After six decades of steering the fashion choices of Canadian men, retailer has eyes on the future.
The next time you’re shopping at Harry Rosen’s Bloor St. location on a Saturday afternoon, don’t be surprised if Harry himself helps you find just the right fit.
Whether a Hugo Boss suit with a check shirt and a pocket square designed by local artist Gary Taxali or an Eton sports jacket and a pair of cotton pants, Rosen — and the store that bears his name — has steered the cutting edge of quality Canadian menswear for 60 years.
Although he retired a decade ago, passing the reins of his empire to his son Larry, the elder Rosen, 82, is still an active part of the company he founded in February 1954. At the time, a menswear store was a place where you bought a suit, shirt and tie, then shopped elsewhere for shoes, hats and grooming accessories. But Rosen pioneered the one-stop shop and ushered in a new style of visual merchandising in menswear.
Originally staffed by Harry Rosen and his brother Louis, the first location was a 500-square-foot storefront on Parliament St., far from Yonge St. shopping district. Sixty years later, the company employs one 1,000 people across 16 retail locations, from Vancouver to Montreal.
But Harry Rosen had never planned to grow beyond his first store.
“I never aspired to have a second location,” says Rosen, the reluctant expander, seated at a conference table in his Bloor St. office overlooking the chain’s flagship location. In 1964, he even turned down an offer to open up shop in the newly constructed Yorkdale Mall. But as business boomed, expansion was inevitable.
In 1968, Rosen opened in Yorkdale, taking over the lease of the Jack Cameron department store whose British sensibilities did not cater to the suburban clientele. Rosen’s strategy of catering to customers who preferred the Madison Ave.-inspired natural shoulder garments over the stiff British style of suiting common in Canada at the time paid off. By the 1980s, he had introduced the casual wear of Ralph Lauren and the fitted silhouettes of European designers such Ermenegildo Zegna and Canali.
“Many European designers did not have a North American presence until Harry brought them to the market,” says Giorgio Canali, the regional director for Canali in the Americas. Canali first met Harry Rosen in 1991 when Canali the company his grandfather, Giovanni Canali, co-founded with brother Giacomo.
These days, he says, a Harry Rosen location is a “master class in retail architecture.”
“It’s not like they have just one store concept, they go with the mood and different feeling and approach of each market.”
From Montreal to Vancouver, every store is unique, Harry Rosen’s various designer shops — Brioni, Z Zegna, Armani — integrating seamlessly from section to section.
The two-level First Canadian Place location caters to the Bay St. executive.
The Eaton Centre, a study in crisp white, features fewer shops-in-shop and caters to a broader clientele, from students and tourists to businessmen in town for a conference. Upon entering, your eyes are drawn to a colourful display of casual spring clothing, but soon dart to the footwear section in a brightly lit alcove in the middle of the store. “Footwear now accounts for 10 per cent of our sales,” says Larry Rosen. “It’s the centrepiece for a reason.”
The Bloor St. shop features a grooming department, selling quality moisturizers, shaving cream and Tom Ford cologne. While three generations of style savvy men in one family could visit the Bloor store on the same day and emerge with completely different wardrobes, the shop’s first customers, drawn by Rosen’s creative flair, were men in the advertising industry.
Harrison Yates, a former advertising executive who now works as a branding consultant, says Rosen’s advertising was a unique blend of both fashion and how to do business. “It was never vapid or superficial like much retail advertising. It was always personal like most good one-on-one communication,” says Yates, who came to Toronto in 1967 as Creative Director of the Doyle, Dane and Bernbach agency. Yates often purchased tweed jackets from the retailer — they paired well with pipe smoking, he says — but what he remembers best was Rosen’s knack for visual merchandising. “He did very tempting windows at his shop off Bloor.”
Harry Rosen often spent his evenings walking along Yonge St., surveying the windows of competitors like Ely’s and Cameron Jeffrey’s. “They were good retailers and their windows gave me some direction as to where my personal tastes lay,” he says.
But in these 60 years, there have been failures — “a couple strategic bombs,” says Larry Rosen, 57, who joined his father’s company in 1985 and is now chief executive officer. The missteps included the closure of stores in working-class Oshawa and Hamilton because the “potential of the market was misjudged.” In the 1980s Harry Rosen opened a small chain of womenswear stores that didn’t last. During the recession in 1991, a lower-priced suit was introduced, but the clientele wasn’t interested and it was soon pulled off the rack. “Fortunately, our mistakes have been small and manageable,” adds the younger Rosen.
In Harry Rosen’s office, old “Ask Harry” ads cover the conference table. The talk is all business, about the future — American retailer Nordstrom’s Toronto arrival is imminent, but the Rosens maintain they know their clientele well.
The company is modernizing a number of stores. Sherway Gardens, now the oldest location, will be renovated this year and the Yorkdale Mall store was just relaunched, the square footage doubling to 32,000. The Rideau Centre location in Ottawa is also due for a revamping this year.
Still, at heart this is still a family business.
“I feel very blessed to have this amount of wisdom right next to my office,” says Larry Rosen.
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on March 14, 2014.