By Liana Shlien
Photography by Kalynn Friesen
This spring season denotes new growth for Laura-Jean Bernhardson’s Fresh Collective with the April opening of a third location on Roncesvalles, joining her Queen West and Kensington boutiques.
Bernhardson’s quirky, retro streak is evident in the chain’s eccentric assortment of vibrant colours and funky prints.
Another 30 local designers, who might be seen producing on-site or working the floor, offer one-of-a-kind fashion creations, which range from $20 handmade jewelry to $200 cotton dresses that are inspired by the 50s and 60s.
The former fine-arts major parlayed a machine-knitting class into the 1994 launch of her own clothing line, Fresh Baked Goods, designed by “Laura-Jean, the Knitting Queen.” At first passionate about production, Bernhardson says that “something set me on fire about the business side of things and treating that as a creative endeavour.”
“I think a lot of people work in an unfocused way and are not concerned with sales goals and the bottom line. When you’re trying to create a business but treat it like a hobby, it’s just a recipe for disaster.”
Bernhardson’s design collective concept offers the fellow designers, who she calls her “roommates,” both selling space and her hard-won business knowledge. Mentoring and business guidance is built into the boutique’s framework.
“When designers join us, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” she adds. “They get my years of experience, the support of the team and the formula.”
Bernhardson started to use this approach in 2000 and credits it to the essential success of the brand. The components of the “formula” include a monthly membership fee for leasing space and the ability to work in-store once a week.
In the last year, this members-only benefit has also provided up-and-coming designers with a more structured program, “Fresh Collective University.” The program hosts monthly meetings that address topics such as branding, marketing and financial planning.
“It’s material I know inside out from living this business for 17 years,” says Bernhardson, who also offers mentorship through one-on-one coaching.
When designers work directly at the stores, they get a better grasp of their clientele, while shoppers get a more personalized retail experience.
According to Bernhardson, Fresh Collective’s target market is women aged 30 to 50, who work in a creative field.
Bernhardson keeps a lookout for new talent, and the “entrepreneurial spark,” by visiting craft shows, and this is where she met Nicole Boudreau four years ago.
Boudreau appreciates the co-operative concept.
“I really like how I can bounce ideas off different people,” she says. As the designer of two jewelry lines, one self-titled and the other dubbed Precious Pink Designs, she aspires to open a bakery/clothing store that will showcase her clothing line “Desserts and Skirts.”
Over the years, about 10 designers who worked with Bernhardson have branched out to open their own retail stores, including Planet Kid and Knit Café. But Bernhardson hopes Fresh Collective’s new shop will retain the talent that is present in Toronto.
“I love the promise of what we’re creating together – it’s so inspiring and exciting every day.”