International style meets historic downtown at the city’s newest fashion mecca
By Andrew Mah
New York. Milan. Paris. Calgary?
It would take more than a few yards of Lycra to stretch matters and suggest that Calgary is jostling with the style capitals of the world. But the city is definitely taking steps towards the fashionista front lines. Consider its latest retail creation: Fashion Central.
Located along Stephen Avenue and 1st Street SW, Fashion Central is an alluring mix of historic architecture and sartorial flair. A collection of mostly high-end, international-flavoured boutiques lay nestled in three of the city’s oldest buildings.
Calgary’s Fashion Renaissance
It wasn’t that long ago that high-fashion was something of a dirty word in a city that prides itself on down-to-earth oil and agricultural roots. Though grubby denim remains a signature look here, as Calgary has grown, so has its taste for the runway. Witness the arrival of brand stores like Lacoste, and the rapid growth of high-end fashion retailer Holt Renfrew (who just expanded into a sprawling 150,000-sq.-ft. downtown space).
Inspired by Holt Renfrew’s success, local entrepreneur and developer David Neill gave the green light on a long-cherished project: the refurbishment of three downtown historical sites, turning them into a collection of unique fashion boutiques.
Fashion Central’s venues—the Hull Block, Macnaghten Block and Alberta Block—were all built between 1901 and 1907, and have been lovingly restored. Linoleum and drywall have been stripped away to reveal character red brick and sandstone walls, and concrete and hardwood floors have been polished. A high central atrium built into the main structure lavishes the shops with sunlight, and large windows give sparkling views of the city’s bustling downtown core.
One would expect nothing less from Fashion Central’s ideological architect. Neill has made a career out of taking old and decaying buildings and bringing them back to life with new beauty and commercially viable purpose. His company, Encorp, created the vibrant Art Central out of the gloomy eyesore that was once the city’s Arts & Media club building; they also renovated the old Alberta Hotel into one of the city’s classiest restaurants, Murrieta’s.
Fashion Central is an enviable scion of this tradition, a pleasant and humanizing break from boxy outlet stores and mega-malls. As Diba Cufi, one of Fashion Central’s new tenants, puts it, “Old buildings have their spirit.”
But the centrepiece remains the fashions themselves. “These aren’t mall brands,” quips Jodi Opsahl, Fashion Central’s leasing representative and a fashion designer herself. Opsahl’s emphasis was on bringing in exclusive medium to high-end brands—many of which are entirely new to the city.
Among the major newcomers is Betsey Johnson, the spunky and iconic New York designer famed for her crinoline skirts and abundant use of bold colours. High-fashion Brazilian shoes and handbags arrive by way of Carmen Steffens. Meanwhile, locals won’t have to head to another city to find a pair of much sought-after Wolford stockings or tights—the Austrian luxury hosiery maker debuts at Fashion Central.
While fashion-forward international brands are a highlight, so is what both Opsahl and Neill describe as a more “intimate” shopping experience—cozy boutiques where you deal directly with the owner or designer.
Drop by and you can meet Diba Cufi, who, with her husband Neki, runs two stores, Echo Bridal and Echo Evening Wear. Joséluis Castillo operates AG Silver Boutique, a family-run chain of jewellery stores out of Mexico. Castillo will enthusiastically tell you all about the merits of Mexican contemporary silver design.
You can also meet Lara Presber, a vivacious local fashion designer née architect (she still practices both) who has made waves with fashions that combine hardy materials with subtle detailing and classic cuts.
She hopes a flagship operation in Fashion Central will solidify her reputation outside of Western Canada. It’s a metaphor for Fashion Central itself—the belief that a fusion of old-fashioned bricks and mortar with the latest in contemporary styles will make people realize that Calgary is finally taking its fashion seriously.
Enter to win a $500 gift card to Fashion Central.