Sewing the Seeds: Why Alberta’s fashion scene is going digital
Moving online eliminates some challenges associated with running a physical retail space
by Alix Kemp
Nokomis was once a success story in Alberta’s fashion and retail scene. The Edmonton fashion boutique, known for its wide selection of clothes made by Canadian designers, opened in 2002, launched its own in-house line that was sold across the country, and in 2007 moved into a desirable 150 square-metre retail space on Whyte Avenue. But in January 2011, just a year shy of its 10-year anniversary, Nokomis shut its doors.
For many loyal Nokomis shoppers, the store’s closure was a tragedy. For Amanda Poetker, a professional photographer and former customer, it was the germ of an idea. “When they closed, I pretty much knew exactly why they were closing. The economy wasn’t great, the price point was really high, sort of a niche market, their space was way too big and expensive for how much product they were able to sell. I immediately started wondering, how can you combat that? And the automatic thing was to go online.” This past April, inspired by Nokomis as well as successful American web-based retailers like ModCloth and ShopRuche, Poetker launched Pockets and Pearls, an online store that sells clothes made and designed in Canada. By July, the store hosted seven designers from Edmonton and Calgary selling women’s apparel, jewelry and even stationery.
- Adeline’s Attic Vintage: Vintage 1930s Black ALWYN Enamel Cosmetic Compact - $62.03
- Adeline’s Attic Vintage: 1930s Rose Pink Braided Satin Evening Sandal Heels - $72.73
- Adeline’s Attic Vintage: 1960s ‘Brilliant Blue Roses’ White & Floral Shift Dress - $40.6
- Adeline’s Attic Vintage: Vintage 1940s Tan & White Striped Seersucker Blouse Top and Skirt Set - $72.00
- Broken Ghost Clothing: Brown Earth Tone Fairy Skirt - $69.00 CAD
- Broken Ghost Clothing: Teal Blue Black Sequin Top - $59.00
- Broken Ghost Clothing: Navy Blue Ruffled Tunic - $59.00
- Broken Ghost Clothing: Pink Women’s Top Black Sequins Peplum Shirt - $64.00
- Pockets and Pearls: Selby DressCinder + Smoke - $79.00
- Pockets and Pearls: Constantinople Chain Necklace Eliasz and Ella - $60.00
- Pockets and Pearls: Navy Flower Print Dress Snaggle - $192.00
- Pockets and Pearls: Anna DressCinder + Smoke - $86.00
Moving online has eliminated some of the challenges associated with running a physical retail space – Poetker can run the website out of her photography studio, and has much lower overhead, which makes the slim margins associated with selling handmade clothing more feasible. For designers, the website and others like it provide a stepping stone between the local farmers’ markets and large retailers, letting designers access a national (or international) market without needing to establish relationships with a network of boutique stores.
Janna Clearwater, the designer behind Cinder + Smoke, was one of the first designers to sign on with Pockets and Pearls. Like many independent fashion designers, Clearwater got her start in a local farmers’ market. She was eventually picked up by Nokomis, and her line is now carried by boutique shops from Vancouver to Ottawa. Pockets and Pearls, however, gives her access to an ever wider market without the hassle of doing the online marketing herself. “With Pockets and Pearls, [Poetker] has made it so easy for me to sell online, it’s been awesome. It’s like selling to a store, and she just takes care of everything,” she says.
Pockets and Pearls is part of a growing move towards online retail for local, independent fashion retailers. Many designers and retailers are taking a more DIY approach to web-based retail thanks to Etsy, the Brooklyn-based online craft and vintage market. Etsy is an online marketplace where small retailers can sell handmade goods, vintage items and craft supplies, and since it was founded in 2005 it has exploded in popularity. The site is home to more than 900,000 active shops and 25 million members from around the world, selling everything from custom leather briefcases to hand-crafted furniture.
Among those retailers is Jill MacLachlan, who opened her Etsy shop, Adeline’s Attic Vintage, in 2009 shortly after moving to a small town outside Hamilton, Ontario. It started out as just something to do while she looked for work as a college instructor, but when a job didn’t materialize she took the business full-time. When she moved again, this time to Edmonton, there was no need to close down shop– Adeline’s Attic and all its customers stayed right where they were. MacLachlan’s shop averages more than 250 sales a year, with items ranging between $30 and $250 going to customers from all over Canada and the U.S. “I would not be making the livelihood that I am if I was just a brick and mortar shop,” MacLachlan says. “There’s just not the demand in Alberta or even Canada for the kind of niche items that I’m selling. Etsy allows me to access customers who are living in places where there isn’t very much vintage, where the supply is limited and the price is a lot higher.”
Moving online, however, does have its disadvantages, and it’s not as simple as setting up a digital storefront and waiting for customers to appear. “You can put stuff online, but if you don’t go about promoting it the proper way, or if you don’t work with the right people, it’ll just sit there,” says Clearwater. Because of the amount of time it takes to manage an Etsy store, Clearwater says that while Cinder + Smoke does have a presence on the site, she doesn’t update it often. When you factor in the time it takes to include photographs and write the item description, Clearwater says that it can take an entire day just to post six items. For MacLachlan too, much of her time is spent on marketing her items effectively. “Learning how to effectively tag your listings is important, and I’ve heard from customers the way you describe your items is really important, too.” She also has to maintain an active presence on a number of social networks, including Twitter, Pinterest and her vintage-themed blog, to keep attracting new customers.
For standalone stores like Pockets and Pearls, competition is stiff, and it can be difficult to emphasize the high quality of handmade garments. “A lot of people in the online arena are competing solely on price, so there’s a lot of bargain shopping that happens on the net. People are more likely to buy the cheaper, lower quality items because it’s hard to tell when you’re just looking at a picture.” Etsy retailers benefit from being a part of a larger site where shoppers are already in the market for handmade or vintage items, but there’s still competition between the individual shops. Jana Foehrenbach runs two Etsy stores from her home in Calgary, BrokenGhostClothing for women’s apparel and MyFairMaiden for children’s clothes, although she’s gradually winding down the second store. “There’s a lot of people that do children’s clothing, and because there’s so many the price point is lowered. I just don’t find it’s worth my time as much anymore,” she says. Sizing is another issue, especially for women’s retail, where dress sizes vary depending on the brand, or, in the case of handmade items, the designer. A size 6 item from Cinder + Smoke could be equivalent to a size 2 from the Gap, and online shoppers have to guess at what might fit. Poetker and Clearwater have addressed that problem by expanding their online offerings to include one-size-fits all accessories – Pockets and Pearls carries a selection of jewellery, and Clearwater creates handmade bags from recycled leather jackets to sell online.
Still, those challenges aside, the online marketplace offers a ray of hope for designers facing the uncertainty of trying to make a living through farmers’ markets and local boutiques. In March, St. Albert-based Meese Clothing, a boutique similar in concept to Nokomis, went out of business after six years in operation. Poetker hopes that her website, now in its fifth month, won’t fall victim to the same fate. “All the designers are on the site because they believe in it and they want it to work,” she says. With fewer options for brick and mortar retail, they might need it to.