Amid the quaint cobbled streets of old-town Montreal, a listed 19th-century building is not what it seems. A clue to what lies beyond the beaux-arts façade is proffered by a peek through the windows, which at first appear to be blacked out, but in fact look onto an intriguing inner structure of grey concrete.
The magnificently minimal “building within a building” next to the Notre-Dame Basilica is the work of David Chipperfield and the flagship of fashion‑forward retailer Ssense. The statement five‑storey space opened in May 2018, but Ssense (pronounced “essence”) was founded 15 years earlier by brothers Firas, Rami and Bassel Atallah to bring labels such as Maison Margiela, Givenchy, Rick Owens and Balmain to the French-Canadian city.
“We started with a small physical store,” says Firas. “Our aim was to build relationships with brands that were reluctant to sell online at the time.” Since then, Ssense has gone in for e-commerce in a big way. Its website currently serves 150 countries, can be browsed in Japanese and Chinese as well as English and French, and generates an average of 76 million page views per month (by way of comparison, Net-a‑Porter tots up 85 million). While its online stock totals some 50,000 items by more than 500 designers, what appears on Rue Saint-Sulpice is a tight edit that is refreshed weekly.
At the fore of the store’s displays are a series of collaborations and exclusives, from Prada and Maison Margiela capsule collections, to quick-strike sneaker drops by Nike x Virgil Abloh – all of which have been bestsellers. “We’re good at ID-ing up-and-coming designers,” says Firas, adding that Ssense was the first retailer to offer Random Identities, the menswear brand created by former YSL head Stefano Pilati. “We place our orders around six to eight months in advance, and have a certain vision of what will be popular.” For women, this might be a skintight, moon-print poloneck by French designer Marine Serre (£255) or a Loewe petite Puzzle bag (£1,850); for men, a quilted-down Moncler Wilson jacket in a lacquered emerald-green finish (£1,065) or silver Adidas Originals Ozweego trainers by Raf Simons (£330).
“What really differentiates us, though, is our appointment system,” says Firas, explaining that an online wish list can be summoned to the store and tried on for size in one of eight sleek fitting rooms – with the help of a personal stylist if one so wishes. “Moreover, we want to have a cultural impact, featuring people who create things in music, architecture, art, fashion. We want Ssense to be fun.” Events have included book signings, artist talks, private dinners and an atmospheric installation of Craig Green’s collaboration with Moncler against a mechanical backdrop by London-based spatial designers Isabel + Helen.
Topping off the retail experience on the fifth floor are a reading room and café. There’s certainly nothing new about an in-store café, but here, in sleek Chipperfield style, with a glass ceiling giving unobstructed views of the sky above, the concept seems anything but old.