It is approximately four hours before the doors open to a gala grand opening of the new, expansive, and game-changing Simons store in Park Royal South. With this, the mall itself is utterly transformed, unrecognizable from a few short years ago. But at the moment, Peter Simons is busily folding men’s neckties, and carefully placing them on their designated display. “I suppose I am taking hands-on a little too seriously,” he says, wryly. Whatever it takes to have the store just so, when those doors allow in the first wave of interested shoppers and many avid fans.
The Simons retail story began in 1840, when John Simons opened his dry goods and apparel store in Quebec City, at the time called Simons Dry Goods. He made it a regular practice to travel extensively, at first in Quebec and the Atlantic region, and then to Europe, to source unique, interesting products for his growing regular clientele. They seemed to appreciate the innovative items he could bring to the store. It was only in 1999 that the company expanded beyond Quebec City, to Sherbrooke and Montreal, and then, under the guidance of Peter and Richard Simons, who run the company today, an even more earnest expansion began, to Edmonton and Vancouver, among an estimated dozen or more new locations.
Today, over 50 buyers scour the globe, looking for the next item that will grace the stores’ shelves. There are several exclusive, in-house brands, which are augmented by select lines that are sourced externally. But wandering through a store, you would be hard-pressed to think of what you see as anything but a distinctly Simons item. “There is a definite tone, a consistency between all the brands we either create or carry,” says Peter.
The premises John Simons established are largely true today. Peter spends “a lot of time travelling, seeing what is out there, what might work within our company aesthetic.” He cuts a fine, assured figure as he shows the way round the West Vancouver location. “We bring the original store’s look and feel nearly intact wherever we go, but always with local design elements,” he says. “And always with local art.” An example of those design elements is the cement mural outside the south-facing doors. It is an artwork done by a Squamish artist; Park Royal South and The Village at Park Royal are situated on lands leased from the Squamish First Nation. “We wanted their blessing,” notes Peter. Every Simons store has a central design, but each also has its own flair, ensuring the place is tied directly to the community it exists in.
Art, in fact, has a central role in the Simons business. Artists from across Canada are a part of all Simons stores, and include such worthies as Pierre Laforest, Yolaine Plante, and Guido Molinari. In Park Royal, an original art installation by Bobbie Burgers graces one section, while a sculpture by Douglas Coupland called Bow Tie hovers directly over the store’s escalators, something to marvel at as you work your way between floors. “The artworks are so important to us,” Peter explains. “We are always discovering new things in our travels, but we are firmly rooted in each of the communities we are in. Local artists are the embodiment of that, in many ways.” The Simons family in fact has its own prodigious, but private, collection of art, but has also famously shared significant works, including a reconstructed Tourny Fountain, one of only seven remaining in the world—discovered in pieces in a Paris antique shop, it graces la place de l’Assemblée-Nationale in Quebec City.
Coupland is taking things to another level, by developing an art project that is travelling from Quebec, through Canada, to Vancouver. It is called 3DCanada, and involves Coupland heading to seven cities and scanning Canadians in order to create 3D-printed busts, which will in themselves comprise a large sculpture. It is a kind of post-modern cross-country check-up, which Coupland will complete in 2017, at which time the sculpture will be unveiled at the future Simons Yorkdale Shopping Centre store in Toronto. Peter loves the idea: “A single work of art that takes into itself Canadians from all across the country: how marvelous is that?” From the looks of things, Simons is hitting all the right notes.
Don’t stop now: read more great Business stories.