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collaboration at its best

Design writer Catherine Osborne and Ashley Botten on abd’s first fashion retail space for the women’s fashion label Smythe, and what it means to collaborate with friends.

Catherine: Now that the new shop is open, how does it feel to have a customer experience in a space you created?

Ashley: There was something familiar, of course, but the familiarity isn’t related to the fact that I co-designed the space with my friend Tommy Smythe. I liked the feeling. I don’t usually get to visit residential projects our studio works on once they’re finished, so I really enjoyed going to Smythe and interacting with it. You know… noticing where I put my coat and how it felt to step outside the change room. I have to say that I’m thrilled with it.

That’s awesome. It’s true with architects, too; they don’t always get to experience their work once its completed, unless they get invited back for a visit.

It’s not just about seeing the work; it’s about seeing if it’s working as a space.

You’ve known Tommy and the Smythe brand co-founders Andrea Lenczner and Christie Smythe since you were teenagers. You’ve each had such successful creative careers. What did you learn working with eachother professionally?

I saw Andrea and Christie as real business partners, which I don’t really get to see as friends. Sometimes, we would tap into work-related conversations at dinner parties, but not often. With this project, I could see they really know their brand. They can make decisions quickly. They’re very sure of their answers. 

How did that translate while designing the store?

There were imagery components we worked on together, but they didn’t say much about the feel of the space. It was more about its function. Like, how many clothing items have to fit on the floor. There’s a whole equation on what needs to be displayed. The space planning had to be functional and profitable. Then, there was the question: what does that look like? We had a lot of open conversations because we’re so familiar with each other. We all love the experience of shopping and buying clothes, so we could play off each other’s experiences of shopping at the same shops.

I remember one time in L.A. we went to Celine on Rodeo Drive, which had just opened. We were dying to go. We spent hours in that store. There was this back area with a sofa that was kind of in the middle of a room. We lounged around on it, tried on clothes, and just hung out for four hours. The staff were pretty patient with us. We bought a few things, but it was kind of wild how we all felt about that space. As friends, we could tap into that shared experience and recall how the garments were shown to us. We could all relate based on that experience. 

And, Tommy?

His knowledge of design history is impressive. I love to hear him talk about design because it’s so important to who he is and how he thinks. His grandmother was an interior designer, and his family has a long Canadian lineage. When he talks about design it’s often in context to those Canadian roots. I admire that a lot, but my background is a bit different. My mom was really into style and could make something beautiful out of anything. I like the style component of design. I like good style that’s comfortable and familiar but isn’t easy to define. For instance, the clothing pieces I buy from Smythe aren’t typical.

It’s true. I was surprised when I saw the Smythe blouse you posted on Instagram. It looked loose, which isn’t the tailored look I associate with their clothing.

Yes, like that. With that blouse, I would wear it with baggy jeans and weird shoes. That’s just how I would interpret it. Sometimes, I just want to take things out of the box, and I’ll choose items that aren’t the usual. That’s my eye. 

How did the Smythe brand influence your design choices for the space?

Tommy and I chose a darker wood for the walls. We were both attracted to its warmth, and that it can be interpreted as Canadian in a present but also subtle way. The thing that isn’t Canadian is the terracotta floor, which has a more European sensibility. I wanted that to be the unexpected thing. Overall, the interior palette is warm and soft to contrast with the Smythe clothing, which tends to have a lot of pop colours.

How did you and Tommy collaborate?

Initially, we met at my studio and worked with the materials in our sample library. The palette was newer for Tommy, but he was into it. For instance, I wanted to oxidize the maple finish, and for the tables, we used ash and bleached it. Then we wanted what we called “smoked” for the white oak. So, we oxidized, smoked and bleached, you know? We used natural materials and then naturally enhanced them.

With the flooring, Andrea and Christie wanted it to be interesting. I had been exploring terracotta for something else but was having difficulty sourcing it. It was driving me crazy. I wanted to use it on this project because it’s durable, and you rarely see terracotta used in shops. So, it was like: How can we use terracotta, a material that’s been around forever? A family friend of ours has terracotta in their front entry and their living room. They probably wish they could take it out, but now it’s cool. My thinking always goes like that. I see something, and it doesn’t leave my mind. So, that’s how the flooring came about. 

What about blackened metal rack systems? They feel very abd to me.

Metal is a beautiful material for hanging systems. We work with it a lot because you can be very creative with metal. 

I think the racks look a bit like line drawings.

Yeah. They remind me of that, too, like a pencil drawing.

Collaboration is such a big part of what you do. What was it like to work with three friends you’ve known for so long?

We just support one another and share. Like, with the pedestal tables, Tommy said, you design furniture, you should design them. But then it was his idea to tuck the cash area away from view to create a palette cleanser. It’s located between the shop floor and the change rooms in the back. That whole area is white, which creates a separation from one room to the next. I really like that. 

He came up with the arch detail, too, which is pretty killer. But, you know, sometimes things just happen because we are into a groove designing something. For instance, we created those two feature boxes for displaying garments on a single hook. They are there to make you stop and look. I try to do that in all my spaces. Sometimes, when I feel like a room isn’t quite right, I’m like, where is that stop-and-look moment? I love how that can change an experience. It’s not permanent. It’s just tweaking to reflect how you feel.

The frame boxes can also be changed a couple of times a day. It’s not a mannequin that you have to dress in a certain way. You can quickly style an outfit for a client to see.

Yes, to show how they can put outfits together. It’s a great way to express the brand to the customer. 

Let’s talk about the change rooms…

They needed to reflect the store’s vibe, which is luxurious but not a grossed-out luxury. We worked to create an experience. We put a little wooden stool in there, too. That’s important because stools are an afterthought often and get kicked around. They’re not high on the budget list usually. Stores just run out and get stools for their change rooms. Christie and Andrea wanted to put equal thought into everything happening in the change rooms.

There’s a delicate engraving on the stool; an octagonal pattern….

It’s the same graving we used on the tables, where the pattern originated. It’s a detail we decided to incorporate. I love it on the stool the most.

It takes the stool out of the ordinary and into something intentional.

The change rooms are Tommy’s favourite. We were all about their size and thought about the nuances and details. For instance, we didn’t want there to be a gap at the bottom where people can see your feet. You don’t want to be in a place, sitting on the sofa, and see someone changing. The change room is where clients will see themselves in an outfit for the first time. They’re the most critical room in the shop.

Besides wood, the other material you’ve used in the shop is stone, even a pinkish onyx.

Yes, we used stone on the three cubes in the shop that are used for displaying sweaters. We visited stone yards to source off-cuts, which are stored outside, and we were doing that in the winter. It was freezing but we went back three or four times to find salvaged pieces that matched the size of each cube. That’s what I love most about making things: just using your imagination and working with what you’ve got.

March 2022

see more of the Smythe project