CANADIAN CLOTHING RETAILER PLUM CELEBRATES 35 YEARS OF STYLE

21ST JUNE 2016

Plum Clothing is celebrating a milestone anniversary this year after 35 years in business.

Kate O’Brien was faced with a choice: She could either return to law school to finish her degree, or she could follow her passion and open a fashion boutique. It didn’t take her long to decide.

“I would have made a lousy lawyer,” she says of her conclusion. Fast forward more than three decades and it’s clear she made the right choice.

O’Brien is the founder and vice-president of the Vancouver-based retail company Plum clothing, which she started in 1981.

“Crazy to say, but once I opened Plum I never really considered doing anything else,” she says. “I know it seems like a long time, but the years roll by and you continue to learn and evolve.”

Along with her partner Ed Des Roches, who is the company’s president, the last 35 years have seen the duo expand their local fashion empire to include six stores in the Lower Mainland, including locations in Vancouver, White Rock and Langley, as well as a shop in Calgary.

But O’Brien didn’t exactly jump into the business without testing the waters first.

“Ed had a second-hand and antique store and I had set up a rack to sell my repurposed vintage clothing,” she explained of her brief experience in the retail industry before opening Plum. “Some days I did more business in a six-foot rack than he did in his whole store.”

And with that modicum of success, O’Brien and Des Roches entered the fashion business full time.

“We started as a discount store in Kitsilano during the recession of the early ’80s — one of many recessions over the years — much like how Winners started,” Des Roches says. “And when, in the early ’90s, Hong Kong immigrants started to move to B.C. and set up small manufacturing companies, we made relationships and began making what we knew we could sell in Vancouver.”

And what they knew they could sell turned out to be stylish womenswear options that put an emphasis on timeless cuts and quality construction.

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Plum carries a variety of garments from the company’s in-house brands, including Tobias, Simone and Acapella.

“I think we are very European in our concept. We target the early to mid-30s when we are designing our clothing,” O’Brien says. “But, today, I don’t think women identify age that much when they shop so much as what suits their body type and lifestyle.”

Today, each Plum store carries a variety of garments from the company’s in-house brands, including Tobias, Simone and Acapella, at prices ranging from $19 to $250.

“Our quantities are relatively small so you won’t see yourself everywhere,” O’Brien says. “Our designer stays on top of all aspects of the design process. She is also very on top of what is on trend and is brilliant at interpreting the trends for our West Coast customer.”

Des Roches says the company’s local production aspect (Plum produces the majority of its products in the Vancouver area) has been a major draw for customers.

“I think there are two basic reasons why customers are becoming more drawn to ‘locally made,’” Des Roches says. “One, they know where their clothes are coming from and that the designs are made for people who live here and not someplace else. (And) two, what they pay for the garment goes to people who live in our own community.”

Des Roches says they put an emphasis on hiring local talent — from the garment tailors and the sales associates to the marketing personnel and suppliers.

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President Ed Des Roches and Founder Kate O’Brien of the company Plum.

O’Brien says the local manufacturing also allows them to control quality.

“The fit and finish of our garments is as important to us as our design,” she says. “Because we are in the factories every day, we can trouble shoot any potential problems that offshore producers cannot. We are also comfortable with the fact that we know how and where are products are being made.”

But perhaps the biggest element in Plum’s relatively smooth success story has been its emphasis on all things family.

The duo initially ventured into the business as a way to stay in Vancouver and start a family rather than chase careers in other parts of the country.

“We are a family business and the ‘family’ part of that is that it is designed to support our family,” he says. “We never wanted to grow big. So we made decisions along the way that kept us focused on longevity and not growth.”

But that hasn’t stopped them from growing. (The pair closed its Coquitlam location, but Des Roches says they are looking for a “first-rate location” in that city to reopen.) Des Roches says the company is experiencing exponential growth in their online sales, which is an area he sees big potential to take their “family” shop to a cross-Canada level without opening storefronts in potentially lucrative provinces such as Quebec and Ontario.

“Those are huge markets and we see that this is where our greatest potential exists,” he says. “We have unique designs and this is a big country, so we think if they knew about us across this vast country, we would be able to expand that part of our business.”