A constant presence within London’s fashion community, Saffron Road strikes a fine balance between staying current and forging ahead.
In a world that’s ever-changing, we all struggle with how to stay relevant in our chosen profession. There always seems to be something much bigger and better around the corner. Nowhere is this truer than in the fashion industry. With new department store fashion lines coming out every few weeks and the popularity of paring down one’s entire wardrobe to 10 pieces or less, making a significant, lasting mark in the business of fashion can be challenging, to say the least. Stores keep getting bigger and their presence and message about what we should and shouldn’t wear blasts us from all sides – social media, television, billboards, radio and conglomerate storefronts.
Bigger isn’t synonymous with better. Saffron Road has been a pillar of London’s Richmond Row for almost three decades, utilizing it’s quiet yet powerful fashion influence to win the stylish hearts of their loyal customers. Owner Gail-Lynn Gastaldi continues to grow and thrive with her boutique alongside the next generation, her daughter and fellow buyer, Brianna, and Creative Director, Jennifer Lofthouse. The powerhouse team of three has learned to balance their differing styles and tastes with their clients wants and needs, and keeps pushing London’s fashion needle from safe to spectacular.
Often, success comes in the most unexpected ways, something that’s certainly true for Gail-Lynn who was born and raised in Trinidad. “I came from small business. My mom and dad had a business and so, it’s funny that this is where I’ve ended up — owning my own business. I didn’t think that was where I would be,” she confesses. Having come to Canada to attend boarding school for a year, Gail-Lynn eventually went to the University of Waterloo; graduating with a General Arts degree, she went on to teacher’s college. (Yes, this fashion icon was once an elementary school teacher.) Switching from education to fashion had nothing to do with trying to teach people about clothes or how to dress but more to do with friendship and opportunity.”
“In 1984, we moved from Victoria, British Columbia, where our second child, Brianna, was born, to London because my husband, Brian, accepted the position of physiotherapist at the Fowler Kennedy Sports Injury clinic. During those early years in London, I met (the late) Linda Boniface who was the owner of Chez Cheveux. But she and I connected; we loved fashion.” After a visit to what was then the Toronto Festival of Fashion, Linda had the idea to open a clothing store. Gail-Lynn’s response? “Sure, let’s do that!”
Saffron Road opened in late summer 1989 — Linda’s connections and drive turned it from idea to reality in a mere three months — and a year later, Gail-Lynn found herself as the sole proprietor of the business with Linda stepping away from being involved in the day-to-day operation. “It continues to be (a sole proprietorship), other than having Brianna and Jennifer on board as my co-people in crime,” Gail-Lynn says. Then a strong, teasing voice pipes up in the background, “she calls us her bitches!”
Cue hysterical — and maybe a little mortified — laughter from Gail-Lynn and the woman behind this light-hearted detail, daughter Brianna. Brianna Gastaldi has followed in her mother’s footsteps but down her own path; in other words, she never banked on a career in fashion either and least of all with her mom. “I’ve grown up in the store (but) didn’t think I’d be in fashion,” confides Brianna. “My mom always encouraged my brother and I to experience living in Trinidad so I moved there; there was a Canadian school there so I lived with my grandparents. I then went to the University of Guelph for English and thought I wanted to go to teacher’s college in Australia, which didn’t start until January or February. I grew up with dance so, in the meantime, mom encouraged me to do Pilates instructor training. I did that and ended up falling in love with it, doing the full certification in Toronto. Because I was in the city, it was great for me to go with my mom to appointments and start to see what the buying side of the business was all about. Well, I never ended up going to teacher’s college. When I was completing my Pilates training and starting to really grow an interest in the business side of Saffron Road, my mom’s manager at the time left which sort of opened up an opportunity for me.”
Teaching Pilates two days a week in Toronto and spending two days per week at the store has made a busy but full life for Brianna. When asked where she resides, she replies, “I live on the 401.” (#notshocking)
Brianna loves the balance of creativity and fashion that comes with teaching Pilates and increasing her involvement in the store. She has many early memories of spending time there, yet one stands out for both her and her mother. “If I was sick, I had this space in the back with a mat, sleeping bag and pillow and I’d just be there until she was done work. But one time, I came out and told my mom I didn’t feel good — and then puked on the jewellery cabinet.” (big laughs) Clearly, fashion isn’t always glamorous.
Jen Lofthouse serves as the third leg of this fashion tripod, having come to the Saffron Road team immediately after graduating from the Fashion Merchandising program at Fanshawe College. She moved quickly into a management role both because of her eye for fashion and because of Gail-Lynn’s other life as part of the Rowbust Dragon Boat racing team (she is a breast cancer survivor). With five years under her stylish belt so far, Jen agrees that being in the fashion industry isn’t synonymous with sophistication. “There are so many dynamics of the business. One day we’ll be shopping for new arrivals in New York and the next, we’ll be down in the basement, getting dusty and sorting through things to prepare for a basement sale. So, it’s not always glamorous but it’s always changing, and I love that.”
Fashion is everywhere. Gone are the days when shopping downtown with a group of friends was a thing. Now, you open an app on your phone or sit down at your computer and order what you think you need without having to leave your house, let alone get dressed (irony, anyone?). A few seasons ago, when large brand name department stores began pushing online shopping and the allure of an endless variety of fast fashion, the team at Saffron Road was left wondering how they’d compete. That’s when Jen had an idea; one that was way outside anything fashion typically used in terms of marketing or attracting customers. She decided they — Gail-Lynn and Brianna, mother and daughter — would become the Saffron Road brand. And so, they did.
With one visit to their website, saffronroad.ca, you immediately see a scrolling version of their latest look-book modeled by Gail-Lynn and Brianna. Not only are the clothes beautiful but Gail-Lynn and Brianna also look like they’re having a blast. “How often do you see the owner of a store and her daughter get dolled up and model the clothes they’re bringing into their store for you?” asks Jen. “It’s really endearing and personal, and it shows what Saffron Road is about.”
Gail-Lynn may have needed a bit of convincing, but knew participating in this idea would benefit the store and its customers — and bring in new ones. “If all the customers are only buying what I like or if we’re only thinking about the customers we have right now, we will grow old with our customer,” she acknowledges. “That means the end of a store at some point. So, you must have a younger generation involved and you must get them into the store, not only on the business side but as customers.”
It was Brianna who came up with the idea to create and use a hashtag to promote the brand on social media. #bringbacktheboutique is not about revamping the store’s image or product but about demonstrating what Saffron Road stands for — providing quality fashion and a personalized shopping experience for a wide demographic that can’t be found in the bowels of department stores (at least, not without paying extra for that service). “We’re a small family business,” says Brianna. “Our goal is to better accommodate our clients, not grow so far beyond what our roots are. It’s a natural evolution. I’m not coming in and wanting X, Y and Z to change. We don’t have a formula. We just love what we love and we run with that.”
FOR THE LOVE OF FASHION
Loving what they love may be more of a formula than the Saffron Road women realize. It’s clear the entire team — one that includes several fantastic sales associates who are considered “indispensable,” expresses
Gail-Lynn — has not only a passion for fashion but also a passion for helping others love themselves through loving the clothes they wear. Saffron Road provides a variety of collections, sizes and price points to retain current customers and attract new ones, but also to demonstrate that great style is about investing in yourself and your clothes, even if it’s one piece at a time. “The direction has always been fashion forward, enduring style,” says Gail-Lynn. “The philosophy we have is that when you purchase a piece of clothing from Saffron Road, we’d like it to last for more than one season. We don’t want it to be that you wear it now and then next year, you’re not wearing it. We talk about cost-per-use, pieces that provide longevity — that’s an investment. It’s not a throwaway piece where you wear it twice, post it on social media and then never wear it again.”
Brianna talks about Saffron Road’s continued support of Canadian designers, something that very few clothing stores will do these days in favour of fast and cheap fashion made overseas. “We’ve got Judith & Charles, Unttld (Montreal) and Greta Constantine, Comrags, Dennis Merotto, Outclass (Toronto); there’s these and so many other Canadian designers where an actual person is going through the entire design process — brainstorming, finalizing, cutting and piecing the garment together — just hours away from us, which is rare in fashion. We are proud of that and, to be honest, they’re some of our very favourite collections.”
Although they’ve been supporting Canadian designers since their inception —as was the vision of Linda Boniface — Saffron Road must also have their clients at top of mind when considering what to bring into the store, something Jen explains requires a fine balance. “We’ll go back and forth about what our customer might like. But then you also don’t want to get into a position where it’s just your customer dictating what you bring into the store. It’s your store so you need to, to an extent, build their appetite for something they don’t even know they’re hungry for. So it’s about finding that feel and that look that appeals to Saffron Road but also keeping our clients in mind.”
Remaining inspired for each new season may seem like a daunting task but it’s their clients that keep the women of Saffron Road moving forward with fashion. “As far as fashion goes, it’s about gut instinct,” reveals Gail-Lynn. “When you see a new collection for the first time, they’ll show you 15 to 200 items. You look to the salesperson or the designer for advice. But then you look at it and ask, what do I like? What do the others like? What will our customers like? It comes back to the customer because without them, you don’t have a business. So how do we inspire our customers? It’s an evolution, certainly.”
For Brianna, inspiration seems a little more personal. “If you ever just step back and let Gail-Lynn do her thing, watch her wander through an appointment with a designer or go through a trade show, she has an incredible eye for things. She’s drawn to incredibly well made, very different but beautiful things. It’s the quality and the design component that she’s most attracted to. I don’t know how she does it; she’s always five steps ahead of everyone else. My mom has never been about huge labels or being flashy but about feeling great in what you do and believing in it.”
Change is as difficult as you make it out to be. For the team at Saffron Road, their ability to continuously evolve with fashion but satisfy their own tastes along with their clients will be what keeps them moving forward for years to come.
577 Richmond Street London, ON N6A3G2 Canada