to just go shopping. They want to belong to something. They want to relate to something,” said Nathalie Brunet, a director with expertise in retail and consumer services at consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers Canada.

And all of that swiping and clicking online encourages different ways in which the clothing can be purchased.

Individual items are sold in the stores and on its website. But the company also offers a service in which, after logging in and answering a few questions, a package of clothing is sent to customers, who then purchase and keep what they want and send back the rest.

“As we’ve grown, one of the reasons why we opened up the different ways of interacting with our brand is that there are people who like to shop differently. There are people who only shop online and are pretty much addicted. And there are some people who like to take the time and go into a store. And in the same way, there are people who love to have an interaction with us before buying, and there are some people who want to buy on their own,” Mr. Song said.

“Both myself and my co-founder, we were engineers by training, and we started our company from more of a tech foundation. I would say that the way we qualify ourselves more as a technology-enabled consumer brand. That’s the way we see our company. We have as many developers and engineers as we have designers.”

And speed is a factor. The company’s men’s wear selection has new clothes added monthly, although the new women’s wear so far has a slower turnover. “It’s a new product line. So, currently we’re doing only four collections a year, but over time, it will definitely get to the point where we have a collection every month as well,” Mr. Song said. The question is whether customers and the company can keep up with this pace.

The company has physical and online points of sale. “As we’ve grown, one of the reasons why we opened up the different ways of interacting with our brand is that there are people who like to shop differently. There are people who only shop online and are pretty much addicted. And there are some people who like to take the time and go into a store. And in the same way, there are people who love to have an interaction with us before buying, and there are some people who want to buy on their own,” CEO Ethan Song says. (Photo: Frank + Oak’s Vancouver store. Courtesy of Frank + Oak)

“Really what Frank + Oak is doing is demand shaping,” Ms. Brunet said. In other words, the company is out to educate and promote its clothing and the image, while creating an urgency to buy with its quick changes in merchandise. “Because they change all the time, they stimulate the curiosity of the [customer] to go on the website. They stimulate also the urgency to purchase,” Ms. Brunet said. “It’s a new way of using marketing and the network.”

And with this expansion of services, clothing and content, Frank + Oak inevitably had to evolve into more of a senior-management structure two years ago, with individual department heads. Mr. Song insists that what may seem like a more corporate model from the outside, though, has not hurt communication between departments and the decision-making process.

The launch of the women’s wear line, for instance, didn’t need to be formally announced within the company, he said. “Through our chats and brainstorming and continuous discussions, it was really pretty clear that we were going to go and do that.”

He noted that all departments came to the table when formalizing the women’s wear launch.

“By bringing [together] stakeholders in the company, we’re fostering collaboration. We’re keeping people informed. We’re not making decisions in silos,” he said.

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