How department stores became cool again

And why Nordstrom's arrival last year was only just the beginning

March 16, 2016

By Amanda Ross

My earliest memory in life may be of my mother toting me along to Woodwards’ food floor in search of exotic ingredients like pineapples and pistachio pudding mix. Little did I know at the time that I was visiting a commercial and social institution that was on death’s doorstep. But while our collective decampment to the suburbs may have put the department store into intensive care, it’s been getting a new lease on life lately in Vancouver.

The surest sign of that was Nordstrom’s launch last year, a seminal day for the city’s evolving retail landscape. Not only was it the brand’s first foray outside of the U.S., it was “the most successful opening we’ve experienced in our company’s history,” according to co-president Blake Nordstrom. While there were those who complained we were getting all whipped up about a chain, others sensed it heralded something more—a turning point in the march toward downtown’s manifest density.

Of course, for the past 40 years Holt Renfrew has sat alone atop the golden throne of luxury Vancouver retailers. But with challengers now lining up to challenge it for that spot—including Hudson’s Bay’s newly-acquired Saks Fifth Avenue concept, which will arrive in town later this year—the tony brand has been forced to respond. It’s done so by adding 40,000 square feet, a restaurant, and a top-floor apartment complete with a balcony and the ability to host private client dinners with designers.

And while most flagships set their sights on a downtown postal code, that’s not so for Simons. The 175-year-old Montreal upstart, with its weird (and successful) mash-up of high/low, is jumping into the city’s department store scene with a suitably unconventional location at Park Royal. It’ll be eschewing marble-clad interiors for a hybrid mix of high-end couture and street-level cheap, one that president and CEO Peter Simons says “creates a store environment where multiple generations can enjoy shopping.”

None of this is to suggest that we’ve returned to the glory days of the past. After all, the retail landscape is still littered with high-profile casualties—Target, Zellers, Sears, Eaton’s and my mother’s beloved Woodwards among them. But now there’s a new generation of department stores making a push for our wallets as well. If they’re lucky, they might just play host to some memory-making of their own in the future

Retail Therapy

Holt Renfrew’s Cotton Knit Jacket by Barena strikes the perfect note between relaxed and refined with its unstructured shape and impeccable tailoring | $725.

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In February, Simons launched its first major designer collection for its Maison department; Samantha Pynn takes on bedding, bath and kitchen textiles, all in pretty colours and prints like the linen-cotton Zebra tea Towel | $9.50.

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Nordstrom’s calling card is its combination of crackerjack service and fashion-forward style, and it serves up the latter with the patent leather Flossie d’Orsay Pump by L.K. Bennet | $325.

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