November 29, 2015
“What we do here,” says Amrick Autwal, supervisor of six Le Chateau stores, “is definitely influenced by what’s in right now–what the big designers are showing, what look is hot in music or in film, what people are wearing in clubs and on the street … It’s also about the general mood, about economics and politics. It’s like that old saying about hemlines going up and down with the stock market. In the past year, after September II, there was a lot of camouflage in stores and dark colours.”
“A lot of times it’s just guesswork,” Autwal says. “There have been so many times when I’ve seen an item and thought, `that is really going to sell, that’s really going to be popular,’ and no one buys it. A store or a designer might try to dictate to the consumer what they should be wearing, but in the end, it’s the customer who decides.”
Dressed in a denim shirt over a T-shirt, brown, pinstriped pants and thick-soled brown loafers, Autwal is lithe and stylish in an effortless way. When he was 18, he was hired as a salesperson at a Le Chateau store in the suburbs. He’s been with the company ever since, working his way up the ranks. “Le Chateau is my life,” he jokes.
Le Chateau specializes in cheap, trendy, disposable clothes. Fashion that comes up from the streets and pop culture and makes it way into designer collections is then knocked off and sold at outlet prices. “Fashion for the masses,” is what Autwal calls it. Company lore has it that Herschel Segal, who founded Le Chateau in Montreal in 1959, was the first to bring bell-bottoms to Canada in the 1960s. Today, the company does about $188 million in sales annually, with more than 150 stores in Canada and four in the U.S. Le Chateau makes about 3.5 million garments each year and new merchandise appears in stores every two or three weeks.
THERE ARE ALL KINDS OF REASONS TO HATE THE FASHION industry: the sweatshops, the anorexic models, the conformity and the superficiality. And stores like Le Chateau, with its focus on mass production of flash-in-the-pan trends, embody some of the industry’s worst traits. Yet to look at the shoppers roaming the aisles and spilling out of the dressing rooms and see only slavish pawns is to miss half of the equation. Like pop music and action movies, shopping is delightful precisely because it is surfacey and shallow. Only a complete curmudgeon could deny the sheer, guilty pleasure of shopping, or how a well-chosen outfit makes the wearer feel more confident and attractive.
In an image-obsessed culture like ours, clothes have an iconic power. Think of stiletto heels, a business suit, baggy low-slung jeans, or a cowboy hat and the message they instantly declare about their wearer. Shopping is not an art, but it can be a creative expression. Clothes reveal age, personality, class, attitude, sexual proclivities, cultural allegiances and political opinions. They can make a grand statement. Or, like the gangster wear in the store’s window, fashion can be as simply entertaining as a grown-up game of dress up.
At the back of the Queen Street store, Autwal points out the women’s, men’s and teen departments that sell clothes, shoes, coats, jewelry and even underwear, the hair salon on the lower level and the health food cafe attached to the side. He calls it the “total fashion experience store. You could come here, get a new outfit, change your hair, eat a meal, buy jewelry, hang out with the staff. You could, literally, leave here a different person than when you came in.”
AUTWAL IS A GOOD SALESMAN BECAUSE HE UNDERSTANDS that shopping is rarely just about buying something. People shop for a variety of reasons, he explains: necessity, boredom, loneliness, curiosity, vanity, greed. Some of his customers even follow trends as a hobby. “Fashion is so rapid, it changes almost month to month now. We actually have groupies, people who come in almost every day to see what we have in stock, and to see what’s happening.”
Not surprisingly, Autwal sees himself as a kind of therapist. Growing up, he’d always imagined he’d be a psychologist, until he started working in retail. “Sales is about being able to listen to people,” he says. “The first thing you have to do is find out what they want. Then you have to figure out how to give it to them. Are they shopping for pleasure, or for therapy, or because they’re lonely? Are they just browsing, or do they need a specific item? You have to know that before you help them. If I’m serving someone and they leave here unhappy or unsatisfied, or they come back to return something, I feel like a failure. The best feeling in the world is when I can make someone feel good. When they leave here feeling better about themselves, feeling confident, feeling like they can express themselves.”
The belief that the right clothes have the power to transform a drab, marginalized existence to a fabulous one runs deep in our popular culture–from Cinderella to Pretty Woman. We celebrate makeovers, comebacks and before-and-afters. It comes to us naturally; being self-made is a cultural imperative. We are suckers for reinvention, but we’re also lazy. The idea that we can be somebody new by simply changing how we look is supremely seductive–especially since, as the fairy tales have it, the transformation is never about faking something, but rather revealing what’s been inside all along.
“Fashion can be really superficial, if all that matters to you is just labels,” says Autwal. “But for me, I see it as an expression of a person’s creativity and personality. If they don’t have any personality to begin with, no amount of clothes is going to help them become more interesting.” In other words, Cinderella was always a princess; she just needed the right pair of shoes.