By all accounts, Shannon Stewart has come into her own as Harry Rosen’s new Chief Product Officer. “She’s one of the best merchants out there,” says Eleventy’s Geoff Schneiderman. “She’s taken all she’s learned over the years from previous GMM Jeff Farbstein and combined it with her own savvy instincts. She’s gained the confidence to make some big moves, leading the team through the lockdowns by maintaining her composure and sticking with the strategy. In her low-key unassuming way, she’s making a big difference.”
Shannon was studying fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto when she realized she needed some practical experience. She began cold calling for unpaid internships. “Harry Rosen was one of my few call-backs,” she admits with a laugh. “They had someone on maternity leave and needed a replacement to do filing and swatching. I met with Larry Rosen who offered me a one-month position; he even offered to pay me minimum wage! I took the job and fell in love with it: I’d done a lot of sewing in high school but had never seen such beautiful fabrics as those in menswear.” Her one-month position stretched through the summer and, when classes resumed, led to a part-time sales job at the Bloor Street store.
She confesses that she was extremely nervous at first. “I was young and female and knew nothing about menswear. Fortunately, the other sellers taught me some fundamentals: how to tie a bowtie, fold a pocket square, etc. The more I learned, the more I interacted with customers, the more I loved the job so when an opportunity arose on the buying team, I asked Larry if he’d take me on in a junior role.” He did, and she worked her way up step by step, mostly under the tutelage of Rosen’s dynamic GMM Jeff Farbstein.
“Jeff taught me the value of building relationships in the market; I witnessed time and time again how important that was. Whether or not it’s someone we currently do business with, that person could at some point prove useful. Jeff also taught me when to take calculated risks, when to make big bets, and when to ‘get off the train.’ I learned that when a trend starts to flatline, it’s just a matter of time before it fizzles. So do you stick with it and gradually phase it out or jump off and take your losses? Figuring this out is both art and science, which is why I love my job. At least now, with an outlet option, we can jump off with minimal damage.”
Shannon cites Larry Rosen as her other important mentor. “Aside for being forever grateful that he took a chance and hired me, I’ve learned from Larry to never stop learning. Larry devours books, documentaries, news. He’s a history buff; he’s always reading. He’s a wealth of knowledge on so many topics; I’m completely in awe of how much he knows.”
Asked how she survived the pandemic, both personally and professionally, Shannon responds without hesitation. “We survived by not taking our foot off the gas,” she proclaims. “We gave our customers multiple options and continued to service them however/whenever/wherever they wanted: in their homes, their offices, online. If they wanted to stand outside the store while we carried stuff back and forth to them, we did that too. Whatever it took, we just kept going…”
Not that it was easy. Shannon confides that of the 14 main line Harry Rosen stores, all 14 were closed at one point. Within Ontario, government-mandated shutdowns lasted more than 200 days! “It was a roller coaster,” she recalls. “As soon as we thought we’d be okay, we had to close again. But we kept on going, managing our inventory according to what we thought our customers would need, which obviously was lots of comfortable sportswear. So we got our hands on as many track pants and comfy tops as possible and that’s what sold. Of course, our sales were challenged but we had to keep servicing the needs of our clients.”
And using the pandemic as an opportunity to launch new concepts, Harry Rosen launched a drop-ship program on grooming products: shaving, hair, fragrance. “We’d previously just scratched the surface of this huge industry, mostly with fragrance. We added a whole slew of brands and products that we didn’t necessarily carry in-store. Our other exciting launch during this time was a collaboration with the president of the Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, and designer Patrick Assaraf. This was a capsule collection of athleisure items, with proceeds going to Black Youth Helpline (helping young people access services) and Water First (to support education in indigenous communities). This was not only a relevant capsule during a time of need but also a way to give back and maybe even attract a new audience.”
As for how she survived the pandemic personally, Shannon confides that she did just fine. “Slowing down proved to be a blessing. We were working virtually, we weren’t traveling, so I was able to spend more time with my 14-year-old daughter Ruby Jean (named for my grandmother), and my wonderful new husband. I brushed up on my cooking skills, learning that I not only enjoyed it but had a real passion for it. (My mother worked when I was young, so my sister and I were charged with preparing dinners…) Of course, I’m glad the pandemic has finally become more manageable, but I must admit the break brought me considerable joy.”
On the state of current business, Shan- non says it’s rebounded nicely. “Of course, supply chain issues are still challenging: I used to complain that our industry was too slow, and now it’s slower than ever. We no longer have the luxury of reacting to trends; we’re forced to do more forecasting which, fortunately, is something I’m comfortable with. Like everyone else, our biggest problem lately is accessing enough suits, especially for weddings and events. Luckily, we were in a decent inventory position to start with (we even attracted new customers because we had sizes) but we could have sold more.”
Among Rosen’s best sellers these days: colorful sportcoats, perhaps connoting happier times. “We’re seeing guys dressing up for events, sometimes in a suit and tie, sometimes in a sportcoat. But beyond events, guys seem generally excited about getting back into proper clothes—for dinners out, business travel, even vacations. They’re buying the whole outfit: a beautiful linen shirt to pair with swim trunks and pool slides. They’re starting to feel good about putting themselves together; they’re learning to wardrobe their lifestyles.”
Asked what she’s most excited about for fall, Shannon mentions a phenomenal shoe selection (beautiful dress shoes, sneakers, boot ‘wardrobes’), luxury sweaters that serve as jackets and sportscoats, and layering in general, mixing sportswear with tailored and outerwear pieces. Noting that many stores these days carry the same big brands, brands that are taking fewer fashion risks, Shannon talks up Harold, Rosen’s new private label brand. “With so much shopping online and competition among stores, this was our chance to offer exclusive fashion. We’d been noting a growing appetite for custom: not just for sizing but for personalization. We’ve offered private label in the past but nothing as extensive or meaningful as Har- old. We launched it with custom clothing: suits (opening retail under $1000, averaging $1200-$1400), jackets, trousers, outerwear. Then for fall, we’ll bring in ready-to-wear: beautiful cashmere sweaters, made-in-Italy footwear and tailored clothing. It’s not necessarily opening price, but it’s top-quality luxury goods offering tremendous value. (Editor’s note: Shannon is wearing a stylish custom suit; the personalized lining features photos of Ward, her very adorable French bulldog… “)
Having invested aggressively in e-commerce, Shannon shares that online sales now contribute 20 percent to total store volume; the target is 35 percent. “We do offer some resources online that we don’t carry in-store, since we don’t always have enough inventory to supply both platforms. Bottom line: we strongly believe in a digital platform. Yes, it takes a big investment but we’re seeing it pay off. Online is our fastest growing store.”
Shannon also oversees Rosen’s off-price component, both the three outlet stores (a fourth is opening this fall) and a new online venture called The Final Cut. The outlets, she explains, have two separate goals. “Outlet business is relatively untapped in Canada so we use this platform both to liquidate inventory from our full-price stores (fortunately, there’s not a lot of it these days) and to attract a customer who maybe can’t yet afford full-price but is nonetheless an important customer. We have a separate buying team for the outlets and it’s a profitable business for us. The Final Cut business, which is off-price and online only, was launched just a few months ago and is already showing signs of success.” Interestingly, the inventory here is different from what’s in the outlet stores so off-price clients may well shop both platforms.
Shannon claims she doesn’t worry about full-price customers trading down. “It rarely happens. We have a tiny crossover in locations where a store is close to an outlet, but very minimal. And to be honest, at the end of the day, whether they shop full-price or outlet, current season or past, they’re still Harry Rosen clients and we work very hard to earn their loyalty.”
Shannon describes Rosen’s multi-platform mission: “We can’t be all things to all people, but our goal is to dress men correctly for today, and for the occasion. Dressing for today means dressing modern, not too forward or flashy but making room for self-expression. It’s what I love most about menswear: roots in tradition that allow continuity but can be tweaked for creativity. I also believe that when in doubt, it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed. What’s wrong with being the best-dressed person in the room?”
As for being a woman in menswear, Shannon believes it’s an asset in any business. “You have to have diversity at the decision-making table,” she maintains. “Collaboration leads to growth. Women generally bring a different level of empathy and for us, from a practical perspective, many of our clients are women. Our sellers often stop to consider whether they’re selling the guy or his wife. Bottom line: every business should reflect the face of its customers; at Harry Rosen, 40 percent of our sellers are female.”
Known to be quiet and perhaps a bit shy, Shannon agrees with the assessment. “I like to observe before I comment.” Asked to describe herself further, she happily complies. “At heart, I’m a scientist, but I also trust my instinct. I love beautiful things and making order out of chaos: my road not taken would have been architecture or interior design. I try to lead with kindness and integrity. I don’t tout my successes because for me, success is simply being comfortable in my own skin, in my values, which are the same in business as in my personal life. What you see is what you get.”
The MR Awards is the largest and most prestigious event on the better menswear calendar, attended by the industry’s leading retailers, brands, and menswear insiders. In addition to new honorees, more than 50 Lifetime Achievement and Hall of Fame members are invited to return each year. The awards will be held at the Edison Ballroom on Sunday, July 17th, 2022, during New York menswear market week.