Well-read and soon to be well-dressed
New menswear shop Hobby•ism aims beyond retail, hosting a book club in stylish Colony storefront
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There’s a new downtown book club where men can turn the page on their outdated wardrobes.
It’s in a retail outlet among rows of clothes and shoes. After all, who said Hobby•ism had to stick to men’s apparel?
“I’m just excited to be part of the narrative that brings people together downtown again,” co-owner Chris Watchorn said.
He and his business partners opened Hobby•ism across the street from the Winnipeg Art Gallery in late December.
On the surface, Hobby•ism is a menswear store. It houses Voak Sportswear — Watchorn’s brand — and labels from abroad, such as New York’s 3sixteen and Los Angeles’ Bricks & Wood.
However, Watchorn envisions the more than 1,500-square-foot space going beyond typical retail.
So, in come the brown chairs and the flat-screen TV.
“We want a shopping experience, but we also want a space where customers and friends feel like they can loiter,” Watchorn said. “You might come in a couple times before you make a purchase.”
He’s bringing his book club: at the end of January, people who’ve read Tyrone (Muggsy) Bogues’ Muggsy: My Life From a Kid in the Projects to the Godfather of Small Ball will meet the NBA star via Zoom in Hobby•ism. Watchorn began the Post Game Book Club, which is tied to his sportswear brand, in 2020 to keep in touch with the community.
“Hopefully this place becomes more of a community thing as much as it becomes a retail thing,” Watchorn said, looking around the store.
Downtown isn’t new to Watchorn. He operated Oak + Oar, a self-proclaimed “cabin lifestyle clothing brand,” at The Forks until early 2018. The company shuttered after a trademark dispute with Vancouver-based company Oak + Fort.
That same year, the business rebranded to Voak Sportswear and has been online since.
“We really enjoy the community aspect and the connection,” Watchorn, 36, said. “That’s what we miss from doing the old store.”
It’s why Watchorn began searching for storefronts.
He browsed Academy Road and Corydon Avenue. Then, he sat down with his business partners about the company’s vision.
“That’s kind of where the conversation came up about being a staple downtown,” Watchorn said. “(We) had a like-minded vision for downtown.”
A vision involving more pedestrians on the street, he added.
About 30 per cent of ground-floor units downtown are vacant, according to the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ. Business after business left the city’s core during the pandemic.
Voak Sportswear already has a client base, Watchorn noted — wherever the brand settled, it would be a “destination” for some.
Winnipeg Jets players including Adam Lowry and Cole Perfetti have modelled for the brand.
“We weren’t in the patient wait game,” Watchorn said. “A lot of it came down to availability.”
All three commercial spaces were open on the first floor of Muse Flats, across from the city’s largest art gallery on Colony Street. Hobby•ism took the biggest.
“We’re hoping that if we kind of laid roots first, maybe it would encourage people to follow,” Watchorn said.
One neighbouring empty unit would make for a great bar or coffee shop, noted Jeremy Read, CEO of the corporation owning Muse Flats.
All three commercial spaces have been vacant for more than a year, Read said. The building, which is an apartment complex on the upper floors, opened in September 2020.
“It’s been a tougher time, I guess, in terms of trying to attract at-grade commercial tenants,” Read said.
The University of Winnipeg Community Renewal Corporation 2.0 (which operates separately from the post-secondary institution) opened two mixed-use buildings — Muse Flats and the West Broadway Commons — around the same time. The latter tower filled its two commercial units faster, Read noted.
The West Broadway Commons is across the street from the Manitoba Legislative Building.
“I think a big part of (revitalizing downtown) is continuing to… increase residential development (here),” Read said. “(It’s) going to be better for… retail and restaurants.”
Hobby•ism is appealing because it’s locally owned and a “different idea,” Read said.
“It’s good to see local entrepreneurs looking to the downtown as their future,” he added.
Hobby•ism’s clothing racks run parallel to floor-to-ceiling windows. The company has taken measures to protect the glass, and alarms were installed in early December, Watchorn said.
“We have this opportunity to inject some life back into downtown, especially in that particular area,” said Daniel Basanes, who’s in a purchasing role for Hobby•ism.
Basanes, 30, worked at Oak + Oar in The Forks.
“I’m trying to basically house a bunch of brands and products that my peers would be into,” he said.
The North Face and Vans will be among the labels in Hobby•ism, Watchorn said.
One of the two vacant commercial spaces in Muse Flats will become an office for the UWCRC 2.0’s construction manager as the organization develops another tower, according to Read.
The other space, around 1,000 square feet with a 400-square-foot patio, is ready for taking, he added.
Forrest Tian joins Basanes and Watchorn in opening Hobby•ism.
Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.