From a small shoe store opened in 1990, to an expansion across Canada with gravitypope Tailored Goods, Louise Dirks has been bringing us carefully chosen fashions for decades. Her Whyte Avenue location has been a pillar in the locally owned, independent boutique scene, and is considered an institution in the city. We loved getting to know Louise, her story, travels, and experiences and luxuries she collects along the way.
Tell us about your beginnings in 1990. How did you come up with the concept of gravitypope?
I have always loved fashion. In the early 80’s, I started my career working in fashion retail and then studied clothing & textiles at U of A. Later, I co-owned an import shop just off Whyte Avenue. We started importing footwear, namely Dr. Martens. The demand was so fantastic, we decided to open a specific shoe shop right on Whyte Avenue. The timing was great because there were no shoe shops in the vicinity and Whyte Avenue was prospering. As I knew how to import, I chose footwear from France, Spain, Italy and many other countries not readily available in the North American market. gravitypope fast became my baby and I took sole ownership in 1992.
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How did you decide to expand across Canada, and what were the biggest challenges during these expansions?
The expansion process was quite organic. I opened my second shop in Calgary 10 years after opening the original gravitypope on Whyte Ave. Calgary clients were driving to Edmonton to shop at gravitypope. They pressed us to expand to Calgary, so we heeded. A similar thing happened with Vancouver and Toronto. The demand for the unique selection of our brands and products provided incentive to open more shops. This, in combination with the ability to develop career opportunities for my team were the main incentives for expansion and growth.
The challenges continue to be many.
Inventory: Choosing and purchasing the right amount-not too much but enough to sustain healthy cash flow and not create space problems in the stores and warehouses.
Staffing: Finding the right employee for each role, motivating, training and effectively retaining employees.
Brick & Mortar Stores: Finding retail spaces, negotiating and renegotiating leases and renovating stores.
Web Store: Finding Cost effective ways to get product online to market and sell. Marketing: staying competitive and relevant while maintaining cash flow can be very difficult in today’s volatile retail environment.
Constantly searching for effective solutions and implementing efficient systems in a timely manner is key to the ongoing success of the business.
Her Whyte Avenue location has been a pillar in the locally owned, independent boutique scene, and is considered an institution in the city.
Edmonton’s newest lifestyle magazine Uncovering the best in hidden gems around the city.
We know it’s probably like asking which child is your favourite, but is there a store you’re most connected to?
As my mother used to say about her 8 children, ‘I love them all equally’. I can truly say, I do love them all equally. They are all special and important to me. Each shop was a 2 to 3 year project to implement and holds a special place in my heart. I put a lot of time and energy into finding the right location, negotiating the lease, designing the space, stocking and staffing the store and creating a unique, welcoming environment for the client. I pride myself on the beauty and individuality of each store. Each store has its own feel but all are integrally gravitypope.
With so much travel, where do you feel at home the most?
Italy (mainly Milan) is my second home. I have been traveling to Milan 2 to 4 times a year for almost 30 years and each time I arrive, I feel like I’m home. I love the culture, the creativity and the warmth of the people. I would love to retire in Italy one day.
There are many designer brands that can only be found in gravitypope. What are some of the favourites for the demographics you serve, who stands out?
We have many thoughtfully designed, hand crafted beautiful brands. Some of my long time footwear favourites would be Moma, Officine Creative, Fiorentini & Baker, Halmanera, (Italy) Chie Mihara, Coclico, (Spain) Church’s, and Common Projects. These and many of our other brands are carefully crafted in small batches, made for a discerning consumer who wants to purchase a quality product that can stand the test of time.
My favourite clothing brands include Barena, Labo Art, (Italy), Sophie D’Hoore, Stephan Schneider, (Belgium), Margaret Howell, (England) Antipast, Beams and Sarahwear (Japan). The impeccable attention to good design, styling, and quality fabrication make these brands special.
How has the pandemic impacted your worklife?
I have never worked so hard just trying to keep up with all the challenges and issues going on due to the pandemic. We closed our stores March 17 just as all our spring product was arriving. We were fortunate to have a webstore where we could continue to sell some product and our sales online did increase, but far and away not enough to make up what we would have sold in our brick and mortar stores. As sales online increased, this brought its own set of problems. We struggled to process orders quickly and efficiently. We use inventory from our stores to fulfill online sales and as we had laid off most employees at store level, we did not have enough hands to process the increased volume of online orders. We quickly realised we needed better systems. We are heavily overstocked in spring product as we have only sold a small fraction of what we would normally sell. The decrease in sales has put major pressure on accounts payable with the slowing of cash flow. To help offset the expected inventory excess, we have cancelled a portion of AW2020 product where we could have if it was not already in production. We struggled with how much product to cancel as we don’t know what the retail landscape will look like for fall. Staffing has been another big problem with employee layoffs and employees returning to work. Despite adhering to all regulations for safe reopening, we have issues with employees not wanting to come back. As thankful as I am for government assistance, the wage and rent subsidies are not only confusing and constantly changing, but time consuming to administer. The list goes on and on.
What changes do you see coming to the retail world?
In the 30 years I have owned my business, so much has changed in the world of fashion retail. Today, there is simply too much product on the market and it does not hold the same value it once did. There are too many brands, too many deliveries every season and way too much fast fashion. The American department store model of marking down product 30 days after receipt has pushed fashion retail into a terrible tailspin. As a retailer, I have always preferred to buy less product of better quality and keep it at regular price until the end of season. I strongly believe this is the only way fashion can stay sustainable in the future. As a consumer, I believe product should be purchased because you love it and want to wear it for many years, not something you buy for a season or because it is on sale and then throw away. My philosophy is to buy one or two beautiful, quality items every season that stand the test of time, where you feel special with every wear, instead of buying many fast fashion items and regularly throwing them away. This will not only save the current troubled fashion industry, but also help to save the planet. Currently, a movement is being initiated in Europe spearheaded by Dries Van Noten, where the mandate is to produce less product with less seasons so there is less overage. This will help to deter the glut of product in the market, the resulting markdowns and unnecessary waste. This movement is attempting to bring fashion retail back to a more sustainable model. I am in agreement with this movement. As I have done for 30 years, I will continue to discerningly and carefully choose product with small batch production from craftspeople who create to last and be loved for many years. I say, shop less and buy better.
For many people, and looking from the outside, you have a dream job. Running a clothing and shoe enterprise, travelling, choosing fantastic brands to bring to your clients…But there must be an incredible amount of work invested in your business, so tell us what motivates you?
My love of fashion and my wish to use my abilities and energy to contribute to enriching society around me and to enhance the community of my family, my employees and my clients, both past and present.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs today?
There are currently many factors working against entrepreneurs in the fashion retail industry. I would have to say, tread carefully and don’t bite off more than you can chew. If it is sincerely a passion you must follow, stay small with one store. You will have way less headaches.
Since you travel a lot for work, what are your travel luxuries that you like to have when hopping from one city to another?
The greatest luxury while travelling for work would be when I have a few days off in between buying commitments. Sometimes when the timing works, I can take a short 3 or 4 day excursion to other parts of Italy or Spain. It is the perfect amount of time to discover a new magical place. A few of my favourite spots are Puglia, Tuscany, Naples, Corsica and Mallorca. While working, my favorite luxuries are simply walking through the cobbled streets of Paris and Milan, finding vendors and pretty little shops. I also love dinner time and discovering new restaurants or frequenting long time favourite haunts in Paris and Milan.
How do you relax and unwind after a busy day?
I usually spend an hour or two walking with my dog, Henry in the river valley. This is a great way to separate myself from the all encompassing trials of the work day. Henry has been a solid grounding force for me. He is always there to sooth and make me feel better and I discovered the healthiness of a good long walk because of him. I also spend lots of time with my husband Arthur, who has been my greatest supporter, I literally would not be where I am today without him.
How do you spend your day off?
I enjoy hanging out at home listening to good music or watching a good movie. I also like to garden, bake bread, and go for walks.
What are your favourite activities in the city?
Hiking or bike riding in our beautiful river valley. Going out for a delicious meal with friends. Entertaining friends and family at home.
Favourite restaurant, and what do you order there?
Uchellinos is definitely one of my favourites. The Panzanella Salad and Cacio et Pepe are my favourite! I also love Wasabi – they make the best Negitoro Roll and delicious Blackened Cod.
This summer, many Canadians will be spending their summer in Canada. Can you share some of your favourite Canadian vacation spots?
Backcountry hiking in Kananaskis; exploring Vancouver and the Gulf Islands; touring southern BC Wine Country; lake life at Muskoka Cottage Country; spending time with family, camping and golfing at Hidden Valley Golf Course in Northern Alberta.
One word you’d like to say about the first half of 2020?
One word you’d like to see in the second half of 2020?
Modern Luxuria’s mission is to bring our readers the best of what the city has to offer, and that includes all luxuries, from great ice cream to great real estate, and everything in between. What would be a few of your go-to luxuries?
The Artworks for special flowers and beautiful gifts, Bar Bricco, Uchellinos, and Corso 32 for delicious food and great drinks, Color De Vino for a great selection of wine and spirits, Made by Marcus for great ice cream, the Old Strathcona Farmers Market for fresh local produce.
Places To Be
See this month's local flavours, products, and services.