Looking To The Future: An Interview With Peter Simons

For over 175 years, La Maison Simons has been a staple in Canadian and Quebec fashion and culture. As a family owned business, Simons values its customers and lineage by designing visually striking spaces that house countless quality brands, including their own. To learn more about the company’s unique tie to Canadian and Quebec culture, I spoke to President and CEO Peter Simons about his visions, his values, and what it means to create something beautiful.

by Riccardo Tucci 

2-week voyages and a major commitment. Having partners in Europe who were responsible for things like purchasing gave us an outward looking perspective; we had broad horizons. That sort of history has defined us and allowed us to see beyond our smaller community and really try to set our standards against a global backdrop.

I consider Simons a small organization. In Quebec, you might not say that we’re small, but on a global scale we are a tiny company battling against giants. It affects the value of our organization and how my brother Richard and I approach the project of the company; we want to have something we’re proud of. As a family business with this sort of longevity, you do have a deeper sense of your role in the community. I have an appreciation for what I like to call “social licence.” When operating in a place that has supported you for so long, you’re not just anyone coming here to do business; you’re a member of the community. That really makes you question your decisions and how you participate. It adds a whole new dimension to the business.

Simons has been a family business since it was founded in 1840. How has this shaped the culture and the development of the company?

Being a family business means your name is on the door; I think that brings a longer term perspective to the company. It makes us think more profoundly about the values of the organization and on building a company that we’re proud of, as opposed to one that’s simply based on the next quarter of financial results. Five generations of operating within the family and company lore installs a certain DNA into Simons. From our start in 1840, I would say, in all modesty, that we are a very outward looking company. My great-great- grandfather traveled across the Atlantic by ship 72 times in his life to do buying in Europe. I’m not saying he’s Samuel De Champlain, but they were 2-week voyages and a major commitment. Having partners in Europe who were responsible for things like purchasing gave us an outward looking perspective; we had broad horizons. That sort of history has defined us and allowed us to see beyond our smaller community and really try to set our standards against a global backdrop. I consider Simons a small organization. In Quebec, you might not say that we’re small, but on a global scale we are a tiny company battling against giants. It affects the value of our organization and how my brother Richard and I approach the project of the company; we want to have something we’re proud of. As a family business with this sort of longevity, you do have a deeper sense of your role in the community. I have an appreciation for what I like to call “social licence.” When operating in a place that has supported you for so long, you’re not just anyone coming here to do business; you’re a member of the community. That really makes you question your decisions and how you participate. It adds a whole new dimension to the business.

Simons is in the midst of a major expansion across Canada. What prompted this decision to branch out of Quebec?

It’s always been about customer service and our ability to do the projects we want to do. I felt we had to be a little bit bigger to do some of the projects that we were getting excited about, and that often meant collaborating with different designers on special capsules and working with new creative resources. We have a huge team of buyers who travel all over the world and they’re coming back with a lot of great ideas that are fun and interesting, but we just needed to be a little bigger to be able to execute them. I thought we needed to branch out to be able to work on the projects we wanted to, and also to make our assortment unique and to work with the right people. I’m hoping that there will be more and more of an appreciation for a Canadian organization that has Canadian values in the national landscape. There’s not many left. There’s Roots, and there’s a lot of good companies out there. I’m not denying it. But, a lot of them have thrown themselves into the public sphere or have sold themselves to Americans and become American companies. I thought there was a place for a Canadian company that understands Canadian values—when I say Canadian I also include Quebec values—a little more authentically.

Simons carries the biggest names in luxury, but it also has in-house brands like Le 31, Djab, and Twik. What inspired their creation and how have they contributed to the company’s identity?

Our brand architecture has evolved over the years. Our organization resides between the need for continuous change in fashion and creativity and, as a family business, the need to hold on to what’s constant, what we’re not ready to sacrifice to creativity. These are more fundamental and philosophical values that I believe are timeless. It’s never fashionable to treat someone with disrespect, so we’ve created these fashion sub brands—be it Djab, Twik, or Contemporaine—that allow us to really focus on specific customers within our stores. We try to define the Simons brand on values that don’t change. It might sound institutional or like an old way of thinking, but respect, class, and refinement are never out of fashion. The idea evolved back in the 50s and 60s, but we’ve really refined the sub brands to allow us to address this tension between what’s constantly changing in our lives and what shouldn’t be changing. That has really been the raison d’être of our sub brands.

Simons’ retail spaces are beautifully designed; they’re modern and artistic, and each location is unique. How important is this philosophy of great art and design to Simons’ success?

It’s been a part of our DNA for a little while now. We’ve all followed the democratization of design and its importance over the last 40 years. It has been in our corporate culture since the 60s really. We have always believed in the role of interior design and architecture, not only in its ability to create an experience, but also in its social value for creating beauty and in its responsibility in the urban space. Customers have always been much more open and responsive to design than we thought, but today we live in an era where there is a tax on beauty. Cities are financially strained, and they haven’t really addressed the new economy and the implications of it. This stress and transition period has regrettably led to a massive tax on creating beautiful things. We remain committed to beautiful spaces and to creating unique environments. I’m hoping customers appreciate them because we could have rolled out the same store across the country like many companies still do.

We’re going to watch the evolution of our social environment with technology and the pressure it’s putting on cities. I’m hoping we’re going to address this issue of what I call the tax on beauty, because cities are on a road to creating a lot of dense and ugly low-cost buildings. It’s funny how stuff can affect you subconsciously. Over the years, I’ve been in search of the perfect store. I’m 50 now, and I have built quite a few of them, so I don’t know if I will ever build one that I think is perfect. Sometimes people don’t say it, but I realize that they’re comfortable in the space, and they don’t know why exactly, but it’s an ensemble of factors. I’m an optimist. I believe that people are sensitive to beautiful spaces and will become even more appreciative of our commitment to creating these environments.

How does Simons stay ahead in such a competitive market? What is the company doing toappeal to the 21 st century shopper?

We’re pouring a huge amount of resources into our technological developments, from our website to our mobile applications. We’re at a point where we’ve built an infrastructure that we can transplant into the store. I think that the combination of a beautiful environment with this layer of technology will refine our ability to deliver outstanding service in the coming years. I’m not as excited about web-based technology as a sales channel as much as I am about its ability to service, inform, and entertain our customers in a new way. The future for us is there. This new platform allows us to not only provide great service, but also to educate and communicate about the things that we’re doing or that other creative people are doing. I’m really excited about getting this new generation of tools into the hands of all the teams that work in our stores. I want customers to see the web as a tool that they have on their phones and that our staff members have in their hands at every moment, giving them access to the right information and the best service. Technology has to be useful to people. I’m still a very big believer in two people meeting in a quality space—one requiring help and the other, with a genuine heart, having the pleasure of helping him or her. It’s a social reality that you just can’t drift away from too much.

You’re a proud Canadian who’s given back to Canadians. In 2007, you donated the Tourny fountain to Quebec for its 400 th birthday. In what other ways is Simons giving back to the community?

There’s always so much to do. We have a set of values in Canada, and we are working to define and build a society around these values. It’s a country with a long history of trying to accommodate very rich cultures; it’s a beautiful, messy country we live in. We have our spats, but it’s a good marriage, and I think we’re working at it. There’s a lot of need out there, today more than ever. So, you have to choose where to place yourself. We’ve been working with the symphony orchestra in Quebec, and we have done some projects with the Art Gallery of Alberta. We try to do as much as we can.

My regret, as a private company in expansion, is that we are under a lot of pressure financially. Right now, I’m hoping we can get our self through this expansion, so we could do more for the community, but we continue to support the arts. Just this week in Quebec City we teamed up with the Lise Watier foundation for an event, which I think was a big success; all proceeds went to women’s shelters and to the YWCA. We’re looking around for things we think are meaningful, and we’re trying to do the most we can. We tend not to focus on what we’ve done, but on what we could do. We’re going to continue to support the arts and different causes in the community where our stores are located. It’s a dream to think that we will live in a utopian society, but if you lose the dream you lose your heart. You got to keep dreaming and striving to make the world a better place.