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From Vancouver to New York City, Jennifer Wong, COO of Aritzia, is styled for success.

BY DARLA MURRAY


On the southeast corner of Broadway and Spring in New York City’s stylish SoHo neighbourhood is the Canadian clothing store, Aritzia. Its famous neighbours include fashion industry powerhouses like Prada, H&M and Bloomingdales. At first glance it seems the boutique, which spans 10,000 square feet over two stories, resembles nothing of its origins—the small nook tucked inside the Hill’s of Kerrisdale department store in Vancouver—but there are two key components that haven’t changed since its humble beginnings: its distinctly Canadian vibe and the involvement of Jennifer Wong.

Wong was 18 years old when she started working as a part-time sales associate at Aritzia in 1987. Her plan was to make some extra cash while she studied economics at the University of British Columbia. “I thought I would do this until I got a ‘real job’ in finance after I graduated,” says the Vancouver native. Twenty-five years later, Wong is still at Aritzia, and in an era when it’s not uncommon for young professionals to change careers multiple times, this makes her somewhat of an anomaly. Despite its linear path, her professional development has been anything but stagnant. “The growth of my career at Aritzia has matched my own personal career aspirations,” says Wong, who upon graduating college in 1991 was offered a position managing the company’s shoe division. From there she was promoted to vice-president of support operations, and in January 2007, to chief operating officer.

Wong’s impressive advancement can be attributed to a potent combination of commitment, ambition and her innate business acumen; forget dollhouses, as a child Wong was more interested in playing “business” on her toy IBM typewriter. Wong has been an integral part of the company’s growth, spearheading the implementation of Aritzia’s resource planning system and overseeing the company’s U.S. expansion, including the June 2011 opening of the New York City store, Aritzia’s ninth American location. “We’re super thrilled about it,” says Wong of their new flagship boutique. “We feel it was a big milestone.

Of course, Aritzia isn’t the first Canadian fashion retailer to make tracks in the U.S. In 1985 Club Monaco moved south, but was eventually sold to the American company Ralph Lauren. And many people don’t realize the founder of the iconic brand American Apparel actually hails from Canada. What makes Aritzia different, says Wong, is that it values its Canadian roots and is commitment to maintaining its unique culture.

“We don’t hide the fact that we’re Canadian-based,” says Wong. “We’re proud of that and a lot of our influences are based on the West Coast.”

Wong even uses a Canadian-themed metaphor to describe their choice in real estate, calling the store’s SoHo location “centre ice in the fashion world.” The boutique boasts rustic wood panels and vintage chandeliers giving it a cabin-chic feeling, while the extremely helpful retail staff oozes with a friendliness that’s purely Canadian—because many of them are. “We have a lot of Canadians with American citizenship working at the SoHo location,” says Wong. “We want to make sure our people reflect our brand and exude our culture.”

One of the challenges Wong faces as a leader of a growing organization is her inability to draw on previous work experiences. “Since I started my career at Aritzia I can’t say, I’ve ‘been there and done that,’” says Wong. “Every new venture is also new to me.” She credits the company’s success to her knowledge of the brand and a close-knit executive team. For example, when she led her team in implementing the Enterprise Resource Planning system, she opted not to follow industry standards. “If industry standards have a 50 percent failure rate, why would I want to follow those same standards?” says Wong, “We go about things in a different way. It’s confidence in knowing we’ve taken the time to analyze something and make an informed decision.”

Wong says it’s not just the employees at the executive level who are responsible for keeping Aritzia cutting-edge. “We are a company of people who are self-motivated to be well-informed and connected,” says Wong. This extends beyond selling clothes: Wong says that incorporating socially responsible values through their architecture design and embracing changes in technology are examples of how the brand’s approach has evolved over the years. (Spoiler alert: Wong will be responsible for launching an e-commerce site later this year.)

The limitless opportunity to learn is what excites Wong about working at Aritzia. To motivate her staff, she is less inclined to offer advice on how they can take their career to the next level, than to act as an example of what’s possible. While she admits that the hours can be gruelling, she doesn’t subscribe to the cliché work to live, live to work.

“Aritzia is a very important part of my life,” says Wong. “But to be an effective leader you have to have other influences and other inspirations.” For Wong, those are her husband and 18-month old son. Wong says what she values in life isn’t that complicated or luxurious, it’s actually kind of simple—but not lacking for quality. Which could just as easily describe the appeal of a certain, increasingly ubiquitous, clothing store.