I was a mid-’90s mall rat. Shopping could be a sport at my north Toronto high school, and I—having little interest in clothes but plenty of only-child competitiveness—wanted a respectable showing. I did not want, however, to put in the 10,000 hours required for greatness in grungy-hippie dressing, so malls appeased my need for a shortcut: maximum stores (here’s the Gap, here’s Le Château, here’s somewhere that sells Birkenstocks) with minimal real estate between them. Back then, a similarly condensed shopping trip outdoors meant a journey to Kensington or Queen West or…nope, that was basically it. I spent afternoons in those areas, but I spent more afternoons at Yorkdale, where it was possible to get your ears pierced and get something trashy from Suzy Shier and smoke at the back tables of Michel’s Baguette Bakery Café.
We’ve talked endlessly, it seems, about the city’s culinary growth—our tacos, fish charcuterie, pig’s-blood pasta, and nifty bar snacks—but less noise has been made over our evolving retail landscape. And friends, this is a very good time to be a Toronto shopper. Even the most casual of sartorialists knows that her beyond-the-mall alternatives are no longer confined to either side of Spadina: The map has broadened, with further-flung corners of the city emerging as prominent fashion haunts, each with its own particular aesthetic. You’ll find, for starters, Philistine, The Future of Frances Watson, and Community 54 in Parkdale, where heritage Canadiana holds court. Leslieville offers Doll Factory by Damzels and Nathalie-Roze & Co. for girly, craftier looks. Dundas West boasts Magwood and Woodlawn, Dalston Grey, and Bridge + Bardot—a mix of vintage finds and small, hyper-cool labels.
The advance of these local boutiques has been matched by the migration of American and European chains. In the past half-dozen years, Toronto welcomed outposts of Abercrombie & Fitch, Anthropologie, Brooks Brothers, and Victoria’s Secret, as well as Topshop, Massimo Dutti, and J. Crew. Next year will deliver Target, that pantheon of discount celebrity-designer collections (and candy), while the mammoth department store Nordstrom is slated to open in Sherway Gardens by 2016. Rumours have The Bay bringing Bloomingdale’s to its Bloor West location later this year. Even Yorkdale is almost unrecognizable from my childhood—the mall’s already packed with imports like Burberry, Michael Kors, Tory Burch, and Kiehl’s, and is currently undergoing a $220-million facelift that’ll add nearly 145,000 square feet. (Also, no more smoking at Michel’s back tables.)
There are straightforward reasons why American stores in particular have inched their way northward: Our dollar is strong, we have more disposable income and less inclination to shop online, and our malls fetch 50 per cent more in sales per square foot than their U.S. counterparts (mall rats die hard). Business is booming for them. The upshot for us is that Toronto has moved from a place of retail adequacy to one of abundance. Between homegrown shops and the rapid expansion of international chains, we’re spoiled for choice.
But as a consequence, all that choice has spoiled another ritual from my vanished youth: We are witnessing the death of the Buffalo run. Cross-border shopping was once a necessity for any serious outfit supplementing—match your vintage Kensington cords with some chunky Old Navy sweater; slip a teal-blue Victoria’s Secret bra under your Queen West concert tee. Those purchases gave us the thrill of exclusivity (can’t get this chunky sweater in Canada) with the assurance of populist appeal (after all, we first saw the sweater in a TV commercial). It’s a combination that speaks forcefully to teenagers, and it’s why I’ve probably left a solid week and a half of my life on the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge.
These trips, with their day-off urgency and girl-bonding opportunities—trips that, let’s be clear, extended well into my 20s—marked shopping as an occasion. In that way, at that time, they were like dining out in Toronto, when decent restaurants were scarce and making a reservation was the prelude to something special. (This was way back, young’uns, when restaurants still took reservations.) Now we eat out every week, because we can, because there are ample quality options at our doorsteps. And we shop here, comprehensively, because a single 501-streetcar ride can yield an entire wardrobe’s worth of clothing from stylish local stores and boldface foreign chains. Hopping in the car to commute a great distance to secure the good stuff you can’t get at home—that tends to be a small-town tradition. Apologies to Buffalo, but Toronto is a full-service city.
Holy H&M!: A recent history of foreign chains opening in Toronto
1983: United Colors of Benetton (Italy), 102 Bloor St. W.
1997: Urban Outfitters (U.S.), 235 Yonge St.
2001: French Connection (U.K.), 11 Bloor St. W.
2001: Old Navy (U.S.), Eaton Centre
2002: Zara (Spain), 50 Bloor St. W.
2004: American Apparel (U.S.), 499 Queen St. W.
2004: H&M (Sweden), Fairview Mall
2006: Abercrombie & Fitch (U.S.), Eaton Centre
2007: Forever 21 (U.S.), 220 Yonge St.
2008: Lacoste (France), 131 Bloor St. W.
2009: Steve Madden (U.S.), Fairview Mall
2009: Anthropologie (U.S), Shops at Don Mills
2010: Victoria’s Secret (U.S.), Yorkdale Shopping Centre
2010: Stuart Weitzman (U.S.), Eaton Centre
2011: Marshalls (U.S.), 23 Brentcliffe Rd.
2011: UGG (Australia), 23 St. Thomas St.
2011: Topshop (U.K.), Yorkdale Shopping Centre
2011: J. Crew (U.S.), Yorkdale Shopping Centre
2012: Free People (U.S.), 79 Yorkville Ave.
2013: Coming soon: Target (U.S.), March/April