THE WONDER YEARS
Holt Renfrew’s fashion director, Barbara Atkin, looks back on a career spent trendspotting.
If I was going to describe myself in one word, it would be ‘teacher,’” says Barbara Atkin, who is retiring as fashion director of Holt Renfrew this month after 28 years on the front lines of fashion. For nearly three decades, Atkin has been creating a style rule book for the Canadian retailer; its buyers use it as a guide to each season’s silhouettes, colours and fabrics. “There’s no crystal ball,” she says. “That’s what great retailers do: We give [people] more of what they need for their lifestyle.”
Atkin taught primary school for eight years before starting her own distribution business. It was during her time as a vendor for Holt Renfrew that she was recruited to bring a fresh fashion perspective to the retailer. When asked to consider her biggest accomplishments, Atkin is quick to name Holt Renfrew’s World Design Lab, an initiative she spearheaded, as something she is most proud of. Launched in 2000 to incubate new talent, the in-store space, which still exists today, was the first in the country to introduce Phillip Lim, Joseph Altuzarra and Alexander Wang, among others, to shoppers. “We educated our customers to come to the World Design Lab and look for new designers,” she says.
While she’s a firm believer that “fashion needs to have a dialogue that pushes forward,” Atkin isn’t afraid to admit that nostalgia is equally important. “It’s an affectionate looking back,” she explains. “If we only sold things that were so new you had no references, you wouldn’t buy them. Fashion needs to play with familiarity.” Two of her favourite trend comebacks include Céline’s Birkenstocks and Chanel’s chic sneakers. She’s also a fan of what she refers to as “relaxed luxury,” made popular by Victoria Beckham and Michael Kors. She calls it “an easy, nonchalant way of dressing,” which, unsurprisingly, is very close to her own style philosophy: “Style comes from not trying too hard.”