“It’s about growing with people, and living life with them.”
It’s very satisfying to see something come full circle. And no one knows that better than Natasha Roberts, owner of the charming Toronto boutique, Space Vintage. Roberts comes by her retail prowess thanks to a strong example set by her mother, Ashlene; at a young age, Roberts understood the power of wellness and community through spending time at her mom’s spa, located in Toronto’s Mirvish Village neighbourhood.
An underground haven complete with a water feature, the spa was like an oasis in Toronto’s bustling Annex area. A small rack of clothing was set up in the soothing spot–“Fashion was always a part of my mom’s life,” Roberts says–and through word-of-mouth, interest in the finery being sold was swiftly generated. “Demand started to grow,” she recalls. “And we changed the spa into Space Vintage.” It became so popular, the likes of Nelly Furtado and Rachel McAdams were counted as fans of the store when it came to finding pieces for event dressing,
After nearly two fruitful decades in the same location, the demolition of Toronto’s famed Honest Ed’s building and the rest of the surrounding block of businesses meant Space was in need of, well, a new one. “We were displaced, and it was kind of miraculous to find somewhere in Kensington,” Roberts says, noting that her mother shopped in the iconic neighbourhood and dreamed of having a store there. “There was just something about it that was full circle.”
The cozy spot was updated with gold-tone walls and décor and quickly became a must-visit for vintage lovers and those curious about shopping second-hand. But recently, Roberts has faced the same challenges as other retailers in terms of staying engaged with customers through the COVID-19 crisis. She highlights that given the close nature of her relationship with shoppers, much thought has gone into interactions that exist in a digital space. “Everything we do is about connection. You can cry in our store, you can laugh, you can dance, you can strut, you can tell me your life story.”
To fill the void of these intimate IRL moments in the shop, Roberts has been doing virtual personal shopping appointments, and will continue to use Instagram as a shopping platform while an e-commerce site for the store is built (it’s expected to launch this fall). While she’s excited about the prospect of having shoppers across Canada more readily access her curated offerings, Roberts is also well aware of the need to recreate the special atmosphere she’s worked so hard to cultivate with Space Vintage. “[I’m] working to create something nostalgic and familiar when it comes to being online,” says Roberts. “It’s not just selling clothing. For me, that’s very lonely – I call it lonely money. What I do, it’s people over profit. It’s about people’s lives.”
Her customers–or “stars”, as Roberts calls them–have grown accustomed to not only having a sanctuary in Space’s physical location, but also to feeling its owner’s passion for vintage clothing. “I think with vintage, every [piece] has a soul,” says Roberts, adding that some of the retro items that give her a sense of command are dresses from the 1970s. “They could have a bold print, maybe be cinched at the waist. They make me feel so powerful, and the most like me.”
Roberts notes that she feels there’s a “kind of prophetic element to wearing vintage clothing,” and says that “If you feel connected to a piece, buy it. There might be a special day when you can wear it.” She recalls a Christian Dior jacket that hung in her closet for months before she wore it. “I’ve had powerful experiences in that jacket,” she says.
The kind of hopefulness Roberts sees in every piece of vintage she releases to her customers is also imbued in her philosophy when it comes to thriving during quarantine and beyond, particularly because her store has seen its share of hardship after being ousted from its original location.
“I’m encouraged and optimistic because overcoming something and coming out victorious is so motivating,” she says. “I want to give other people that bright light. I want to be there for people just by being successful. [And] being a Black-owned business, I see it as a responsibility to be successful and to never give up, because I want other people to have opportunities.”