If you were to judge the future of retail by the proliferation of online shops selling athleisurewear during the pandemic, you might think it lay solely in digital. But the death of in-person shopping has largely been exaggerated, according to Kaelen Haworth, a Toronto designer-turned-shop-girl bent on bringing back in-person pleasure with the opening of her new store, Absolutely Fabrics.
Part boutique, part studio, the space offers an inspired alternative to point and click shopping with a rich offering of independent and emerging designer fashion showcased alongside rare luxury vintage. Haworth has no appetite for safe bets—nary a basic item exists in her curation of knitwear from Vitelli, bodycon dresses by the inclusive Belgian label Ester Manas, and deconstructed raver-wear by Berlin-based Ottolinger. “This whole thing is a massive risk, but I’d rather come out of the gate swinging,” she says, opting to stock near-complete collections from each designer so as to paint an adequate picture of their points of view. By contrast, most boutiques dip cautiously into experimental waters. “I would like to buy the weird thing and test drive that and see if it works,” says Haworth. Case in point: the beautiful, historically accurate clothing made with antique tablecloths by New York’s emerging DIY queen, Zoe Gustavia Anna Whalen. “I wanted all of the brands to be something you would have an emotional connection to,” she says.
Having owned two of her own fashion labels, Haworth sees Absolutely Fabrics as having the potential to influence the success of rising talents. “There used to be a time when retailers launched designers. I don’t need to be that person, but I do want to be a real partner,” she says. Haworth spent a decade in New York, getting her fashion degree at the Parsons School of Design and launching her eponymous fashion line, Kaelen. Later, she launched her second label, Second Sight, before moving home to Toronto in 2020. “In the back of my mind I always wanted to have a store, and it never would have worked in New York—the landscape is different,” she says. It’s in Toronto that she sees more of an opportunity to bring something special to the table.
“I always knew I wanted it to be not just a retail space but a space where things happen,” she says. To wit, AF Studio—located on the store’s second floor is offered up as a space where creatives and fashion enthusiasts can hobnob at curated events ranging from designer trunk shows to “high concept dinner parties” (Haworth images a Top Chef-style challenge, where meals are solely made from rhubarb, for instance). The space is also available for photo shoots.
Haworth wants to bring back the glory days of boutique department stores like Colette and Opening Ceremony. “I don’t want to recreate that because it’s been done, but I do want to find out: what was that magic?” She’s already cast a spell.