Canadian Fashion Connection – Holt Renfrew & Co.,

Holt Renfrew label from hat, c. 1905

Holt Renfrew has a long history but not under its current name. In 1834 William Samuel Henderson arrived in Quebec City from Derry, Ireland and joined the retailing firm of Ashton and Company. After buying controlling interest in 1837, he renamed the company after himself and began building a reputation selling hats, caps and furs. In 1860, G. R. Renfrew came in as a partner and in 1867 John Holt bought out Henderson’s remaining interest; the firm eventually was renamed Holt Renfrew & Co.

Holt Renfrew label from coat, c. 1915

The company built its reputation on furs, receiving their first Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria in 1886 as furriers to the Queen. Holt and Renfrew expanded to Montreal, and in 1889, to Toronto, followed by Winnipeg in 1910. In 1933, during the Depression, Holt Renfrew sought to capture the luxury fashion market and began to carry clothes from the best London tailors, Paris couturiers and New York designers. An Art Deco style flagship store was opened in Montreal in 1937 in honour of the company’s centennial.

Holt Renfrew advert for carrying Christian Dior, fall 1951

The company prospered during the 1940s and 1950s with additional stores opening in Ottawa 1942, Hamilton 1945, Edmonton 1950, Calgary and London 1953, and Saint-Foy 1965. Alongside these stores there were smaller outlets in some Canadian Pacific hotels: Royal York, Château Frontenac, and Château Laurier. Holt Renfrew was also one of the first high-end retailers to locate in a shopping mall at Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre in 1964.

In 1951 Holt Renfrew began an exclusive arrangement with Christian Dior to carry his Paris designs, reproduced in Montreal, and sold through Holt Renfrew. Similar agreements were struck with Simonetta and Balenciaga later in the 1950s.

Miss Renfrew Juniors label, c. 1970

Holt Renfrew was purchased by the New York CIT Group Inc in 1965 and resold in 1972 to the American retail chain Carter Hawley Hale Stores, which also owned Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman at the time. Other than an expansion to Vancouver in 1975, the chain generally went into decline under absentee foreign ownership. In 1979, head office was moved to a new flagship store in Toronto from Montreal where the political separatist climate in Quebec was making corporations nervous.

The company returned to Canadian ownership when Galen Weston bought the chain in 1986. Weston and his wife, Hilary, revitalized the chain, opening designer boutiques within newly renovated stores. A magazine was launched in 1987 called ”Point of View”, which was renamed ”Holts” in 2000. Under the auspices of Galen Weston’s daughter Alannah, the chain rebranded itself and adopted a new ‘HR’ logo in 2005. The company remains one of the leading stores for high end fashion in Canada.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian. He was the founding curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, and the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. He has amassed a collection of nearly 8,000 items dating from the mid 17th century to the present, and has written various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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4 Responses to Canadian Fashion Connection – Holt Renfrew & Co.,

  1. louise says:

    Why is it that there is rarely a mention of Alvin J> Walker, the man Senator Webster chose to helm the growth of HR and who secured the contracts with Dior, YSL etc. My grandfather has become a ghost in contemporary fashion history.

    • Jonathan says:

      Its just very detailed information to put into a blog – that’s more for a book. The basic information is in Alex Palmer’s book Couture and Commerce.

  2. Linda Westfall says:

    Thank you for the History on “Holt Renfrew”. Do you know where “Holt Renfrew” was locate in the City of Hamilton in 1945? I belong to a group who like to find old photos and provide bits of history about Hamilton. Thank you, for your help and kindness.

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