In its heyday, Le Château had nine stores along a roughly three-kilometre stretch of Ste-Catherine Street in Montreal.
The Canadian retailer was a staple of nearly every mall and shopping district in the country, with 240 locations at its peak.
"The more sales we made, the more stores we opened and the more stores we opened, the more sales we made," says Franco Rocchi, a Le Château executive that started with the clothing brand four decades ago as a sales clerk at one of the Ste-Catherine Street locations.
"That was the retail formula back then and it worked. It was all about brick and mortar — not only for Le Chateau but for Aldo, Gap and others throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s. We were in every primary market, secondary market and tertiary market."
Le Châteaudefined edgy clubwear, formal dresses and fashionable office attire for decades in Canada, but started facing increasing competition from foreign retailers like H&M and Zara in the early 2000s.
By 2014, Le Château was losing money. But the company had a plan: Close 100 stores over five years, with a return to profitability in 2020.
"We did it the honourable way," Rocchi says. "We had leases, we had handshakes, we had good relationships with our landlords. We thought we could navigate the five-year plan."
But the exit strategy the retailer spent half a decade working toward hit a major snag.
"The plan included a turnaround, a return to profitability," Rocchi says. "But the irony was that magic year we worked towards for five years was 2020."
Pandemic shutdowns not only shuttered the retailer's stores throughout 2020. Proms, weddings, galas and parties — key drivers of the retailer's dress sales — were outright cancelled.
Le Château filed for creditor protection in October 2020, joining the ranks of dozens of big-name retailers that buckled under the weight of COVID-19 restrictions.
In June, Suzy's Inc. — the company behind women's clothing brand Suzy Shier — stepped in to buy Le Chateau’s intellectual property and now it's making a comeback with the online launch of an evening wear collection ahead of the holidays.
The so-called glamour capsule unveiled Tuesday offers shoppers a hint of what to expect with the brand’s official relaunch under its new owner set for spring.
Rocchi — now senior marketing director of Suzy/Le Château — says the curated, limited-edition collection highlights the brand's focus on high-fashion occasion wear.
"Even as we were going through the challenge of closing stores, we actually started to see significant success in our dress business," he says. "We were seeing year-over-year growth in our occasion business. We found our sweet spot, which was beautiful dresses at a great price point."
The full collection planned for 2022 will include footwear, accessories and menswear, with women's dress wear available in select Suzy Shier stores across the country.
"We will have stores within stores at about 35 Suzy locations across the country," Rocchi explains. "It won't just be Le Château products pushed into Suzy stores. It will be a clearly demarcated beautiful shop, so customers will know it's Le Château."
He adds that there will be no "cannibalization" between the brands, as Suzy Shier is focused on casual, weekend and work wear.
"We like to say our customers can wear Suzy by day and Le Château by night," Rocchi says.
Indeed, the Suzy Shier website appears divided in half, with a model wearing a sweater and items like warm hats and gloves on one side, while a model is dressed in an evening gown on the other side along with items like sparkly "party tops."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2021.
Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press