Q&A: Warby Parker founders Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa on opening their first Canadian store in Toronto

Q&A: Warby Parker founders Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa on opening their first Canadian store in Toronto

Courtesy of Warby Parker

On August 6, U.S. eyewear brand Warby Parker opened its first-ever Canadian location, at 684 Queen St. W. The store will offer bespectacled Torontonians the opportunity to try on Warby Parker’s hip, stylish frames before buying. Until now, Canadian shoppers could only order them online: Warby Parker started as an online-only operation, but has since opened several bricks-and-mortar stores in the U.S. We spoke with Warby Parker founders Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa about expanding their spectacle empire north of the border.

Why did Warby Parker decide on Toronto for its first Canadian outpost?
Neil Blumenthal: Each province has so much to offer, but Toronto’s size and reputation as a cultural hub caught our eye. We love that we can see the CN tower from New York State.

I’m sure you’ve seen the New York Times has publish a number of articles alluding to Toronto’s “coolness” in recent years. But what is it that Warby Parker finds attractive about the 6 from a business perspective?
Dave Gilboa: We’re excited to be expanding internationally for the first time ever. We launched our Canadian website in 2012, but until now, we didn’t have a retail presence here, and we’re excited that we now get to meet our Canadian customers face-to-face. From an aesthetic perspective, Toronto is such a diverse city, which means there’s an incredible range of tastes and styles colliding in one place.

Warby Parker started as an e-commerce business, but now has dozens of actual retail stores. What are some of the biggest challenges you faced while transitioning from online to bricks-and-mortar?
NB: We think of it less as a transition than a natural convergence of bricks-and-mortar and digital commerce. We launched in 2010 with features in Vogue and GQ, which led to incredible—and unexpected—demand. Customers started calling to ask if they could visit our office to try on frames. We happened to be working out of my apartment at the time, so we told them to come on over. Our first store was my dining room table and our first cash register was Dave’s laptop!
DG: When we opened a proper office, we built a store right within it. The success of that “office store” is what gave us the idea to test bricks-and-mortar in other creative ways. Those lessons gave us the confidence to sign our first lease and build out a proper store.

Are you bringing anything special or unique to the Toronto store, to butter up a new customer base?
NB: We’ll have custom tote bag free with any purchase for a limited time, featuring exclusive-to-us work by Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber, two founding members of The Royal Art Lodge, a Canadian artist collective formed in the mid-‘90s at the University of Manitoba.
DG: Plus, we’re debuting a project from Toronto-based artist Micah Lexier, who won the 2015 Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media. Micah has created a series of three newsprint books called Free For the Taking, made in collaboration with fellow Canadian artists Maggie Groat, Mark Laliberte, and artist collective VSVSVS. The books are, of course, free for the taking. Customers can also grab a custom-illustrated and totally free map depicting the best places to sit and read a book on Queen West, illustrated by artist—and our long-time friend—Jason Polan. And as a fun bonus, anyone who purchases sunglasses will receive a limited-edition lens cloth printed with that reading map.

Do you guys have any personal favourites, from the dozens upon dozens of styles of frames you sell?
DG: It changes depending on the day and the occasion, but I’m currently wearing Haskell eyeglasses, which combine a vintage shape with a super-modern construction that embeds a ring of colour around each lens.
NB: Impossible question, but I’m currently into the Reed sunglasses from our newest collection, Field Series.

Who is the ideal “Warby Parker customer”?
DG: Anyone looking for a great pair of sunglasses or eyeglasses. There are zero other parameters.