Philip Sparks' new store is a master class in building a brand.
Ossington Avenue between Queen and Dundas Streets, with its upscale restaurants, its hip bars, and its proximity to other Queen West hotspots, makes it a popular—and notorious—area during the weekends. Ossington days, meanwhile, have an entirely different feel. The auto-repair garages and Portuguese bakery provide a charming and inviting juxtaposition to the art galleries and high-end boutiques.
The latest arrival on the Ossington strip is Toronto designer Philip Sparks, whose first-ever shop opened earlier this month on adjacent Foxley Street. For some designers, a shop could be little more than an ode to vanity without much strategic purpose. Not for Sparks: his storefront is the culmination of three years of careful planning, without an apparent false step.
Sparks launched his business in 2007, at first with a focus on menswear. His work quickly drew positive notice for its clean, well-crafted looks. Three years ago, Sparks opened up his Queen Street West studio on Saturday afternoons. Customers could chat with the designer, inspect the pieces, and then get purchases properly fitted. “People were coming to us asking for the products that weren’t picked up by the wholesale market,” notes Sparks.
Soon after, Sparks opened a series of pop-up shops around the city, including one at I Miss You, a vintage store on Ossington Avenue. “We were supposed to be on Ossington for a week and we were asked to stay on,” he says. “The experience was so enjoyable, a week turned into three months.”
Sparks is no stranger to the area—he and his husband, NOW Style Editor Andrew Sardone, have lived in the neighbourhood for five years—but the time at I Miss You helped bring about a business insight. “We had always thought of [Ossington] as having heavier nighttime traffic,” he says. “What we didn’t realize was that a lot of that nighttime traffic comes back into the neighbourhood throughout the day.”
Of the returning traffic, Sparks says that much of it consists of tourists from cities like New York and Chicago, looking for shops that aren’t available back home. Sparks’ shop aims to occupy that niche. It allows for a fuller experience of the Philip Sparks brand, sometimes described as “modern nostalgia.” Clean, white walls create a minimal look meant, says Sparks, to “let the clothes and some of the pieces of furniture and fixtures be the things that stand out, as opposed to going all out and trying to have some vintage finish or wallpaper.”
Not hewing too closely to nostalgia is a smart move, given that nostalgia is sometimes susceptible to trendiness. “I don’t like using the word ‘nostalgia’ too much because I think that makes people think that you want to live in the past or that the past was better,” Sparks says. Rather, “I romanticize some of the ideas from other periods.” He sees himself as someone who builds on what came before, rather than copying it.
Although his store is aimed at premium shoppers, Sparks is realistic about where the current market is at, with its myriad of choice and price points: “People can buy clothes they want anywhere they want to buy them. It’s not something I think that can be forced on anyone,” he says. “Everybody’s going to have their own idea or mentality to it. I just hope that we are providing the product and giving people the experience they want in shopping.”
Sparks has already done some thinking about his position in the fashion marketplace. He has collaborated with Town Shoes and Danier, where collections of his shoes and bags respectively are sold, giving him a reach far beyond the city. Also, he skipped the fall-winter cycle of Fashion Week to focus on opening the store.
His boldest move may involve a complete rethinking of the Fashion Week ethos: traditionally, designers show a collection six months ahead of time to drum up interest, and to allow time for production. Sparks says he’ll instead show pieces shortly before they arrive in the store. It’s a simple change, but so utterly appropriate for the contemporary fast-fashion marketplace that it’s a little astounding more designers don’t do it. Time will tell how the gamble works, but given Sparks’ track record, it’d be foolish to bet against him.
Photos by Jaime Woo/Torontoist.