Long known as one of high fashion’s most venerable retailers, Holt Renfrew has taken another bold new step with its just-launched H Project, an in-store shop of exceptional products with exceptional stories.
The brainchild of Alexandra Weston, Holt Renfrew’s Director of Brand Strategy, the concept is as elegant it is simple: bring the exquisite, unique beauty of artisanal and ancient crafts to the global market of high style. Products include apparel, accessories, home décor items, and beauty products representing over 30 brands scouted from around the world — most by Weston herself.
“Artisans around the world have a rich cultural heritage of using incredibly luxurious colours, textures, and materials. One of my most powerful motivators is to showcase that sustainability and fair trade practices do not equate to boring, brown products,” she explains. “Rajasthan, for example, is brimming with visual richness — embroidery, gemstones, block prints. I want to make it fun and sexy for our customers to experience this kind of cultural diversity, to take an ‘armchair’ journey around the world so they can experience the luxury component this high-end clientele expects.”
Weston has no hesitation crediting technology for its significant impact on elevating unparalleled artisanal creations to ‘must have’ status among discerning, contemporary purchasers. “Sustainable products are no longer a trend, they’re mainstream,” she says. “There is an entire generation of shoppers who want to understand the history and cultural background of a product they’re considering purchasing — not just where it’s from but the full story about how it’s made and who has touched it.”
H Project originated with a challenge. Once a year, Weston asked suppliers to source affordable items of exclusive and recognizable brands that would be sold in a temporary pop-up area inside select Holt Renfrew stores. One hundred percent of the profits were then donated to the supplier’s charity of choice.
Weston had three criteria for inclusion in the program: an artisanal component that allowed buyers to discover something about each product’s history, use of up-cycled materials (recycled, re-purposed, re-imagined), and a charity tie-in. “Every product had to reach at least one of these with strength, but most are strong in two or even three,” she says. Response from suppliers, employees, and consumers was so enthusiastic, Weston knew she needed to create something more permanent — and thus H Project was born.
Weston says her most transformational moment happened early in the project’s evolution during a research and purchasing trip in Paris to attend Capsule — the international fashion and lifestyle trade show known for its exclusivity and one-of-a-kind designs. There, she met the Aish sisters and was immediately entranced by their brightly coloured, hand-woven scarves with a buttery soft texture and rich, playful patterning. But what fascinated her even more was the sisters’ business model.
“These two young women had seen how traditional crafts were dying out in many parts of India, and single-handedly set out to modernize the designs and production techniques so these exquisite works could be brought to a global market. They were inspiring — everything I was trying to do, they were already doing. I thought: if I found them this quickly then I’m on the right path.” Weston laughs. “And their scarves are still my favourites.”
Most recently, Weston travelled across India with designer and tastemaker Waris Ahluwalia, a global tastemaker, a regular player in Wes Anderson’s films and founder of House of Waris, a jewelry brand. The resulting collection, titled Uncrate India, includes items made of flat cut diamonds, gold, silver, brass, silk, marble, and even leather — all of it handmade exclusively for Holt Renfrew. Uncrate India has already raised more than $15,000 in donations for UNICEF, a long standing charity committed to curing children’s preventable diseases.
Weston’s passion for the wonders of global culture runs deep. As a child, holidays were spent visiting exotic, far-flung locales like Bali, Panama, or India with her parents — both of them respected retail magnates in their own right. “Our Christmases were always unusual but fascinating,” she says, before letting out a chuckle. “I’ve often told my parents that they instilled their daughter with one of the most expensive hobbies imaginable.” These childhood travels, however, also instilled a real-world understanding that traditional crafts could allow third world craftsmen to exit the cycle of poverty — an understanding that continues to inspire her today.
Now, Weston is all grown up with children of her own. For her personal style, Weston favours a “transitional” attitude. “I need to be able to move from casual mom dropping off the kids at school in the morning to business attire to eveningwear. In my car I always have gumboots in the trunk, high-heels on the front seat, and lipstick in the glove box.”