Unicorn. 5135 Boulevard St. Laurent, Montréal, Québec. +1 514 544 2828
Once upon a time, people designed and made stuff with their own hands. Merchants sold the work of artisans in their local shops. Anyone could purchase and own a little piece of cultural history from a place and its people; ensuring the town’s prosperity and future. Simple, huh? An enduring model for retail success. So you’d think. But today, shops like this are a rare and unique find. A unicorn, one might say.
Three years ago, Mélanie Robillard and Amelie Thellen set up shop in Montréal’s “Plateau/Mile End” district. Their idea was this: sell mostly Montréaler/Québécois/Canadian-designed clothes, jewellery and accessories, with prices to suit every budget. Having worked as manager/buyers and distributors in the city’s fashion industry for several years, they knew the business inside out. They knew the great talent, largely unknown, lurking in Montréal and saw what potential the city had to offer in terms of design. In those pre-Etsy days, they also saw that local designers could use a little help presenting and selling themselves and their work. Unicorn’s founders knew exactly who might buy their products, for how much, and why. But no one else had quite spotted the opportunity. Work by local and Canadian designers was still scattered and hard to find in Montréal and even in (much larger) Toronto.
Mélanie and Amelie run a tight ship. These two are perhaps the most methodically well-organised shopkeepers I have ever come across. They had a clear vision from the outset and put together fully detailed business and marketing plans before any loans or locations were sought. For the first while, they both had second jobs to make it work. Amelie still does. Their seriousness and dedication to the venture is remarkable, but they shrug it off, replying: “It is serious. It’s our money, it’s our job, our future.” Mélanie took an accounting class and surprised herself when she “got really into it.”
But the contents, look and feel of the shop are a testament to the pair’s equally impressive creative side. A unifying colour palette was chosen for both the shop’s decor and its wares: black, grey, navy, beige: “classic colours. Simple, easy to mix and match,” Amelie tells me. Vintage furniture, old cameras and weathered leather suitcases were sourced in grandparents’ garages and in flea markets. Mélanie – who was trained in haute couture and whose hands are “magic,” according to her biz partner – set about reupholstering Victorian sofas with new fabric and giving a lick of paint to old frames, dressing tables and shelving. Walls were adorned with the commissioned pieces of artist/illustrators Maryanna Hardy and Daniela Roessler, telling a Unicorn story. The result: a feminine, contemporary home for a select few international designers and a host of Québec and Canada’s best small fashion designers.
Take Eve Gravel, for example. Clothes designed by this young Québécoise took Montréal, the rest of Canada and now the USA by surprise; she’s been showcased from the very beginning at boutique Unicorn. Gravel has her finger on the pulse; her girly tomboy chic pieces have names like the “Wes Anderson”top; a pretty, boyish “Annie Hall” dress; and there’s an “MIA” jacket. All pieces are feminine enough to flatter but edgy enough to make an impact. She has a cult following: Mélanie and Amelie tell me some customers come in just to buy up her seasonal collections.
Valerie Dumaine is another favourite of the Unicorn shopper – dubbed “Unigirls” by the owners – her clothes have a cool sophistication thanks to clean lines and careful attention to texture and shape. Both Dumaine and Gravel’s clothes sit at the top end of the shop’s prices, with dresses selling for approximately $150-$200 CDN. There’s also Vancouver’s label D A C E and their flowy, beautiful pieces that remind me a little of Vanessa Bruno. At the other end of the spectrum, Mojito’s soft stretchy basics in high quality cotton and rayon can be bought for prices similar to American Apparel – but they’re designed and made in Canada.
Having started from just a few designers they liked, Mélanie and Amelie are now deluged by emails from not only fashion folk but also designers of jewellery and accessories. They sell leather bags by Genevieve Savard that have been refashioned, with recycled leather, into ‘now’ styles and given special features: “look, there’s a light inside…if you’re in a bar and you need to find something,” Genevieve also makes clothes and jewellery, under the name Myrtle and Pearls. The work of This Ilk also caught my eye: simple but intricate necklaces, earrings and ‘body jewellery,’ handmade from satiny fabrics that are transformed every season. Noemiah does beautiful things with feathers that would make the plainest t-shirt and jeans look fashion-forward. And La Raffinerie‘s necklaces are the kind you wish you could find in your local second-hand store. Except they’re not vintage, and she’s made them herself, by hand.
Unicorn has a massive Twitter following, a good website (that will ship internationally) and a blog. Relationships with bloggers and the online fashion world have been embraced here with open arms. Lake Jane, Une Parisienne a Montreal and À la Mode Montréal, are just a few blogs with strong readership who have become part of the Unicorn family – guest designing window displays and often even selling their own products: graphic prints (Lake Jane) and jewellery (À la Mode Montréal‘s jewellery line is La Raffinerie.
Mélanie and Amelie tell me that it’s their customer that has driven them forward. “One thing we did well is really listened to what the customer wanted…we’re not like ‘this is what we want to sell.’ It’s changed from buying what we like to what we know people will like.” And largely, made in Canada. There is something good about leaving a shop knowing a little something about just who designed and made your purchase. And knowing you made a difference: to the designer, to the (local) manufacturer, and to those hardworking people behind the shop.