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Lost Art: Citizen Clothing and Public Boutique Resurrect Service Based Retail

One of the finest quotes I’ve unearthed in my time as a cultural journalist can be paraphrased as follows:
I think we have this misconception living in Victoria that things going on outside of here are happening on such a bigger scale. That we’re placated by something that’s not quite as good. The more you travel, the more you see that that’s not true. It starts to eliminate the reasons why you wouldn’t want to put the effort in and do something extraordinary in Victoria.

These are the words of a local barber. In my experience, his statement is dead-on.

But what happens when you take that ethos and extend it even further? What happens when you take two of Victoria’s finest independent boutiques and squirrel them away in central Oak Bay — one of Victoria’s smallest and oldest municipalities — shielded from the hipster havens of Lower Johnson and the millennial chicness of the Atrium Building? This is the story of Citizen Clothing and Public Boutique.

PHOTOS – click either image then click NEXT or hit “n” to cycle through them…

When I first met Patrick Tier, he wasn’t entirely sure what would happen either. After 20 years in men’s clothing – from retailing to working as a sales director — Tier certainly knew the industry. But he’ll admit that the neighbourhood itself was a gamble:

“I always thought I’d open a shop in due time,” Tier said when asked about his inspiration for Citizen Clothing. “We were just waiting for the right location to come up. We wanted to be community based. We didn’t want to put our shop downtown, for no other reason then there are a lot of great shops downtown already.” Understanding Victoria’s tendency to champion local, independent retail, he settled on a spot on Oak Bay’s Estevan Avenue, somewhere Tier felt a man couldn’t even go out and find a pair of socks. He erected Citizen on the pillar of traditional service based retail.

That was 16 months ago. So far the decision has paid off.

Since its inception in early 2010, Citizen has matured into a community staple. But unwilling to slow down, Tier’s extended his service centered brand to Citizen’s recently opened sister-store, Public Boutique on Oak Bay Avenue, as well as an ever-expanding list of collaborations and projects. Last Monday, Patrick, his partner and creative muse Metka, and I had the chance to grab coffee and chat about their experience in the premium retail business: what they’ve learned in their year and a half at the helm of Citizen Clothing, and what they are learning with the recent foray into servicing the opposite sex through Public Boutique.

That conversation went as follows:

Nine months ago, as Citizen was nearing its one-year anniversary, I asked you where the shop was headed in the future. You said: “I’d just like to get through the first year.” That’s obviously happened, plus some – you’ve got a women’s store, which we’ll talk about in a few minutes. What else has changed?

Patrick: I think the biggest change we’ve noticed this season — at least at the men’s store — is the challenge of letting people know where we are. Especially this season, the feedback we’ve had is they know we’re here, and we’ve been lucky enough to receive a ton of support for what we’re doing. As we build out, the ladies’ shop [Public] is where the men’s was last year. It’s now an exercise of patience, hard work and diligence.

Let’s talk about Public for a little bit. How did that come about?

Patrick: Part of it was that I’d been actively looking to secure Barbour from England as a brand. What I wanted was exclusivity and a component of that would be to assume women’s wear as well as men’s. Originally we were going to put the women’s and the men’s clothing in a shop-in-shop. We went and we booked it. We ordered the goods. And then I had a pang of ‘I don’t think this is the right thing. I don’t think we need to compromise the men’s space.’

Literally two days later, driving down the road, I saw a FOR LET sign on the building. I thought it was odd and phoned my realtor. Within two weeks we’d signed a lease agreement and were actively previewing women’s wear.
Leading up to the opening of Citizen you thought you’d always own a shop. Was women’s clothing part of that dream?

Patrick: We had entertained the idea casually based on the feedback we had received at the men’s store regarding the desire for a similar store for the community.

Do you have any experience in that side of the industry?

Patrick: I’d experienced quite a bit of exposure to the women’s wear through my network of retailers and wholesalers that had either women’s and men’s businesses, or through working with lines and brands that had both male and female components through them.

One thing that translates between both shops — one of the fundamentals of why we built what we’ve built — is that we’re people first. There’s a lot of product in the world; you can bring in a lot of beautiful things. But if you can’t stand there and deliver them in a certain way, then there’s no point. That one thing that transcends clothes.

What are some of the main differences you’ve encountered between men’s wear and women’s wear?

Metka: There are differences between men and women in the way we do certain things. When it comes to shopping, although there are differences, I think both men and women are looking for some of the same things—quality and value.

Patrick: The product moves a lot quicker then men’s wear so you’ve got to be a lot more dynamic and a lot more proactive when it comes to securing goods.

We get a lot of feedback, which has been huge. You can really get to know who your clients are and can change direction. That’s the beauty of being small and independent. You’re nimble. If you need to change something, you can change it very quickly.

I find it interesting that you went with two different names for the stores, Citizen and Public rather than Citizen for him and Citizen for her.

Patrick: Not unlike a brother and sister, they have a similar aesthetic. But you still wouldn’t give brother and sister the same name…

Why is that distinction important to make?

Patrick: If they’d been side by side, geographically, I may not have separated the names, but since they’re not, I did not want to dilute any focus on the men’s store. If a guy came to Oak Bay to find the men’s shop, and walked into the store on the avenue to find a very small women’s shop, he probably wouldn’t come back. That’s just how guys are.

Metka: We wanted to create two separate environments, yet we wanted to have similarities between the two. Both stores have an eclectic feel; we combined new and old. Citizen is more vintage-inspired in terms of look, where as Public has a mid-century modern feel. Those are our two passions — many of the elements translate from our home. There are subtle elements in both stores that are the same. All aspects and services such as tailoring, and wardrobing are consistent with both stores.

Were there any big lessons you learned through Citizen that you were very conscious to apply to Public?

Patrick: Try to be as aware as possible as to who’s coming in, why they’re coming in, how they’re leaving, if they’re coming back, and why. It comes back to service. I’ve been stunned how, over the last five years, there’s been a real movement in retail that saw clients being treated like customers and being turned like product. What’s happening now is a backlash: It’s going back to service client-based relationship retail. There’s a generation of people that haven’t even experienced that. I hate to be cliché, but it’s a lost art.

One of the things I wanted to instill in this store was the level of service you’d get in an extremely high-end store; the kind of service you’d get if you were buying a 2,000 or 3,000-dollar suit, but brought back to the Victoria community. It shouldn’t matter if somebody’s buying a suit or a 35-dollar t-shirt. It’s part of the experience and it shouldn’t be a dirty word.

There’s that old saying: men dress for women and women dress for other women. Do you have any thoughts on that, now that you’re involved in both sides of the retail spectrum?

Patrick: What I’ve seen the most, whether it be men or women, is that [our clients] are engaged in executing style as opposed to buying or following fashion. There are a lot of guys feeling comfortable enough in our space to take some risks and talk about it.

Guys are buying clothes for all different reasons, be it professional or social. And in the women’s shop it’s been more of less the same thing.

Any parting words?

Patrick: There’s a stigma that is in Victoria, and more importantly in Oak Bay, about it being mature, or pedestrian. I’ve talked to a lot of vendors and a lot of wholesalers and they are stunned by the quality of independent retail that there is in this city. We showed a large variety of risk when we opened both stores, but we wouldn’t do it any other way.

This story is bigger than Metka and Patrick, however. You can’t have boutiques without clients; a community without citizens. Which is why Public Boutique will be hosting an event this coming Wednesday, which, in Tier’s own words, is “a give-back, not a take.”

Please contact info@publicboutique for more details or stop by and “like” them on facebook to RSVP.
Citizen Clothing: 2541 Estevan Avenue
Public Boutique: 201 – 2250 Oak Bay Avenue

– Jeff McAllister