La Maison Simons, has been a retailer for 176 years, and their private brand “Twik” has existed for the last fifty. But in the fickle fashion world, that long history is no guarantee of retail success when exporting your concept to new markets. The family-owned fashion department store from Quebec City has just opened its first “Simons” location at Square One in the Toronto area market. Simons_SquareOne_Mississauga_2

It’s half way along a major growth plan that prioritizes large physical retail space in a bid to capture a significant stake in the Canadian retail landscape. Simons has invested an estimated C$200 million in a national five-city expansion plan that began in Edmonton in 2012, their first store outside the province of Quebec.

Private brands represent more than 30% of Simons’ annual sales.“We are on a quest to inspire and delight shoppers with distinctive fashions and a captivating retail space,” said Peter Simons, the fifth generation of La Maison Simons founders, and the current chief executive officer. Simons describes their retail brand as an authority in fashion with a distinctive shopping concept.

Simons trades mostly at the moderate-price point and only grazes the smaller but hotly contested high-end designer segment being served by new entrants Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, and incumbents Holt Renfrew and Hudson’s Bay.

Using private brands and retail space to reduce risk
Since 2010, Simons has been able to reach English Canada through an e-commerce site, which currently generates about 10% of sales and growing. Opening over 500,000 square feet in new physical retail spaces suggests Simons considers the store environment is a requirement to introduce their existing blend of designer labels and private brand assets to new markets.

Unlike H&M, they have not used  limited edition collaborations with designers to achieve private brand credibility. Simon’s flatters and elevates its private brands, by showcasing them alongside true designer labels.

High fashion designer names are found in “Edito” a boutique-like space. Familiar national brand names, as well as ‘discovery’ brands are mixed in among their eight distinct private label environments. Unlike e-commerce, physical proximity on the sales floor facilitates style, quality and price comparisons and cross selling.

It’s the way consumers are inspired, shop and dress today. And it reduces risk.

“Ultimately, private label offers retailers control,” says Ashlee Froese, brand and fashion lawyer and partner at Fogler, Rubinoff LLP in Toronto. For some private brand retailers, the risk is they get the fashion wrong, or their brand lacks cache. For Simons, private label is a risk reduction strategy. “If the retailer already has a solid and loyal consumer base, the retailer can architect its private label product line for that consumer demographic, which affords more stability than gambling on a third party brand.”

Simons uses this “high-low” buying and merchandising to sell and deliver margins.

Simons-TWIK_0Fifty Year History of Private Brands
Simons private brand history includes “Twik” created in 1966, and “Contemporaine”, created in 1971.  Simons’ expansion of private brands began in 1999 with fashion forward Icōne for women followed by le 31 for men. Today they have 8 private brands, each targeting a different customer and product niche:Simons_Contemporaine_3

Women’s Men’s
IcōneAvant-Garde. Confident. Worldly.Le 31
ContemporaineElegant. Professional. Dynamic.Le 31
TwikYoung. Edgy. Street wear.DJAB
i.Fiv5Action. Performance. Technical Skill.i.Fiv5
MiiyuSexy. Feminine. Comfortable. 
 Simons Maison 

, was created for the ‘next generation’. Today it continues to be focused on ‘next gen’, offering denim and casual fashions at ‘fast fashion’ prices. Simons describes TWIK is “for the eclectic young fashionista always on the prowl for funky, fresh looks sure to turn heads on social media”. Miiyu is women’s sleepwear, intimates and loungewear, the i.Fiv5 private brand is for both men and women and focused on active performance wear and accessories. Exclusively for men, le 31 offers fashionable contemporary apparel and accessories, while DJAB, introduced in 2002, is the male counterpart to Twik offering denim-focused casual, street wear. Maison is the home décor private brand for bed, bath, kitchen and home accents.

Simons-TWIK_3At Square One on opening day, one could find high-end international designer brand names in the Edito space including: Balmain, Dsquared2, 3.1 Phillip Lim, Acne Studios, Dries Van Noten. Relevant and directional pieces from mainstream brands like Novelti and Diane Von Furstenberg, Ted Baker and G-Star Raw, Adidas and Nike are sprinkled in among an extensive private assortment.

Simons_Icone_1Exporting the Simons Brand of Fashion
The challenge for Simons is to export their proven fashion formula beyond Quebec. Simons enjoys very high recognition and market share in its home province where it has been cultivating fashion credibility for their private brands for 50 years.

It’s not new that large fashion retailers house both designer brands and private brands under one roof. What Simons does is different. They don’t merchandise by collection, brand or commodity. They curate and mix the assortment by highly defined customer segment tied to each private brand.

Simons hybrid fashion offer is translating well to markets in English Canada. Savvy French-Canadian chic is their unique fashion point-of-view.

Simons blends international designers with up-to-the-minute private brands. They have accessible prices and an approachable English sounding store name. Simons has ‘exported’ French-Canadian style and seems to have bridged the culture and age gaps where other national and international retailers often have difficulty within Canada’s vast diversity.

Private Brand Buying
Simon’s buying structure is organized around their private brand segments. Each has a well-developed profile, with distinct fashion tastes, favorite brands, prices, shopping behavior and media habits along with demographics.

It goes further. Simons buying teams select key directional items from external brands, but they also ‘buy’ from their assortment created by their private label teams. Every item, including private brands, has to earn its way into the assortment.

Along with their private brand strengths, Simons has also executed well on an operational model to launch in new markets outside Quebec.

To ensure they can export a consistent culture of customer service that can explain its unique mix of designer and private brands, Simons pairs new stores with mentor teams from existing stores. They shadow and train the new employees and smooth the transition.

Welcoming a new audience to Simons Style Universe
The Mississauga Square One opening is the first opportunity for the company to introduce Toronto area consumers to their large-format retail concept and full presentation of eight private brands. Simons launched a basic local awareness campaign including outdoor, transit, indoor, movie theatre, newspaper, direct marketing and web. They also introduced a “My Simons” loyalty program.

A 30 second video created by Cossette introduces Simons and drives customers to the new store. “176 years of fashion, 48 world-class designers, 8 private collections. Find us at

Square One.” It is running on YouTube pre-roll and in theatres in the Toronto area market.

By late 2017, Simons will have added over half a million square feet of new retail including in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa. They have further announced plans for two additional Toronto stores by 2018, and a new state of the art flagship in Quebec City.

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Kirsten Mogg
Kirsten Mogg Founder and managing director of Gyld Collective , a collaborative communications and branding firm, she is also contributing editor to Trends Magazine , a Canadian business publication, where she writes about retail and design innovators. Trained in business and communications, she has worked with many leading lifestyle and fashion brands, innovative manufacturers and retailers in Canada, the US and internationally for over 15 years.