Fashion retailer Ssense designs with data to go from digital to physical

Montreal – Headquartered in Canada, global multi-brand fashion retailer Ssense (pronounced ‘essence’, for those tempted to lisp the first consonants) began as an experiment in 2003. ‘I was completing my studies in computer engineering and built the platform as part of my thesis,’ said cofounder and CEO Rami Atallah. ‘My two brothers and I saw the potential of e-commerce and intended to merge digital and physical from day one. E-commerce was still in its early days, and many brands were reluctant to sell online. We decided to first open a store in Old Montreal, not far from where our new store stands. A few years later we launched and have been simultaneously operating online and off ever since.’

Atallah realized that while e-commerce enables scale, it has its shortcomings – namely fostering human connection. Talia Dorsey, director of retail strategy for Ssense, explains how the David Chipperfield-designed flagship incorporates over a decade’s worth of analytics, testing and iteration collected from the brand’s website, as well as its previous store.

What kinds of data were revealed, and how were they translated into the new design?
TALIA DORSEY: The first boutique was important for direct client interaction. We gathered an entirely new dataset based on the staff’s capacity to read, understand, adapt and respond to our customers. Clients developed strong relationships with our stylists and began requesting that online catalogue items be sent to the boutique for them to try on. Marrying the best of online commerce and in-store experience, this method came to represent 80 per cent of boutique sales, making Ssense Montreal one of the most productive retail spaces per square foot in North America.

We consequently contoured our new flagship around appointment-based shopping and developed a robust technological back-end, which handles everything from appointment booking and fulfilment flow to the vertical lift module that sorts the daily flux of inventory. The data accrued through our online business further support these appointments – through an expanded assortment of inventory that we can suggest prior to a client’s visit – while providing in-store availability for impulse additions and walk-ins.

More infrastructure than building, Ssense Montreal is a structure that accommodates ongoing experimentation and constantly changing content

How does the space facilitate Ssense’s divergence into events and experiences?
Our appointment-based model means our retail real estate is no longer beholden to mainly housing inventory, allowing us to conceive of new spatial uses that better react to our market: primarily millennials and Gen Z. Part of our mission is to respond to and engage with the increasingly fluid boundaries of commerce, content and community. That’s why we expanded our online platform to include editorial content, with 032c magazine’s Joerg Koch as our editor in chief.

Instead of working within a fixed traditional retail environment, David Chipperfield’s team was tasked with designing the principles and possibilities of a system, one with an unlimited ability to support our special projects, merchandising installations and events. More infrastructure than building, Ssense Montreal is a structure that accommodates ongoing experimentation and constantly changing content.


Location 418, rue Saint-Sulpice, Montreal

This is an edited version of a piece featured on Frame 124. To read the full interview, which details how the Chipperfield team used concrete and cables to tell the brand’s story, you can purchase the magazine here.

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