Yonge Street splits the city of Toronto. Extending north from the shore of Lake Ontario, it runs straight through the city and blends into a provincial highway that winds through nearly 1,200 miles of cottage country. Yonge's climax comes just a short distance from its point of origin, at Yonge-Dundas Square. Located where Dundas Street, one of the city's main east-west thoroughfares, bisects Yonge, it fancies itself a Times Square in miniature, crowded with pedestrians, street preachers and a looming patchwork of billboard advertising; it's one of the focal points of downtown Toronto. It also features the northern tip of the Eaton Centre, a shopping mall that doubles as Toronto's most popular tourist attraction. In fact, it's the busiest mall in North America, attracting nearly 49 million visitors in 2016. Opened in 1977 by the Eaton Company, a now-defunct department store chain, it is a key feature of Toronto's landscape.
It also serves as barometer for change in the city. Since mid-2016, it has been anchored by high-end American department stores, relative newcomers to the Canadian market. With Nordstrom at its northern end and Saks Fifth Avenue (owned, it should be noted, by the Canadian Hudson's Bay Company) to the south, the mall currently reflects a global shift towards commercial consistency; no matter where you are in the world, the brands and retailers you know and love are there, waiting to serve you with a litany of luxuries and conveniences. Both Nordstrom's and Saks' Toronto locations boast almost too many of these to list.
"We're focused on letting our customers be in control of their experience," says Michelle Haggard, Nordstrom's Vice President and Regional Manager for Canada. "We offer services like free two-hour delivery downtown, complimentary personal stylists, a concierge and in-store restaurants to make shopping faster, easier and more convenient." Haggard might have also mentioned language ambassadors and a 24-hour express service for last-minute alternations or other fashion emergencies. If you want to experience the vanguard of customer service and clienteling, look no further than Nordstrom's Toronto flagship.
That retailers like Nordstrom and Saks would eventually expand into Toronto was a given. Stephane Ledoux, Regional Vice President of Saks Fifth Avenue Canada, says that there was "a real thirst for an alternative to the existing landscape, which created a huge opportunity for Saks," and there is no doubt that Toronto was underserved as a market. Prior to Saks' opening in February 2016, Toronto's high-end department store market was dominated by Holt Renfrew, a business that enjoys a long legacy in the city but has failed to adapt to the demands of the 21st century marketplace; it still lacks a complete e-commerce offering. When asked about the strategic importance of Toronto as a market, both Nordstrom's Haggard and Saks' Ledoux describe Toronto in similar terms: vibrant, multicultural and world-class. They aren't wrong — Toronto is, empirically, one of the most diverse cities on the planet and that gives it a unique character. But it's not so much the composition of Toronto's market as its size that makes it enticing: Home to over 6.4 million people, Toronto is the fourth-largest city in North America.
Despite Toronto's size and growing cultural magnetism — much of which has been spurred by the chart-topping dominance of musicians like Drake and The Weeknd — it remains relatively conservative from a fashion perspective. As Samantha Orley of the CFDA Award-winning, New York City-based label Orley, who grew up in Toronto and left about a decade ago, observes: "Taste levels have developed in a great way [in Toronto] in many different areas — food, art, design — but in terms of fashion, I mostly just see an influx of the global brands that now exist in every major city."
Orley is not the only one who's noticed Toronto's style harmonizing with other cities'. "I think the way people dress has been homogenized by the internet," says Jesar Gabino, co-founder and owner of Nomad, a menswear boutique offering a directional mix of streetwear and high fashion ranging from Gosha Rubchinskiy to Marni to Raf Simons. Having run Nomad from Toronto's West End for over 12 years, Gabino is well-positioned to pick up on these sorts of cultural shifts. "People in Paris are influenced by people from Toronto and people from Toronto are influenced by people in New York," says Gabino. "Since the menswear market is relatively new in the sense that more guys are open and willing to be fashionable, I feel that the way guys approach their personal style is still very much about what they see their favorite celebrity in or what a blog tells them is cool. It's ironic that in an effort to stand out everyone kind of is looking the same these days."
Jared Gordon, a Torontonian for nearly 30 years and Head of Financial Services at global innovation consultancy Idea Couture, identifies this a global phenomenon he refers to as urban monoculture. "The ease of travel and a globalized youth have driven a very homogenized travel experience," says Gordon. "What is hot somewhere is very quickly hot everywhere — mezcal, that pink, Gosha, etc."
At the same time, the ease of access to fashion imagery facilitated by the internet, and especially social media, has empowered Toronto's independent boutiques to follow their creative impulses more authentically. In a retail landscape that sometimes seems lacking in dynamics, e-commerce has opened the doors to truly unique brand mixes. Soop Soop, a boutique located on a rapidly-gentrifying stretch of Dundas West, offers a roster of labels like Barragán, Nattofranco and Sunnei that would be considered fashion-forward in any city. "How conservative it is here can be a challenge," says co-founder/owner Christina Pretti. "We're in love with these purple organza shirts. They're so cool — who's buying them? In Toronto, nobody. We rely heavily on an international customer." For residents of Toronto or similar cities, access to cultural outlets like Soop Soop, which also offers a deep selection of fashion magazines, is subsidized by an international consumer base.
While the local demand for more esoteric labels may not yet be stable, a hyper-connected, image-driven media ecosystem creates a positive feedback loop that helps consumers develop more adventurous, sophisticated tastes. The more avant-garde fashion people are exposed to, the greater their fashion literacy becomes and the more willing the are to participate by shopping, even if mainly aligned to broad trends. "Customers have become smarter and more educated," says Nomad's Gabino. "When we first opened, they were exposed to mostly mainstream brands and what they saw in magazines and videos. The internet really was a factor for change." Jordan Puopolo, Pretti's partner at Soop Soop, echoes Gabino's observation, noting that he's also seen a shift in buying habits: "It takes time for it to start making sense to people."
Increased connectivity has also allowed Toronto-based brands to grow internationally without needing to relocate to traditional fashion centers, and this is perhaps the greatest cause for optimism that Toronto might develop a vibrant fashion culture of its own. Kristen Joy Watts, a born-and-raised Torontonian now living in New York and working with Instagram's Community Team, cites Sid Neigum and Beaufille as two brands finding international audiences and influential stockists. Vejas, last year's LVMH Prize winner, is still based in Toronto, maintaining a studio in Chinatown.
While Toronto will likely never be a fashion hub in the same way that Paris or New York are, it doesn't need to be to produce vital new brands and designers. The talent finds its way, and it is now more than ever less about where you are than what you have to offer. It is only fitting that one of the world's most culturally diverse cities shows off the full spectrum of globalization's impacts.