Interview by Jenkin Au
Words by Cornelius Suen
Photography by Jenkin Au
Tell us more about yourselves.
David: Hi, my name is David. I have been living in Australia and Asia for the last four years. I moved back to Vancouver this June to start Board of Trade Co. with Eunice, whom I have known since high school. I was in Australia for school and then I moved to Asia to brainstorm and conceptualize. The initial plan was for me to stay in Asia and to work with the designers there while Eunice would run Board of Trade here. But, we figured that it would be best if we could work more closely together, so I decided to come back.
Eunice: Hi, I am Eunice and I was born and raised in Canada. I was working in the fashion industry for a few years before I decided to do this. I always knew that I wanted to do something like this but I knew that I needed some real world experience. Prior to Board of Trade Co. I had a boutique in Gastown. I started it with an investor and when you do something with an investor, your creativity can be restricted. I felt that I was too young to tie myself down to something that I knew would ultimately make me unhappy on the creative front.
I have known David since we were 13 or 14. We would Facebook each other and chat to catch up on what was going on in our lives. He congratulated me on my old store and I told him that I was leaving it. Then I was like, “Hey, you are the only other person that I would ever think of doing this with, so why not do something together!” We started having three hour Skype dates every day to hash out the details of this new project. We are the kind of friends who live in different cities after high school, keep minimal contact with each other and don’t see each other for years, but when we do talk again, it is like we were never apart and distance and time were never a factor. So, we began to hash out our expectations and our concepts for the project and we discovered that we vibed on everything.
Initially, I didn’t want to stay in Vancouver and David wanted to stay in Asia because creatively, Vancouver doesn’t do so well compared to other scenes. We felt that Vancouver needed something different, perhaps with more east coast influences and sensibilities. We decided to stay in Vancouver to do that and to be visionaries. We knew that we didn’t want the store to be in Gastown because it already had so many boutiques and was too hyped but we still wanted to be in a young and eclectic neighbourhood. Finally, we chose to locate Board of Trade Co. in Chinatown. Now our friends see pictures of our store in magazines and they think that our store is located in New York because they think that nobody would dare do this in Vancouver.
David: Everything just fell into place. We were in different cliques in high school and we didn’t talk much. We would meet up for lunch every six months and talk for hours, but that was pretty much it. After I left, we probably spoke about once a month, just to touch bases. It’s nice how everything ended up working out.
Eunice: Yeah, people were so surprised and confused that this happened because we didn’t hang out often or talk a lot at school. People were surprised that I was friends with David in high school, let alone starting a business with him now after years apart. However, everything just ended up making sense.
Tell us more about your individual roles within the business.
David: We do all the buying together. I handle the business side of things more, like the accounts and dealing with designers. When it comes to buying, we discuss together. We have a similar, but at the same time, different eye for things. We can be very fashion forward sometimes too, which I feel Vancouver may not be ready for. I think that when we curate together, our tastes complement each other very well.
Eunice: He is more high fashion minded and I really like urban street wear. It’s funny. I will bring in street brands like G.P.P.R. and Handsome and put them up and he will be like, “Leave that to HAVEN,” or other stores that will carry that style. Likewise, he may want something a little bit higher end and I will be like, “Leave that to Holt Renfrew.” We try to stock up on products that will represent the best of our individual tastes.
David: We are trying to do something in between and carry items that are edgy, fashion forward but still accessible, and in a reasonable price range.
Eunice: We carry items that are comfortable and affordable, but not cheap, like H&M. We are not pushing trendy items that will fall out of style or break apart in a year. I think we are doing alright so far.
Tell us more about the name, Board of Trade Co. Does the name speak to the brands you carry or the designers you source them from?
Eunice: We wanted to have a name that was a modern take on an archaic term.
David: We wanted to become like a trading post of old, a place where brands from up-and-coming designers can be brought together from all over the world. The store name evokes the idea of ancient trading posts, places where merchants from different parts of the world would bring their wares.
Eunice: Yeah, we want our store to be a platform where indie designers who have not been spoken for can have their voice heard. You can get big brands from many other boutiques and you tend to see the same brands over and over again. Think outside the box! Sometimes I think people go to showrooms and just buy whatever they see. On the other hand, it takes time and effort to go through blogs and magazines, searching out the good stuff to curate our stock with. We don’t like working through showrooms. We want to work with the designers themselves to build up their brand and to build up their name here in North America. That is important for us. It’s more work and more time, but it’s ultimately more satisfying for us.
Tell us more about how you guys renovated this space. It has a strong West Coast feel, with lots of wood and wood concepts throughout the store.
Eunice: When we designed the place, we decided to go with concrete, white walls, and wood to warm it up. It’s a cool concept but not overwhelming. We wanted a blank canvas where the clothing pieces and art pieces can speak for themselves. We plan on featuring art a lot more in the future. We chose everything to be raw in order to create an industrial and clinical atmosphere; we don’t see much of this stuff here in Vancouver. The design trends in Vancouver nowadays seem to gravitate towards either urban styles or woodsman type styles complete with deer heads mounted on the walls. Jeff Staples said that you can go into any boutique in New York and you will see a deer head. We wanted to stay away from trends and focus more on elements that are classic and timeless. This is our philosophy on clothes as well.
David: We are using the cheapest wood, but it looks great. We wanted to keep the Vancouver influences in the space but to do something different at the same time because we are inspired by the East Coast and Asia as well. Customers come in and say that while our store does not feel like a Vancouver store, they are reminded of Vancouver nevertheless because there are so many West Coast aspects in the space, like the raw wood.
Eunice: You go into a store like Rodan Gray and the space is immaculate and beautiful. But there is something very intimidating about that space. It’s big, white, concrete, and it makes me feel very uncomfortable. It’s a very beautiful space that’s been featured on magazine covers and has had a lot of time, money and design quality put in it, but shopping wise, I feel uncomfortable. When you go decide to go for a clinical and industrial atmosphere, the space can come off like that. We felt that wood accents would really warm our space up.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced, starting up on the edge of Chinatown?
Eunice: Foot traffic.
David: The neighbourhood has had its shady moments, but overall, it hasn’t been too bad.
Eunice: When I was in Gastown, homeless people would come in and steal stuff, right in front of us. That hasn’t happened here, but we did get robbed once. We’ve accepted that stuff like this comes with the territory. I think foot traffic is the biggest thing that we have to worry about, especially since we are starting up in an area that has never been known as a shopping destination.
David: The Chinatown I remember was not like this. This building is new, built just last year. I thought we were going to get robbed when we moved in, but it’s turned out to be very nice. The community has a less competitive feel. I still worry about foot traffic but the community is very supportive and our neighbours are always coming in to check on us. We are still building a customer base but we just don’t have hundreds of people coming in every day.
Eunice: Gastown gets the tourists. It’s already a known destination. It’s hyped up so much. It’s where everyone goes to be seen and to party. If we started up in Gastown we would just get lost in all the competition. We would just be another boutique. I feel like people who come to this store cares about the story of this store and likes it because it’s unique and interesting. No one would care if we opened up in Gastown. You have to risk it all to make your mark and to be a visionary and a young creative in Vancouver. The community here on Union Street is really cool too. We get along with our neighbours very well and we often drink with them when our stores close. It’s a very friendly atmosphere.
David: We had a business meeting with all our neighbours two weeks ago to discuss how to build up this area and to support each other. It’s great and I don’t think that you would get this anywhere else in Vancouver.
Eunice: Yeah, everyone is very helpful. Our neighbours next door went to Mexico to get married and we are helping them run the store. They wanted to pay us but I told them that if one of us couldn’t make it in to our store, they could come over to help out. There is a real sense of community here.
What are some of the challenges you have come across in the industry?
David: Sizing, because we work with a bunch of new designers. We do travel to the designers to check out their products but at the same time, until our customers see the products, we can never know whether the sizing is right. It is important to know our clientele. We work with some designers that we check out online, so we can’t go to a showroom to check the items. Sizing is the only major challenge that we have been facing.
Eunice: Yeah, sizing is difficult because we are reaching out to all these up-and-coming designers. They are not really prepared a lot of the time. If you are able to show your products in a showroom, you have already prepared your products to be available to a mass market and have accounted for the wide range of sizes. However, we usually hear about the designers that we contact in more obscure ways, like through blogs or magazines and they have not accessed a mass market yet. So, they are so happy and eager when we contact them that they give us what they have on hand that pertains to their market specifically. This is where sizing becomes an issue. For example, Handsome’s products may be for skinnier guys. The people who come in here looking for stuff are a bit bigger and we almost never have the small skinny guys coming in. It’s funny. I never knew that sizing would be such a big issue.
David: Every designer is different, even if they come from the same area. We just have to work around that.
Eunice: Another challenge that we faced is a lack of capital. I want to warn all aspiring entrepreneurs: if you want to open a business, you need a lot of capital! We were saving for ages, our parents helped us out too, and we thought we were good. We needed way more capital than we initially thought. Make sure to double or triple your initial estimate and don’t expect to pay yourself for a while.
David: Yeah, we doubled our initial investment and we are still struggling a little bit.
Eunice: I hate people who go into boutiques and think that the store owner is doing so well and that owning a boutique is a glamorous job. I want to tell every single person in our generation to do it if they love it and because they are artistically inclined and passionate about it. Don’t do it for the money because you may not see the money for one year, two years, or maybe never.
You talked about how hard it is to stock up when you started the business because you did not know who your demographic is. You guys have been in operation for two and a half months now. Do you have a better idea as to who your demographic is, based on your clientele?
Eunice: I would say that our clientele is young creatives who want something different and can’t find it anywhere else. We get older people too though.
David: One of our most frequent customers is an older lady.
Eunice: Yeah. I actually wouldn’t say that there is an age demographic. Instead, there is a mindset demographic. I think people who really enjoy art and creative designs are our demographic. We make sure that our products or of high quality and are made with care and passion. For example, our shoes are hand-made and our t-shirts are hand-sewn. People who are willing to understand this and appreciate it are our target demographic.
What are some challenges you face in marketing to your demographic?
David: When we first started, we were focusing on the young creatives. Now, there is a wider range of clientele coming in. One challenge is to adapt to this widening age range in our clientele. For example, some of our older clients may not use Facebook, so we have to adapt and send them store news through a personalized e-mail.
Eunice: Yeah, it’s funny because I was like, “I will never do an e-mailer list because it’s so annoying, so spammy, and so corporate.” Then, we started getting people asking us to do one. I finally caved in and now we have one. I thought that a lot of people don’t want an e-mailer list, but they want it! But it’s useful to notify our clientele of store news. We are very exclusive and we usually only carry three to five pieces of each item because we feel that Vancouver is saturated with the same products. We are trying to be the Aritzia of menswear. The exclusivity of our stock works in our favour because if a person sees something that interests them, they may be more inclined to pick that up on the spot because they are afraid that it won’t be in stock the next day and we may never get it back.
So would you say that Board of Trade Co. is more geared towards menswear although you carry womenswear as well?
Eunice: We are more geared towards men. We were going to just do menswear but then people wanted women’s stuff. We are going to start stocking up on more women’s stuff now because there are complaints that we stopped.
David: We have been working hard in the last two weeks to re-launch our womenswear line and to give it more attention. We have some great menswear labels coming in the spring and summer but we do not want to neglect the women.
A lot of your items are on the higher end of the price range. Do you think that this is limiting?
Eunice: It could be. I mean, there are people who may not want to pay $160 for a button-up but I think that the people who understand why an item is at its price will appreciate the item more. Take for example, a button-up that is imported and handmade out of Japanese premium cotton. At the same time, we have items that are on the lower end of the price range, like items from brands such as Pendleton or Woolrich. Pristine button ups from these brands go for $65. We have a bit of everything for everybody.
What were some of the goals that you guys had when you first started?
Eunice: We wanted to change Vancouver’s creative scene, shake up the industry and take the pretentiousness out of going into a boutique and talking to boutique owners and designers. I always felt that I had to act bigger and better than everyone else when I was in Gastown because that was the feel I got from everyone else. After leaving that store, I realized how fake that was. For the creative community to grow, boutique owners need to put themselves on the same level as their customers. Now, we strive to vibe with the designers and not come off as if we have an air about ourselves. It is important to foster a real relationship with people and promote actual, genuine communication. This is the most important thing to us. The creative community here is really lacking because people want to step on each other and are always sizing each other up. If you go to New York or Toronto, people thrive off each other and really strive to get to know each other on a real level. I was in New York over the summer and I was just sitting in a bar one day and ended up talking to a producer of Project Runway. He was about our age and we just chilling, having a conversation. He wasn’t hitting on me or anything, we were just talking as two creatives. That’s how New York is. If I did that here and just started talking to a stranger, they would probably think I was a crazy person. I mean, our friend was walking down the street one time and complimented some guy on his nice bag. The guy turned, swore at him, and told him to get lost. People here are defensive and try to be better than others. We want to break down this barrier.
What is HYPE?
Eunice: HYPE has positive and negative connotations. Positively, HYPE is something that people get excited about, something new and fresh that people want to be a part of. HYPE can also mean something that is overdone and over hyped. When you just have HYPE, it can be fleeting. We want the kind of HYPE where people can get excited about it and want to be onboard. But what happens after that HYPE? We want to be a store that can market ourselves and stay relevant. You want HYPE to be the foundation and the seedling for a following instead of something that starts out strong but then fizzle.
David: HYPE interests people. We want people to get HYPEd for the brands and designers that we have a passion for.