Kenneth McRobbie and Colin Blanchard know style. Three years ago they opened their retail shop, 31 Westgate, on Agricola Street. They offer design services to clients around the world. The store is a showcase of fine, classic furnishings and décor—brands such as Ralph Lauren and Baker.
“We’re really focusing on the best in furnishings,” McRobbie says. “There really was a niche missing for classic things that were beautifully made,” Blanchard adds. “Our focus comes back to local and being invested in the community. And really pushing those brands we carry locally and also throughout Atlantic Canada.”
Halifax Magazine spoke with McRobbie and Blanchard about their store, what entrepreneurs need to succeed here and their vision for the city.
What do you love about being in Halifax?
CB: I love being able to get in our cars and just run to the shop, and go to clients. It’s easy. I think we are really fortunate compared to some of the large cities where the commutes are so long, that we can do that.
KM: I think it’s quite a cosmopolitan city for being such a small city. There is a lot of culture here, a lot of things to do, but it’s fairly small and it’s really easy to get around.
CB: And I think when you’re in our line of work, the best thing about the city is the connections. The best part of our jobs is also meeting people who have different backgrounds, different jobs. But everyone here is so connected. You can advertise as much as you want, but 90 per cent of our work comes from recommendations, people seeing our style.
What’s missing in Halifax?
KM: I think we need to focus more on the assets of the city because I think sometimes it gets overlooked. People flock here on cruise boats or whatever to see this historic city but sometimes people who live here forget about it or are not aware of it. Maybe the city could invest in an education program about what an asset that really is.
CB: Any city can have really large, glass buildings, and we’re not against modernism, but I think we need to do a better job at really pushing that forward.
KM: If you look at smaller cities on the Atlantic coast, like Charleston, they are small cities that have embraced their history and their culture and the architecture. And people flock to those cities to see that. There’s a lot of revenue coming in from that. We need to embrace that a bit more.
If you had a chance to style Halifax, what would you do?
CB: In larger cities they really focus on breaking the city down into districts. And I think what’s great about our local district here with other shops is we’re a design district. It should be celebrated more with street signs and planters. Just overall beautification: downtown is historic, this area [Agricola] is design; Quinpool Road is commercial, but do it in a beautiful way….For us, it comes back to what our design belief is: People really notice details.
KM: It’s all about quality. If you choose materials they are true or natural, they stand the test of time, they weather well and age gracefully. If you choose something that is a quick fix or not in the best interest of the building, it’s going to date quickly, and in five years you’ll be looking at replacing it.
What are your favourite places in the city?
CB: I think being a business owner in the city you also know a lot of business owners. We really like the Bertossi group and their restaurants. They are really hard working and they are really passionate about their businesses. They, like us, are always looking for new ways to improve the business and do something new and exciting.
KM: We like new things, too, like Edna, that have a new energy to them and somebody has taken something really rough and brought it back. Anybody who is independent, who is working hard to create something really special, to make the city more special, we support that and we love that.
What can Halifax do to encourage business growth?
KM: I find space is really expensive in this city, for the size of the city. So that really hurts young people and small-business owners who want to get started on something to get a space and find something that is reasonable. They just don’t exist anymore. I think that would help, too, if the city would provide property owners with incentives to get new business in or to help small business.
What’s in the future of 31 Westgate?
KM: We also do design work. We do kitchens and bathrooms. It would be nice to have more space where we could have design services, also. We want to perfect our operation in Halifax before we branch out with that.
CB: It comes back to us being really invested in Halifax and being really invested in downtown. Whatever we do, the main thing will be in Halifax. It will be downtown, on the peninsula because that’s really what we believe in.