In the fashion capital of Canada, trendy clothing boutiques come in all shapes and sizes. But in Montreal, only one comes disguised as a drugstore: Retail therapy gone literal.
Designed to resemble, in part, an old-fashioned drugstore, WANT Apothecary is a luxury fashion and accessories boutique located at 4960 Sherbrooke Street West in upscale Westmount, a gentrified neighbourhood of restaurants, florists and hardware stores next door to English-language libraries left over from the days when the area ruled as a WASP bastion.
"The idea was to create something that looked like it had always been here, like it belonged to the neighbourhood," explains Dexter Peart, 40, co-owner with his identical twin of WANT Les Essentiels de la Vie, a line of made-in-Canada leather accessories whose streamlined elegance is internationally renowned.
"We wanted to create a lifestyle shop," interjects Byron, distinguishable from his brother by his lack of glasses.
"A place," says Dexter finishing the other's sentence, "that feels easy to walk into."
The inspiration behind the concept store was a vintage apothecary Dexter visited in Niagara-on-the Lake while on vacation. He instantly fell in love with the nostalgia-tinged ambience.
When it came to designing his own store, he made sure to recreate the original mortar and pestle motif he first spied in Ontario. The black and white mosaic homage dominates the sidewalk out front.
WANT Apothecary is the first bricks-and-mortar extension of WANT Agency Inc., the six-year-old fashion distribution business that the Ottawa natives operate out of renovated offices in Montreal's Chabanel garment district, together with business partners (and married couple) Mark Wiltzer and Jacqueline Gelber.
The 1,000-square-foot, newly renovated storefront sells only those luxury fashion brands represented by WANT Agency, including German hosiery from century-old firm Falke and Sweden's Nudie jeans, a Justin Bieber favourite.
Previously a children's clothing boutique, the storefront was completely gutted, right down to the brick. Maria Rosa di Ioia executed the interior design, using Bianco Carrara marble, American walnut and brushed copper to make the space look traditional.
From the deliberately distressed wooden floors laid out in an old-world herring-bone pattern to the traditional cast-iron Victorian fireplace at the back of the store (heating up an already hot area of to-die-for high heeled shoes), the space feels homey and lived-in.
What was formerly a back office was opened up to create an intimate interior decorated with flowers and mirrors. The large glass windows overlooking the street draw in passersby.
Between $300 and $500 a square foot was spent in transforming the space, an investment Mr. Wiltzer says was worth it.
"The environment created is extremely important and relevant to positioning and merchandising of their products to their customers," he says.
Designing the store, as well as choosing its location, was carefully considered as part of a retail plan intended to give WANT, and related businesses operating under that title, a heightened cachet.
The partners opted for a residential neighbourhood over a busy commercial street like Ste-Catherine Street West, where retail rents have risen by an average of 12.5 per cent as a result of recent infrastructure improvements, according to Cushman & Wakefield's Main Streets Across the World 2012 report.
They wanted to appeal directly to customers on a personal level in creating what Byron Peart describes as "a retail environment where the staff might know you by name."
The plan now is to open similar concept stores in other cities in Canada; Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa for starters.
The brothers are looking for locations similar to Montreal's: upscale neighbourhoods with the right mix of adjacencies – food shops, bakeries, coffee shops and other places people are drawn to for health and sustenance.
"In terms of size, 1,200 to 2,000 square feet is ideal," says Mr. Wiltzer, who, with his wife, is overseeing the launch of WANT's first retail website, scheduled to launch later this year. "But finding the right space takes time.
"Each city we visit, we walk around the different neighbourhoods, talking to local retailers, doing our best to get a feel for the area in order to determine if it's right for us. We go back twice, even three times. Once we decide we like an area, we focus on finding available locations that will be a good fit for a WANT Apothecary store. It's sometimes a tedious process."
Last spring, the brothers launched a retail space in collaboration with the hip French fashion and music label Maison Kitsuné within the new NoMad Hotel in New York, close to the Flatiron District. In the fall, they opened WANT Passport at Toronto's Billy Bishop Airport, aimed at the style-savvy traveller.
Still, the idea, as conceived by the twins, remains the same: a retail space that is more than just goods. It's about feeling good – one personalized luxury purchase at a time.
"This is not a fast fashion," Dexter says. "That's why being in a neighbourhood is important. You are able to slow down the conversation, create a relationship with your customer.
"That's a lifestyle choice for us," he says.
"And," inserts his brother, "a responsibility."
Two commercial real estate professionals assess WANT boutique's bricks-and-mortar strategy.
The vice-president of retail advisory services for Avison Young in Montreal grew up in Westmount. Personally and professionally, he knows that the upscale neighbourhood represents a niche market.
"That's a lot of money to spend on a small boutique and particularly in that location where there isn't a lot of foot traffic," he says. "I mean, it's not on Ste-Catherine Street. But they are not catering to Ste-Catherine. A boutique like WANT Apothecary doesn't belong on Ste-Catherine Street. They're not a mid-price-point retailer, which traditionally is what is found on Ste-Catherine.
"So the decision to open where they opened is not a wrong decision. It's an affluent part of town where the people can afford what they're offering. Not to mention that the rents on Ste-Catherine would be three to four times what they are paying on Sherbrooke Street West."
Cushman & Wakefield's senior managing director of national retail services says the boutique chose its location well.
"For any retailer, one of the most important factors in choosing a location is understanding the customer you want to attract and appeal to and who is also able to afford your products," he says.
"…WANT is positioning itself to be a unique, high-end quality products/fashion merchandiser, located in high-income neighbourhoods that customers want to discover by chance. Being unique and off-the-beaten track is definitely their appeal.
"I see WANT best suited in high-street locations in Toronto, like areas like Yonge and Lawrence, Yorkville or Forest Hill Village, as opposed to high-end luxury malls or on Bloor Street," Mr. Crombie adds.
"The exception might be Bayview Village which caters to a more unique fashion retailer with a high-end customer base. I believe there is a market for WANT throughout Canada, but the location would be critical."