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The Bay vs. Holts: the Bay’s scheme to steal the fashion crown from Holts

The sensible shoes and twin–sets are gone, replaced by stilettos and crystal-encrusted gowns. There’s valet parking and personal shoppers, and they’re serving champagne up on three. It’s all part of the Bay’s scheme to win the loyalty of society shopaholics—and steal the fashion crown from Holts

(Image: George Pimentel)

One evening last March, Toronto’s stylish set put on their best frocks and headed to a retail baptism. Sarah Jessica Parker, celebrity high priestess of fashion, was in town to launch the Halston Heritage label at The Bay. The party, which reportedly cost over $200,000, was meant to establish Canada’s oldest department store as a major player in high-end womenswear. If retailers can be born again, this was The Bay’s moment to lean back and dip its head into the holy water.

Fashion media and socialites were ushered into the Queen Street flagship store and up the escalator to sip champagne on the third floor. That’s where The Room is located. The upscale designer dress salon was renovated a year ago for approximately $4.4 million in a high modernist style by the designers Yabu Pushelberg. The result is a treasure trove of conversation piece baubles, heels, flirty cocktail dresses and gowns by some of the most prestigious designers in the business. It’s the beating heart of the new Bay.

The Halston invitation promised a chance to meet Parker for some chit-chat and a casual photo op. The stable of thoroughbred clothes horses in attendance that night included Wendy Melvin, the executive headhunter; Simona Shnaider, the wife of the billionaire steel magnate Alex Shnaider; and socialites Stacey Kimel and Catherine Nugent (who wore an original custom-made Halston suit). The dapper designer Wayne Clark rubbed shoulders with then-MTV Canada host Jessi Cruickshank, who bopped in wearing a Halston onesie. An immaculately coiffed Laureen Harper was toured around by Jeanne Beker. The in-store event was followed by a dinner at One Restaurant at the Hazelton Hotel for executives and VIPs. A Studio 54–themed after party was held for 700 slightly less important guests, who danced and drank the night away on a custom-constructed light-up dance floor at the nightclub This Is London.

Sarah Jessica Parker (Image: George Pimentel)

If you believe what you read on Twitter, this campaign to seduce the city’s most sought-after shoppers worked. During the event, Flare editor-in-chief Lisa Tant tweeted that Toronto’s socialites and Canada’s first lady were “breathless” in the company of Parker. Cruickshank overshared about nearly “wetting” herself with excitement. Another party guest compared the vibe in the room to “a bunch of eight-year-old girls waiting to meet Barbie.”

Earlier that night, before Parker arrived in a pair of four-inch silver Ferragamo heels, The Bay’s president and CEO, Bonnie Brooks, had some last-minute business to attend to. A female security guard wearing a poly-blend outfit was stationed at the party’s entrance and looked as frumpy as, well, a Hudson’s Bay security guard. Taking one look at the guard, Brooks instructed an office minion, “Get her out of here.” The order, like all of Brooks’ wishes, was immediately carried out. Such gaffes are small compared to what Brooks faces on her mission to remake the dowdy institution into a major fashion player. She can banish all the badly dressed people she wants, but will The Bay ever be seen as the most glamorous department store in Toronto? Not if the current holder of that title has anything to say about it.

Not since The Bay flogged beaver pelts has the company set its sights so high

The Bay is enormous. It’s Canada’s original big box chain, with 92 outlets from coast to coast, and it thought big from the beginning. Famously founded in the mid–17th century as a string of British-run trading posts (King Charles II signed the Royal Charter granting the company land and trading rights), the Hudson’s Bay Company didn’t branch into department store retail until 1913, when it launched its original six outlets in Western Canada. The first stores were modelled after Harrods in London—sprawling, diverse, one-stop shopping emporiums. They carried everything from stockings to liquor to tinned fish.

Holt Renfrew, The Bay’s main competitor for fashion shoppers, is small and chic—the little black dress of department store chains, with only nine outlets across Canada. Founded in 1837 (the same year as Tiffany and Hermès), it began as a hat store in Quebec City and for several decades served as the official furrier to the royal family. Holts hit its stride by bringing Christian Dior’s New Look to Canada in 1947. Exclusive accounts with other major European fashion houses soon followed, and Holts was established in its modern role as the country’s major high-end fashion retailer.