For someone who feels neither millennial nor archaic when it comes to shopping, I may have found my retail corner in the most unlikely of places. This weekend I travelled to Montréal to witness the opening of Ssense Montréal, the Canadian online retailer’s new interactive shopping space on 418 rue Saint Sulpice. Its concept is simple yet original: you select your items of interest on ssense.com, they are transported from the warehouse to the space, and the next day they’re lined up on a personalised rail for you to try on in person. “We’ve realised that this is how a lot of people want to shop,” Ssense founder Rami Atallah told me. “It’s physically impossible to put 20,000 different styles into one space, but now people can select what they want from the comfort of their own home and when they get to the space everything is already ready for them.” If you, like I, are the kind of online shopper, who never gets around to returning items you don’t want, or the kind of physical shopper, who gets stressed out by too much product and the watchful eyes of shopping assistants, it’s an ideal approach to retail. Now we only need to wait for SSENSE to launch more spaces worldwide, a plan already in the works.
Interaction has long been the nut to crack for retailers, who strive to unite their physical and digital platforms. Illustrating how to get customers through the door, Ssense rang in the stark five-storey, 13,000 square-foot space designed by David Chipperfield Architects with a performance by Arca on Thursday evening. Dressed in a skimpy outfit comprised of rubber, latex and vinyl, the electronic artist slithered his way up and down the stairs and around the art installations – a pink pool filled with jasmine flowers, a fetish cage on a runway, a stockpile of cords and microphones – chanting emotional ballads in a brilliant performance that set the Ssense agenda. Founded in 2003 by three Syrian immigrant engineer brothers, the retailer was among the first to support designers like Vetements’ Demna Gvasalia and Off-White’s Virgil Abloh, who have gone on to conquer Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton, respectively. “It feels like a huge validation of what we set out to do from the early beginning,” Atallah said. “We want to support people, who have different perspectives and are not playing by the book. This is what moves the world forward.”
In profiling themselves through an alternative artist like Arca – whose performance was created in collaboration with Prada with whom he has also launched a capsule collection available on ssense.com – they reflect the increasingly underground-to-mainstream progression of a new generation of consumers. “When you look at the data of Ssense, what says most is Gucci, Balenciaga and Off-White, who somehow have created a relevance among millennials and Generation Z, who now drive all the sales,” Joerg Koch told me. The founder of the Berlin-based cult magazine 032c, he has served as editor-in-chief of Ssense for nearly three years, rethinking the ways retailers create editorial content. “These brands communicate in different ways than traditional luxury houses. For me it’s interesting to see this: either you get it or you don’t get it, and the brands that don’t get it are like luxury zombies. Their business model is dying out.” As an outsider looking in on Ssense the message is clear. This is the shopping destination where brands aren’t simply sold but shaped and moulde: a synergistic interactive space for the creators and clients of fashion.
Inspired by the unrealised ideas of innovator Cedric Price, whose ‘Fun Palace’ was the early blueprint for the Centre Pompidou, Ssense Montréal comes with a top floor café and will host book clubs and other interactive events. “I’ve been kind of obsessed with things that happen on the margins,” Koch said. “We can read what happens in London, Paris or New York, but not in cities like Montréal, Portland or Belgrade. A lot of the content we do for this place would work whether you’re in Paris, Montréal or Seoul. Ssense operates in a field that’s completely globalised. It’s a mixture between local sensibilities and global ambitions. The idea is that there will be more spaces like this worldwide, so you would always have a mix of local content – trying to correspond with the city – and stuff that can work globally. What I find so charming is that this building is here in Montréal. It’s a sentimental thing. That’s my theory but I cherish that idea.” As far as Atallah was concerned, “I have a feeling it’s going to become a sort of landmark,” he told me.
As part of its ongoing involvement in the development of designers, Ssense is currently championing Marine Serre – who won the LVMH Prize last year – and the London-based label Kwaidan Editions. “We see ourselves as a sponsor for creative talent and a place that supports people, who are challenging convention and who are moving fashion and culture forward. This place is an excellent platform to allow us to creative special events with those people and showcase this for the customer. It’s a place we can really build our community,” Atallah reflected. Asked if the outré cultural defiance embodied by an artist like Arca might be too niche for some customers, the Ssense founder said it was basically the point. “When you are supporting people, who are challenging the conventions, it’s not going to be for everybody. But those are the people influencing fashion and culture, and it’s going to take time to trickle down to the general public.”