Vancouver's lifestyle boutiques are worth seeking out

Walking up Main Street this morning, it was hard not to stare wistfully at the location that until earlier this year was home to high-end fashion boutique Jonathan & Olivia. As a student, the store acted as safe haven for me when the stresses of school made me question my chosen industry – so it was a huge blow when owner Jackie O’Brien decided in January to relocate to Toronto, closing the Vancouver store in the process.

While Jonathan & Olivia continues to thrive online and from its Toronto location, its absence in Vancouver is certainly felt. Unlike traditional retail outlets in which staff are driven by commission and sales goals, Jonathan & Olivia provided an open forum for intelligent fashion discussion. I always felt welcome and comfortable in the store, despite the fact that I rarely had any money to spend, and I always found myself loitering to chat with the salesgirls – and often Jackie herself – about a coat pocket detail, a debut collection or the content of a men’s sweater. It was in Jonathan & Olivia that I first heard the name Alexander Wang and I can credit the enthusiasm of the staff for the fact that I own – and, two years later, still love – a beautiful coat by Opening Ceremony.

Jonathan & Olivia may have been somewhat of a rara avis by Vancouver standards – most noticeably because the fashion-forward shop was situated not in Gastown, but in the somewhat sleepier neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant – but it is a comfort to see that the city’s appreciation for fashionable retail outlets continues to flourish long after Jackie’s departure. New “lifestyle” boutiques seem to pop up almost monthly, and while some of them may end up having dwindling shelf lives the majority of them seem to be on the right track.

MR. LEE’S GENERAL STORE (109 East Broadway)

As one store closed, January also welcomed the opening of the now-ubiquitous Mr. Lee’s General Store. Opened by Jeff Petry, Belmont Barbershop owner Dustin Fishbook and his then-lady-friend Meghan Paterson, the bedroom-sized shop is aimed at the modern man who could be classified somewhere between metrosexual and woodsman. But with a range of lifestyle products both vintage and contemporary (including antique Boy Scout badges, Portland-based Stumptown Coffee and a plethora of mustache-related grooming products) the store appeals to a much broader audience. A self-proclaimed “one-stop shop to heal all your hankerings and make life a little sweeter,” Mr. Lee’s nostalgic demeanor lends itself well to creating a slower shopping experience and emphasizing that quality over quantity is not a thing of the past. With a small but carefully chosen selection of men’s shirts, ties, socks and shoes, the store has created a name for itself as being a purveyor of fine things while also remaining casual and hip (the latter of which is unfortunately apparent in the sales staff’s lack of interest in customer service – good thing the shop is easy to self-navigate).

OLD FAITHFUL (320 West Cordova)

Just as soon as Mr. Lee’s opened, word began spreading of another soon-to-be general store in Gastown. Established by Walter Mannin and girlfriend Savannah Olsen (it’s a theme!), Old Faithful is “an everyday living store stocking quality goods,” and runs in such a similar vein to Mr. Lee’s that when I first heard about it I thought the two must be affiliated. Like the Mount Pleasant store, Old Faithful puts considerable emphasis on quality and reiterates the idea of “timelessness” not just in the product that the store stocks, but also in the space itself – a historic Gastown building with expansive ceilings and exposed brick walls, restored to their original 1903 appearance. Indeed, the shop receives a lot of attention for its attractive interior (designed by the owners themselves) and the spacious layout and well-organized shelves do lend themselves well to browsing, but it’s the product itself that makes the shop a delight to peruse. With decidedly less clothing than Mr. Lee’s, Old Faithful focuses more on housewares, including dishes and furniture, soaps and stationary, and a beautiful selection of cacti. However step into the “display house,” (a playhouse-looking structure built by Mannin himself) and one will find a nice assortment of leather wallets and fantastic utilitarian bags by MAKR. In honour of their first winter, perhaps this season Mannin and Olsen will find room in the shop for some nice gloves and scarves as well.

Refreshingly, it seems as though the era of the stylish straight man has come about once again – a fact further reiterated by the success of recently relocated menswear boutique Roden Gray (8 Water Street), which incidentally acts as somewhat of a male equivalent to the aforementioned Jonathan & Olivia. But stylish ladies never fear, the fashion industry is far from being male-dominated (as if it ever will be), a point ratified by Mount Pleasant’s newest retail addition, The Hach.

THE HACH (197 East 17th Avenue)

Tucked just off of Main Street in a small space previously inhabited by artist studio-cum-craft market Blim, The Hach (pronounced “hawk”) is a boutique that manages to be both adorable and sophisticated. The store, which opened its doors in June of this year, offers a nice combination of clothing, accessories, stationary and an assortment of quaint items that you don’t realize you need until you see them. Like Blim before it, the shop manages to be both small and well stocked. A selection of silk blouses, printed leggings and well-cut coats line the walls while antique wooden tables piled high with notebooks, bookmarks and greeting cards for every occasion. Korean-German owner Tara Hach, previously an employee of local clothing success Obakki, speaks to Vancouver’s love of all things cute and kitschy and draws on childhood travel experiences to create the unique mix of items. An Emily Carr graduate, Tara also uses the space as a working studio (presumably in the back of the shop unless she does some serious reorganizing at night) and her line of casual ladies wear, M. Young, also finds a home in the store.

If Mr. Lee’s relies on nostalgia and Old Faithful uses rustic charm to get customers in the door, it’s The Hach’s unmistakable Asian influence that gives the store its drawing power. And in all three cases, the fa├žade is worth the visit.

Kala Vilches is a graduate from the fashion program at Kwantlen college. Because of that, as well as her notably next-level wardrobe, she is in a position to share her experiences and woes with us. Find her on Facebook. Then "like" her photos. She loves that.

//Kala Vilches

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