Unheard of in Europe, the Polo Ralph Lauren-owned chain’s slick approach to visual merchandising has made it a major force in North America and Asia
To some, the name Club Monaco might sound like a 1970s nightspot in Stevenage, and the kind of thing we’ve done well to say goodbye to. Travel a few thousand miles west however, and it means just one thing: a casual fashion outfit whose original shape and point of difference was created by Canadian fashion svengalis the Mimran brothers and then sold to the Polo Ralph Lauren empire in 1999.
Since then it has gone from strength to strength, and in results posted by Polo Ralph Lauren this month it was one of the group’s leading lights and a target for further investment and expansion. The store visited by Drapers, in Toronto in Canada in the downtown Eaton Centre, is one of Club Monaco’s flagships. It stands as an example of why the retailer is doing well, with some of the best visual merchandising you are likely to come across on a continent where greater store is frequently set by the way things appear in store than it is in Europe.
Club Monaco is a chain that extends across Canada, the US and along the Pacific Rim from Indonesia to South Korea, as well as Dubai. But the real surprise about this retailer is that it hasn’t made its way to Europe in any shape or form. If it were to do so, it would certainly give the likes of Banana Republic, Cos and even Gap a real run for their money.
Key looks and merchandise
Club Monaco fills a gap for Polo Ralph Lauren. Mention the latter and a distinctly preppy image is conjured up - a world away from the transatlantic casual feel of Club Monaco. This is about looking well-dressed but not over-dressed, and the pricing is a notch or two above Gap but broadly in line with Banana Republic.
The real point about it is the styling and the use of colour. In the best traditions of US casualwear, the colour palette is generally neutral, relying on black, cream, navy and variations on a taupe theme for the bulk of the menswear and womenswear, with a smattering of primary colours used as highlights. This may sound a little dull, but Club Monaco is about taking fairly standard basics and then giving them enough of a twist to make you take a second look and probably consider heading for the fitting rooms.
The only real weak point in the collection is the “necktie” range. There aren’t many stores where you might pay rather more for a tie, standard or bow, than you would for a shirt or a pair of trousers, and at CAN$79 (£48.50) it’s difficult not to wonder what the buyer was thinking of when it came to pricing on ties.
This is Club Monaco’s real point of difference and the interesting thing about what is on view is that it probably hasn’t cost the earth to do. Newsprint is the principal visual merchandising theme, used in the store windows, as graphics on the walls and as table coverings on which mannequin torsos are placed. There’s even a wall with framed newspaper articles that might, or might not, be about Club Monaco, but that’s not really the point - this is about creating a consistent approach for the entire store that will unite departments and which will look simple and contemporary.
And as well as being used for newspaper cuttings, picture frames are used as visual merchandising articles in their own right at various points on the walls around the store. The idea is simple really. Take a series of frames and layer them on top of each other, allowing them to overlap to create a graphic that actually has no images, but which has form.
But perhaps most importantly is the manner in which the merchandise is displayed. Much of it is on mid-shop tables and is mixed with a series of props and mannequins. Pride of place probably goes to the cream, retro-looking bike that stands amid a nest of steel plinths at the front of the menswear department.
Careful consideration and a happy knack of making the stock look even better than it probably is are the hallmarks of this store.
North American retail service is, of course, very different from what you encounter in the UK, and anyone who has been welcomed by a store greeter positioned just inside the main entrance will notice the contrast. All of which notwithstanding, the mid-market, which is what Club Monaco definitely is (albeit the upper end), is concerned with efficiency, keeping the store looking shipshape and providing assistance when required.
There are sufficient staff in this store to make all of this a reality and it is done well.
The first point that should be made is that this is a very North American format with large acreages of a wood that looks like varnished maple, solid-looking mid-floor fixtures and a strong emphasis on the creation of sophisticated simplicity. There is much to be said for this, as any fan of Gap will relate, and there is a real sense of covering casualwear in all of its forms about this store.
In terms of layout, unusually, equal prominence is given to menswear and womenswear, with both occupying the same amount of space on the right and left of the front door. As the store was still on Sale at the time of visiting, the store’s rear, accessed by steps and filling the back third of the interior, was predominantly devoted to clearance stock, although a feeling of order and calm was still maintained.
The lighting was subtle and used to illuminate specific items rather than offering high levels of ambient light, and when shoppers reached the cash desk, a long wooden counter backed by a monochrome photo montage created an unhurried but clean feel.
Would I buy?
I did, although the clarion call of the reductions was the first point of call. The ranges are simple, easily understood and have an immediate appeal. They are, with the exception of neckwear, also within reach of the average Joe who wishes to cut a dash without looking too flashy.
The Club Monaco flagship in Toronto is archetypally a North American product but, judging by the crowds it was attracting on a Saturday afternoon, it is a retail proposition that would find favour in the UK and mainland Europe.
Address Eaton Centre, 220 Yonge Street, Toronto
Format Created by the Mimran brothers in the 1990s
Target customer Mid to late-20s up to 50-somethings
Outstanding visual merchandising features Empty picture frames and a cream bicycle
Reason for visiting Affordable casualwear that doesn’t stray too far towards the preppy