When Laura-Jean Bernhardson was a child in Saskatoon, she ran a comic book library out of her neighbour’s shed. According to her website, she retired it after a couple weeks when the other kids, avoiding late fees, never returned the books.
The story says a lot about Laura-Jean, whom I must call Laura-Jean–she’s entrepreneurial, enthusiastic, and has the best expectations for everyone she comes in contact with. (Of course she assumed the kids were avoiding late fees rather than just stealing copies of X-Men and Archie.) These same qualities came in handy when she founded Fresh Collective, an innovative showplace for up-and-coming designers now celebrating its 10th year.
Arriving in Toronto after a Bachelors in Fine Arts from Concordia, Laura-Jean taught herself to sew and founded Fresh Baked Goods, a company dedicated to sweaters. Canadian Living dubbed her Toronto’s Knitting Queen. She founded Fresh Collective as a place to sell her line along with those of friends who also had trouble finding retailers to carry them. Despite her name on the lease, she ran it as a co-op, with designers allotted certain space in the store but working the floor as well. How can such an idealistic scheme prove successful when so many small businesses flounder?
“A lot of what’s successful in our business, and what’s not successful in our business, flows from me,” Laura-Jean admits. Everything they did they learned as they went along. “In the very earliest days it was like, ‘Here’s your key! Have a good time! Call me if you need anything!’ And then I’d run back to my studio and make things.”
Success led her to realize she needed to set some ground rules and guidelines, and needed to take herself seriously as a business person.
“Once it was more organized, it started to become clear what it could be.”
She still saw herself as a creative person, not inclined to organization and book keeping.
“We had no inventory system until about six months ago. So we weren’t even keeping track of inventory. It’s a classic example of something that was like, ‘I don’t want to do it.’ And now it’s clear the business needs it.” Eventually retiring her own label, Laura-Jean reversed the equation in her mind. The business of Fresh Collective would be her creative project.
“The passion of what we’re creating, the love of what I do, has allowed me to do spreadsheets.”
Because Fresh Collective works so closely with their designers (at the moment they have about forty) they can respond swiftly to demand and customer feedback. At the Innovation Station, customers have the opportunity to inspect a garment that’s not yet completed.
“Let’s say a designer’s working on a blazer for fall,” Laura-Jean explains. “So we’d have a sample of that blazer, and we’d have some fabrics you can chose from. And then we ask the customer if they want to try it on. They’ll be like, ‘These pockets are too small!’ You know, whatever it is. So the designer gets feedback to make the tweaks. When they hear, ‘I’d buy that dress but it’s too short’ three times, they’re making the dress longer. So it saves the designer the problem of having made a whole bunch of something that nobody wants because of one or two tweaks they could’ve done. It allows the customers to really feel involved on what’s on the rack and feel part of the community. And have their opinions heard. It creates a win-win situation.”
She can also stay in close contact with designers about what products are moving.
“We have a dress designer in particular who sews them all herself in her apartment. We can call her up and say, ‘We’re running out of the polka dots!” And she’ll be like, ‘Okay, I have another batch of the polka dots coming, but this time I’m making the band red.’ So then we can say, This is the brand new Michelle Carey dress!’ It really just keeps it fresh.”
Larger retailers won’t, or simply can’t, respond as quickly to customer feedback. That’s why they give up, suggests Laura-Jean, and end up just telling women what they should want to wear. With designers coming and going all the time, she works hard to ensure a sense of continuity at the store. She does that by trying to understand the priorities of the customer base as much as she can.
“They’re career women, usually. They’re really up to things. They’re doing yoga. They’re travelling. They’re creative–they do crafts, or knitting. They tend to be vibrant. Many of them ride bikes, we’ve discovered. When we have pencil skirts and things you can’t ride bikes in we often find those products don’t move. They tend to be socially conscious. They’re moms. They might be like, ‘Oh, I’m just running off to a meeting and then I have to pick up my kids.’ That tells us that our customers need clothes that take them from one thing to another. So we source for versatility and items that can be layered. ”
At times, she’s had to re-evaluate her expectations of them.
“For a long time our brand promise was, everything’s made in Toronto. And then we started to think, Why? Is that what our customers really care about? Do they want us to make sure that every single thing in the store is made in Toronto? When we explored that it turned out they don’t care that much. They like that, it’s a bonus. We ended up bringing in shoes to complete the look, and although the shoes are American brands made internationally it didn’t dilute the other part of the store they liked. Instead, they loved the completeness–‘I love this dress, and these shoes go great. I’m so happy that I’m done.’ It’s part of the service, completing the look for them.”
Laura-Jean knows that in many retail stores customers feel intimidated by sales associates who either shout a “Hi!” or ignore them completely. She’s committed to nurturing a ‘happy buzz’ at Fresh Collective’s three locations that encourages guests to talk about their day and treat the employees like friends.
With plans for expansion, how can Fresh Collective stay true to its mission when it’s no longer a small company?
“That’s what we’re working on every day,” Laura-Jean says. “A lot of small businesses resist refocusing as a big business. Spreadsheets and inventory and nitty gritty details, I think a lot of small businesses are too undisciplined to do that.” She takes inspiration from her loyal customers and dedicated employees to stay true to the ideals. “Every new person who comes on board has a dream that this thing is going to work too. I can’t let them down. It’s not my small business any more. It’s way bigger than me.”
I ask if she has any regrets.
“The only thing I would do differently is get out of my way faster. I was so stubborn in so many areas, and reluctant to adapt. If I had been more laser-focused on the potential of the company I was building, we’d be worldwide by now. But that’s a really hard thing to do. That’s pretty much what’s stopping everyone from doing everything–themselves.”
Max Mosher writes about style for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @max_mosher_.