While Vv Magazine loves stirring up a little dust around the Montreal vs Toronto rivalry, it is my personal belief that Quebecois men have better style. Blame it on the angst of living in economic stagnation or constant political tension, if you will, but something about the French-Canadian metropolis just oozes clubber-meets-casual chic.
One of my favourite Montreal fashion start-ups, Frank & Oak, has just opened their second brick-and-mortar location right here in Toronto at 735 Queen Street West. Since its launch in 2012, Frank & Oak has quickly established itself as a lifestyle brand for the creative generation, first offering a range of modern men’s apparel, followed by grooming goods, books, and, most recently, footwear. The menswear aficionados already have their flagship in their hometown neighbourhood of Mile End in MTL and are hoping to redefine the in-store experience and offer their TO customers a new way to interact with the clothing.
You may remember their pop-up earlier this fall, also on Queen West, featuring their capsule collection with the Toronto FC soccer club. Their next collaboration is with fellow online retailer, Etsy.com. The vintage and crafts powerhouse will be teaming up with Frank & Oak to offer a series of unique home designed by – and for – the creative community. The nine-piece collection features the work of four different artists, each working in a different medium with a unique design aesthetic. Launched yesterday, the collection is now available at frankandoak.com and etsy.com.
Adding to Toronto’s rapidly growing menswear scene, the 2600 square-foot space will feature lifestyle elements including a café and barbershop, along with fully integrating aspects of their online and mobile presence. Furnished with plush couches and warm tones, the newest Frank & Oak has the vibe of a speakeasy and encourages the community to come in, have a coffee, and hang out.
I had a chance to sit down in the new space to chat with co-founder Ethan Song about that pesky Montreal vs. Toronto rivalry, what he’s most excited about setting up shop in the Big Smoke, and what it means to put the “lifestyle” back into being a lifestyle brand.
Philip Mak: How do you feel about being in Toronto?
Ethan Song: I love Toronto. There’s always this Montreal versus Toronto thing, I feel like that’s kind of ten years ago. I feel like Toronto has become an exciting, cultural city – there’s a lot going on now. We’re happy to part of that new movement in Toronto; more artistic, creative, and reviving a lot of neighbourhoods.
PM: I’ve read that Montreal is your favourite city in the world. Do you prefer Montreal over Toronto?
ES: Not necessarily. I wasn’t born in Montreal, so if you ask me what’s my favourite city, I’d say, “I love Montreal… but I also love New York and Shanghai.” I find there’s actually more stuff to do in Toronto nowadays, more newness, which I find really exciting. And Toronto’s really entrepreneurial right now, there’s a lot of people who’ve moved here from Montreal to start restaurants, bars, and things like that – it’s very inspiring.
PM: Apparently there’s 500,000 Montrealers here now. I don’t want to say we’re bringing the “cool” but…
ES: Well that’s exactly it. It used to be all about the banks and the accountants and the lawyers, now people are starting small businesses, which is interesting. Toronto is a very open, accepting city, which I don’t think everybody is aware of.
PM: You guys are opening a store in Halifax, in the Barrington area…
ES: Yeah, it’s not a full store – just a pop-up. But I think it should be good.
PM: Well Barrington is a trendy area, much like the Mile End in Montreal [where Frank & Oak started] and Queen West in Toronto. What draws you to these areas?
ES: We’re very intentional in the spaces we choose to be in. It’s not that we’re drawn to those areas, it’s more like our brand is anchored in this idea of creative neighbourhoods. It’s energetic, there’s bars and restaurants… that is the soul of the brand. I also like the fact that those neighbourhoods are not quite as developed. It’s still a little bit rough. Even here on Queen West, there are local businesses and businesses that have been here for 50 years. There’s something unique about that.
PM: So speaking of moving into these neighbourhoods, why the switch from online to brick-and-mortar Frank & Oak stores?
ES: I know we’re kind of known as an online retailer but for us, that was just the natural channel for our generation of customers. I think our ultimate goal is to bring people together and build these interesting relationships. You can do that online and in-person, in different ways. As an example, we do 70% of our business in the US but we don’t have physical stores there. What I see is that most companies like ours are going international. Yet here, in Toronto, our goal with the store is to feel local – hence, why the store is called “Frank & Oak Local.” It’s written on the window.
PM: Hence the café and the barber shop in the back?
ES: Exactly. One thing about this store is that we wanted to create a lifestyle. We got inspired by the Ace Hotel; their hotels have a very specific purpose to them but really, they’re more community-oriented spaces. We don’t want people to just to come here twice a year to buy a jacket, we want people to hang out, sit on the couch, and have some delicious [Stumptown] coffee.
PM: So exciting to have a real store finally since we loved your pop-up collaboration with the Toronto FC so much. Any more exciting collaborations ahead?
ES: We’re partnering with Etsy for a limited-edition, curated selection of home products inspired by the Frank & Oak world. Again, in the end, we’re not just selling shirts — we’re selling a lifestyle. We’re going to be featuring [the collaboration for sale] on [the Frank & Oak] site and at Etsy.com.
PM: Would you say that the lifestyle aspect is the main different between the online and physical store?
ES: I think on the physical side, it’s more of an experience – a multi-sensorial experience. Here, we’re giving you a taste of what our brand stands for with the quality of the [Stumptown] coffee. You can speak to people and really experience the product. No matter how immersive an online experience is, ultimately, you’re seeing it through a screen. In a physical space, you get inspired not just by a film – you’re part of that film. I think that’s why people tend to say stores are dead. Stores, in a traditional sense, as a transactional space, are not interesting anymore. But the physicality of spaces is just as attractive as it’s ever been.
PM: Do you think people got so into online shopping that they’re now coming back more to physical spaces?
ES: I think so. I think in the end, as a brand, as a company, what’re we trying to do? We’re actually not just trying to sell clothing. I mean, clothing sells [online] is great and that’s how we pay for space for people, but really, we’re trying to build a relationship with you. There’s nothing like shaking a hand, saying hi, making a recommendation… that’s what we’re trying to bring to our space. What’s really interesting about our space is the community aspect that comes with the café and barbershop. The second part is everything that has to do with integrating everything that has to do with the physical experience and the online experience.
PM: Does this have something to do with Frank & Oak’s vertical integration business model?
ES: The traditional sense of vertical integration comes from that you are the product, you design the product, and you are the product retailer. This means there is no wholesaler, distribution, or intermediate. We want to extend on that and have a personal relationship with our customers. We want to integrate all the way to you as a person. That’s the kind of service we offer only and, hopefully, that’s the kind of service we can offer in-store as well.
Images courtesy of Jocelyn Reynolds
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