“If there’s a key, there must be a door,” said the young Mary Lennox upon discovering a small, ornate key in her uncle’s castle. Perhaps this quote from the famous children’s tale The Secret Garden might have been the branding inspiration for Secret Location, an immense fashion boutique and restaurant found in the epicentre of Gastown. Above the heavy glass doors at Number 1, Water Street hangs a modest blue sign in the shape of an old-fashioned key - the Secret Location logo, presumably expected to to inspire intrigue and mystery. Little else indicates the store’s existence, save for two shop windows featuring bow-legged steely mannequins stretched to surreal Japanimé proportions. Only the adventurous, the Mary Lennox in all of us, will go so far as to step over the threshold, receiving an eager smile from the lonely hostess in the adjoining restaurant, her warm expression fading as we detour left into the neighbouring store.
Entering the gargantuan white room of this high-end boutique, we see nothing so modest about what lives inside. The sense of space alone is overwhelming – we have entered through a portal into another world, a world quite different from what we know of Gastown’s dark, brick-lain historic character. Picture white and a lot of it, held up by behemoth concrete pillars, brightened further by rows of dazzling overhead track lighting and clean, birch wood floors. This is not an earthy bar or a local indie shop – this is, as described, a palatte of affluent Italy and beyond, highlighted with glass and sparkle – a museum for merchandise to be marveled at from behind an imaginary velvet rope.
If we can set our lower income timidities aside, there is endless joy to be found in the Secret Location retail mix. The content is the wet dream of the niche, non-commercial shopper. Unlike the comparable Holt Renfrew, where fine wares often cater to simpler and more classic tastes, the brands here are directed towards a younger, edgier market – a mythological class of wealthy fashionistas with money to burn on beautifully crafted (and accordingly priced) treasures of the avant garde.
The front of the room has a series of low white tables, petting zoos for furry-toed Liam Fahy oxfords, neon handbags from Paula Cademartori and printed silk scarves from Athena Procopiou. Otherworldly geometric heels from the likes of Heavy Machine and Gio Diev make patrons go “Gaga” for the unexpected. Behind these stands a white wall of cupboards, the south half cut out into the shape of a liquid puddle displaying shelves of Kirsten iPad cases, Charbonnel et Walker Violet truffles and other more attainable gifts. A long chef’s table of rare magazines, trend forecasts and picture books are a clever addition, allowing the everyday blue collar gal to bring a bit of the Secret Location spirit home with them.
The peripheral walls are where the meaty stuff resides – cutting-edge designer labels are suspended from clothing racks of white shelving and frosted glass. One sample per piece hangs securely from crystal clear hangers. Experimental gowns from Katie Ermilio, cut-out leather jackets from Francis Leon and provocative lingerie from Bordelle are just a fraction of the labels carried. The middle of the rear space offers display cases of shimmering rose gold jewelry from Mawi London, March Lab pocket watches, Tweety gadgets and specialty analogue cameras. And let us not forget the ceramic bow ties from Cor Sine Labe Doli, worn by all the waiters in the empty restaurant next door. All of these items are marked once again by small labels featuring that same mysterious key, the prices cleverly hidden of course. The ideal customer is far less concerned with cost and conversely sold on sheer quality and design. A few added touches: In the back a large grid of video imagery broadcasts fashion shows and promotional film shorts from lines carried in store. Furthermore, the change room features a computerized “mirror,” a digital wall plaque allowing customers to try on a garment, take a photo of themselves and instantly upload that image to their Twitter account. This kind of thing, for Vancouver at least, is a revolutionarily progressive concept in retail marketing technology.
Operations Manager Gina Avignoni explains that although the store has no set floor plan per se, the goal is to use the space in a way that best showcases the brands and products. The store has a diverse range and is designed to evolve. Needless to say, for such a vast space, a whopping 7000 square feet, the eye is hardly lacking in stimulus. Secret Location has managed to create a retail universe that allows customers to move fluidly from one product grouping to the next, yet never do the empty spots seem vacant or without purpose. If it is not merchandise you’re looking at, it is a design detail of the room itself – quaint and ornate wall moldings, a plush, jewel-toned chaise for non-shoppers to rest their limbs, or a giant panelled box in the centre of the room suggesting further “secret access” storage deep inside. Even certain junctions of the walls have white, prism-like polygons protruding where normal corners once were. Suffice it to say, this is all part of the master plan – every inch of the store lives and breathes the very mood of the contents within it – artistic, peculiar and inspiring.
|Fleet Ilya Harness SS 2013|
|Draw In Light, AW 2012|
As far as profitability per square foot, Avignoni is not at liberty to discuss such details. Financial particulars, especially when it comes to profit, are as secret as the name. All this is understandable, but it brings under scrutiny just how successful Secret Location actually is when it comes to making sales. Who are its customers? Even the most successful of Gastown yupsters might love to own a $300 harnessed club clutch from Larissa Hadijo or a pair of Linda Farrow sunglasses, but more adventurous investment pieces, actual clothes, might not translate amid the uber-casual, yoga pant culture of Van City. So who is the target market? Daughters of the Real Housewives? The Real Housewives themselves? And even then, are these rare society ladies enough to keep such an ambitious and costly venture afloat? The pleasant sales staff claims that the store is already developing a keen and loyal following. But skepticism remains, especially that from the local business community. The associate restaurant has received an endless list of unfavourable reviews. The operation is situated in ultimate prime real estate, the heart of the gastronomic sphere, but the restaurant sorely lacks what all the others have – heart. A white, minimalist interior might still work for a modern clothing store, but for a restaurant with an illuminated iceberg bar and a $20 bowl of otherwise forgettable mussels, all those Palm Beachy bells and whistles come across as pretentious, old hat and non-conducive to the present culinary zeitgeist of cool places to get your food and drink. The consumer is left to do a bit of brain work. We must evaluate the two projects individually, separating the poor reputation of the restaurant from the high calibre of the shop.
Shortly after Mary Lennox found that old little key, she was able to unlock a door to the Secret Garden, long time withered and neglected. She nurtured the garden back to lushness and bloom and in doing so, brought all the fragmented members of her family back together. If we are to think of the Secret Location boutique as a similar kind of story, its wealth of fashionable gems is, to some, as sacred as Eden. It would be a shame to see such an impressive project fail, as so many forward-thinking Vancouver endeavours seem to do. But as usual, timing and what the local market is ready for must always be considered. The question remains how ready Vancouver is for something as grand and radical as Secret Location. We can only hope that the future goals of the store are as well thought out as their passion for brands and strong facility for visual merchandising and display.