Frank & Oak

Why would Frank & Oak, online purveyor of men’s clothing and accessories, open a retail store in Toronto? Why rent, buy, or lease retail space if you’re killing it online? On the night of Frank & Oak’s store launch party, that’s the notion I’m unable to nudge.

Two year ago I saw a tweet about Frank & Oak and clicked the link. Ethan Song and Hicham Ratnani founded the brand as an online menswear retailer that sold shirts for less than $50. I joined their Hunt Club. Every month, a box would arrive with three items from Frank & Oak. I kept what I wanted and returned what I didn’t. Shipping both ways was free.

But almost three years later, the brand’s expanded. You can buy underwear and weekender bags—not to mention cardigans, coats, and cufflinks. They publish a magazine, Oak Street, and have another store, Atelier, which opened in Montreal.

Song, Frank & Oak’s co-founder and CEO, is hunched over a stool. It’s opening night of his store on Queen Street West and we’re sitting by the entrance. Most days, you’ll walk into this space and find baristas dispensing espresso made with beans roasted by Portland’s Stumptown Coffee. In the back of the store, there’s a full-service barber shop. Sandwiched in between is where you’ll find the monthly collection of Frank & Oak goods and special one-offs. If you see the barber shop and cafe as unnecessary pandering to what’s popular, Song disagrees

“We didn’t want to put our clothes in our windows,” says Song. “We wanted to put our culture in the window. We wanted to create an environment around you and then add the clothes.” It’s a refrain that Elisabeth Lepage, Frank & Oak’s senior manager, brand and communications, echoes when we speak. “This store is the living embodiment of the brand.”

Growth for Frank & Oak, Song will tell you, has been good. Opening a physical store is about bracing the brand and a need to socialize with their customers in a world where smiles and handshakes aren’t just emoticons. “We connected with our customers online,” Song says. “I just felt the need to create the relationship in the neighbourhood.”

To do that they hollowed out what used to be Hoops, a cookie-cutter spot to watch sports. Frank & Oak has seized control of 2,600 square feet of real estate at 735 Queen Street West and made it a hybrid shop where they’ve muffled the pressure to purchase clothes. Instead, the aim is comfort.

Your online relationship with Frank & Oak will complement your in-store experience. “We’ll know your details based on the Hunt Club and Frank & Oak purchases,” says Lawrence Tam, assistant manager. Tam and others will serve as style advisors. You can book an appointment and they’ll consult. For Tam, the store offers men the chance to “feel as if you’re at home and this is your own closet.”

Maybe that’s why having a Frank & Oak store in Toronto makes sense. Our online world is impressive but can it make you a lactose-free cappuccino? Can it replicate the buzz of clippers or the sensation of your hair floating to the ground during a haircut? Because until it can, what Frank & Oak has realized is that those connections banish the barrier between customers and brands.

“I care less about selling a product and more about building relationships with customers,” Song says. And he’s right. Because if building relationships boost sales, then he can soften his sales pitch.

Pierre Hamilton is a freelance writer from Toronto, where some of his best friends describe him as an acquired taste. He enjoys bourbon and scotch, but craves craft beer, overproof Jamaican rum and great non-fiction. He has a very limited style knowledge but knows what he likes. He also produces a monthly music podcast called Sound Considerations. Follow him, but not too closely, on Twitter.
Photos courtesy of Jocelyn Reynolds.

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