AT THE HELM: CATCHING UP WITH THE LEADING LUXURY RETAILER OF EDMONTON, ALBERTA, CANADA

by John Russel Jones

A few weeks ago, Victor de Leon, the creative director of Gatsby Golf, tipped us off to a newly opened store in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada called The Helm. Originally founded in 2012 by Chad Helm, the luxury retailer moved to a much larger, 8,200 square foot three-story space in the heart of the city’s revitalizing downtown this fall, celebrating its 10th anniversary. Upon seeing a few images of the new flagship, we wanted to catch up with Helm to hear his and the store’s story. On a quick phone call earlier this month, it was already freezing and snowing in Canada’s “Festival City.”

Retailer Chad Helm, at ease in his new location.

Located in a somewhat remote section of the country (about a three-hour drive north of Calgary, approximately 720 miles north-east of Vancouver, and over 2,000 miles north-west of Toronto) the setting presents both challenges and opportunities: as a multi-brand retailer, where some luxury brands think the location may be too far-flung, others recognize it as a great way to expand their distribution. Helm points out that about three and a half million people funnel through Edmonton — the fifth largest city in the country, and Alberta’s capital — to shop on a regular basis.

“As a kid, I was always keen on retail and enjoyed checking out the designer section at Holt Renfrew, but growing up in a blue-collar family, that was not something that was going to be part of our lifestyle,” Helm explains. “After high school, I was invited to go to Milan to work in a modeling agency and stayed for almost four years. Beyond the fashion shows and runway work, I also got to work as a showroom and fit model, where I learned a ton about the ‘boring side’ of fashion. I was lucky enough to work for brands like Gucci and Bottega Veneta, and I could see that these people were dedicated to fashion and loved their jobs. I saw that if you put enough energy into this business, you can make a living at it, so that’s where I got the itch to continue in the fashion industry. Plus, it sure beat coming back home to work in the trades where you had to get up at 5:00 am and work outside in the freezing cold all day!”

Helm returned to Canada and landed a job at a major Canadian luxury store to get some retail experience, opening his own shop about three years later. He says the mission of the store is to create something that people are proud to show off and not “just okay” for Edmonton, a city that often gets treated as a secondary city because of its proximity to Canada’s oil fields. From day one, he wanted to give people something that was “top-tier and wonderful.” Upon opening, the store offered a niche assortment of goods with a heavy tailored clothing focus. Things went well, but success was achieved with slow, organic growth, building the store’s customer base one at a time.

“As we kept growing, I really wanted to provide our customers with truly world-class things like they’d expect to find in Chicago, New York, or even Paris.

The store brought in Brunello Cucinelli in 2016, which moved Helm closer to having the world-class offering he envisioned.  As the store’s luxury business grew, he eventually added Zegna and Purple Label. Those three brands anchored the store’s place in the luxury world.

The Helm Customer

Helm maintains a menswear focus, and, although he doesn’t see getting into the women’s business anytime soon, it is on his radar because he sees a need in the market. He describes his customer as “under the radar, they appreciate nice things, and they cherish relationships. This is a city that really appreciates people who take a chance and do good things for the city; like our making an investment in the downtown core. Everyone talks about ‘supporting local,’ but I don’t think that’s a true statement everywhere. Here that really means something. People recognize the effort we put in and they’ve been very supportive. Our growth comes from luxury, and our top brands continue to be Cucinelli, Zegna, and Purple Label. Our customer base is not shy: they’re well-traveled and well-rounded. They’re astute, know product, and are willing to invest in their wardrobes. As we grow, we hope to expand offerings for that luxury customer, as well as develop our designer business. There are a lot of fashion-forward customers here that we’d like to keep engaged.” For the most part, his customer is buying standard sportswear and event-driven tailoring.

Time to grow

The store was operating out of a tight, 2,800-square-foot location, which included back-of-house operations. Recognizing that it was time for growth, Helm began to search for a new, larger location, right before the pandemic hit. He identified a location in April 2020, working with a developer who was building a brand-new building in Edmonton’s downtown.

The growth allowed Helm to focus his merchandising while remaining intimate, spreading his concept across three floors and 8,200 square feet. His main floor (at 2,800 square feet, the size of his original store) features a sportswear and denim mix with brands like Polo Double RL, Ten C, Frame, Woolrich, Sunspel, Alex Mill, and Portuguese Flannel. With the larger space, he was able to pull that product away from his elevated and tailoring brands.

The store’s mezzanine permitted Helm to create a real department where before he’d had 60 SKUs of shoes tucked here and there all over the store. His 24-foot-long footwear wall features Magnanni, Common Projects, and Diemme, as well as footwear from Polo and Cucinelli. The store has a real focus on boots – it’s Canada, after all. He’s also made space on the floor for collections from fashion-forward brands like Officine Generale and Valstar that don’t necessarily belong with the first floor mix. The top floor then features his three mainstay collections, as well as Boglioli, and LBM 1911, each merchandised in their own areas.

Where the first two floors feel more industrial, the third is more elegant and refined, but all feature the same aesthetic. All feature the same walnut millwork, lighting, etc. There’s a 10-foot-long coffee bar/POS station on the top floor, and another eight-foot-long one on the main floor.

“We were originally planning to only take the first two floors, and the top floor was supposed to be offices, which they were struggling to move. We worked that into our deal, and then chopped a 38 x 11-foot hole between the two spaces and inserted a beautiful steel staircase,” says Helm. “Opening that space revealed raw concrete, so we decided to keep the concrete floors. With that and the steel stair, by the time we got to the millwork, we knew it needed to be warm and elegant to achieve a balance.

Marketing Plan

“We’ve built our business slowly, with a 10 to 20 percent growth target, and always been very relationship focused. We’ve made a point of shooting top-tier campaigns and lookbooks, always making sure that the aesthetic and the brand looked the part. The key has always been one-on-one interaction and events. We had to step away from those during the pandemic, but here we are four months into our new location, and we’ve had a grand opening, another smaller event, and a handful of trunk shows. The one thing we’re focusing on is to be a conduit for people in relationships and networking, getting people out to not only enjoy our space but each other’s company. It’s old-fashioned.”

 

Helm points out that during the pandemic, many of his customers purchased online because they really wanted to see the store stay afloat. “As I looked at the end of the year in 2020, we were only 17 percent down. As I backtracked to figure it out, we were constantly on the phone, texting, or otherwise communicating with our clients, building or maintaining these tight relationships all year long. I think if we’d had a strictly ecommerce approach and were removed from our customers, we wouldn’t have been able to do the same thing. 2021 was amazing, and 2022 is the best year we’ve had by a long shot.”

Heading into the holidays, Helm invested in a lot of knitwear and giftable packages, anticipating a strong giving season.

“People are going to be partying again this year. It’s gonna be dinner jackets and tuxedos and champagne spilled on things,” says Helm. “I truly do feel like there will be an amazing resurgence of a classic Christmas. That’s what I’m excited for.”

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