24 Aug Feature: Castle Ho, Founder of Boutique 1861
Reading time: 10 minutes
Due to its affordable and timeless clothing, it’s no secret Boutique 1861 dresses has been a go-to for many of us in recent years. I was fortunate enough to meet the founder of this beautiful boutique, Castle Ho and to chat with her about her career in fashion.
On a sunny Friday afternoon, I walked into her store on Saint-Laurent, eager to meet her. She came down to greet me and started showing me around the stores she owns on the street. We toured the Boutique first and saw all the nice boutique 1861 dresses. Then, we climbed upstairs to Boudoir 1861 where they do wedding dresses.
Eventually, we sat down at a picnic table in the 1861 garden and began our interview. I asked her questions regarding her family, her start in fashion, Boutique 1861 dresses and how she built her empire at a young age! Keep reading to find out more about her fashion story and her Boutique 1861 dresses.
AZ: Tell me a bit about your background and your family. Was fashion always part of your upbringing?
CH: I’m originally from Malaysia. I came here when I was younger as a student and I ended up staying in Canada afterwards. I got used to the lifestyle and I fell in love with the city [Montreal], but all my family is back home in Malaysia. I’m quite Canadian-ized now because it has been 18 years that I’ve been here. I wanted to be a fashion designer as young as I can remember because I was inspired by my aunt that used to live next door.
She was a dressmaker and she had her little business where she made clothes for people. Every day I would go to her atelier and spend my afternoons after school. I would play with her fabrics and I would see all her beautiful sketches. Growing up, that really became a big part of my life and it made me dream about fashion. I used to make clothes for my Barbie dolls with the leftover fabrics. At that point, I told myself I wanted to be a fashion designer one day. I was only like 6-7 years old. I owe it to my aunt because she’s really the one that inspired me to be in fashion.
AZ: What was the rest of your family doing for a living?
CH: Everyone else is in my family was in the food business. My parents are in the grocery business and my whole life they really wanted me to be part of that. I was thinking: “umm no thanks Dad, I’m going into fashion”. Nobody believed in fashion actually. My sister also wanted to be in fashion, but she’s older than me so my parents told her no and that she had to study business. She didn’t even end up finishing college and she got married at a young age.
I think through that experience my parents felt they had tried with my sister. When it was my turn to tell them I wanted to study fashion, they ended up giving in because they figured they had already tried to convince us otherwise and it hadn’t worked.
My father would tell me that he couldn’t give me everything in life, but that he could give me an education and that’s what I will keep with me for the rest of my life. I’m so lucky they let me come to Canada to continue my studies and experience living by myself in a new city. It was exciting because I love adventures, but I never thought I would settle down here. I think after spending time here and meeting my fiancé 12 years ago, I knew this was the place for me.
AZ: Did your aunt teach you how to sew?
No actually. I learnt when I went to college. I think it’s the idea of fashion, the clothing and spending time in her atelier when I was young that was an inspiration. I remember she made her own wedding gown. As a little girl, seeing someone make their wedding gown is so beautiful with all the beading and everything. It was just like watching Cinderella making her own dress. Then she wore it on her wedding day and it was so beautiful. All that combined was like watching my idol.
I wanted to do what she did so much that after high school, when I told my parents I wanted to go into fashion design, my Dad actually called my aunt to tell her it was all her fault and to tell me not to pursue this career. In Asia back then, people either studied IT or Business. It was the two most common things parents expected their kids to study, so fashion was not something they wanted their kids to do.
My aunt called me and told me what my Dad had said to her, but she was like “I’ll tell you, follow your heart”. After that, I told my parents I wanted to pursue fashion and they gave in. They didn’t give me too much of a hard time, but they tried. My Dad wanted me to join his business, but in the end, they just wanted me to be happy.
AZ: How did a career in retail come about?
CH: After graduating from Lasalle College in fashion design, I knew I had to get a job, but no one would hire a fashion designer with no experience. I wanted to do design right away, but I didn’t know I needed experience to get into that. Nobody would hire me, so I decided to get a couple sewing machines and to make some stuff from home. I sold the clothes I made to stores on consignment for two years. I turned my whole apartment into a bit like my aunts atelier where there was fabric everywhere.
That’s what I did to start my fashion career, but after a couple of years, I didn’t feel inspired anymore. Being at home all week sewing got me unmotivated. I ended up getting the chance to work in retail to help someone out temporarily. They needed someone at their store and that’s when I fell in love with retail. I was happy to go to work each day.
After awhile, I found myself stop making clothes and turning the temporary retail job into a full time job. At the time, nobody understood why I was going backwards because I had something good going on. I had my label, a fashion show, a launch, but I still preferred the retail job. I followed my heart.
AZ: How did you launch your first store Razberry?
CH: After 3.5 years, the kiosk owner opened a store called Blueberry that I helped him with. After awhile, I felt like we could do more with the store, but it was hard because he thought we should focus on selling the clothes. Eventually, I asked him if I could open a store called Razberry because I was so attached to Blueberry and I felt bad leaving. That was the first real experience of me doing anything on my own.
My fiancé Simon helped a lot too. Just to start the store we put together his savings, my savings and my Dad’s retirement money. I was so scared because if I failed, I was going to fail two people who gave me all their savings. Simon also helped with designing everything like the logo and signs when he got home from work. Between 2008 and 2012 we had three stores on Sainte Catherine including a men’s clothing store where I ran the day to day.
In 2012, we then opened on Saint Laurent and then in 2013, we launched the website because the demand kept increasing. Simon took two months off from work just to build the website. Right after we launched it, we realized it was a lot of work and Simon had to decide between giving up his career and continuing the website. He decided to tell his boss he wasn’t going back even though he was one of the best in his field. In the end, everyone understood his decision because he was choosing the love of his life over his career.
AZ: What made you want to keep opening clothing stores around Montreal?
CH: Ideas. Each store has a story. It’s easier to open a franchise, but every time we open a new store, it’s about the concept and the story. When we opened Razberry, I didn’t really know where it was going. I just picked a little bit of everything for the store, but after Razberry, I had a better idea of what I liked. When we did 1861, I already had a good background and a good idea of the style we were going for.
Razberry was really the first experiment to figure out what I wanted. After that, when we opened on Saint-Laurent in 2012, I always got inspired by the clients. Some clients were looking for items that were less girly and that’s why La Petite Garçonne was created. The inspiration for the stores basically comes from the combination of an idea and the clients insight.
AZ: What is the process when it comes to choosing Boutique 1861 dresses? Do you take part in designing any of the dresses?
CH: I’m the buyer in the company so we work with a lot of brands because we like to give people a lot of choices. I choose what goes into each store and what we sell. It’s been two years now that we also design our own exclusive label for both 1861 and La Petite Garçonne. I sketch the idea, choose the fabric and experience the fit and the cut. The reason why I came out with an exclusive label is because as a buyer, I’m always trying to find things for the store and the clients, but sometimes when I have something in mind and I can’t find it, I design it. This takes me back to my routes where I started in fashion.
Regarding choosing brands, I choose some around the world because the mission is to cater to different women. We are different shapes, we have different styles, tastes, figures and features. The first thing that comes to mind is always what makes the client look good. I like to have variety so the labels can be from Canada, U.S., Europe, Australia. It’s about gathering all the different pieces to make a giant closet where our clients can come in and find something that fits them well.
AZ: Where do you seek your inspiration from when it comes to (designing or choosing) the Boutique 1861 dresses?
CH: Inspiration these days comes a lot from Instagram, Pinterest and bloggers. Style is everywhere so my eyes are constantly soaking up things I see. I’m always on the hunt for what’s the next beautiful thing. One goal I have when I buy or design is the clothing needs to be timeless. If a piece is going to go out of style in two years, it’s no good. I like to choose pieces you can still wear in 10 years or even pass down to someone. That’s what makes a good piece and that’s what I always try to keep in mind. I mean, I have dresses I’ve had forever because they still fit and are pieces I love.
That was also always my selling point when I worked in retail and tried to choose items for clients. I used to tell them “You can wear it for a long time”. That’s why 1861 is vintage inspired. We looked back at the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. The clothing was beautiful and you can still wear them today. Those pieces should always be coming back. That’s what we want to have in our closets.
AZ: Tell me a bit about the design of the stores and what your vision was for the decor when you were putting them together?
CH: Marie Antoinette inspired the first idea for 1861. I love the Marie Antoinette Victorian era, the castles, and the costumes. The glamour during that era makes me dream. Women back then dressed up, but now comfort takes over. I want to encourage the clients to bring back the glamour, not necessarily the fashion, but the spirit of dressing up and having fun with clothing. You can dress up to go for a walk for example, it doesn’t have to be a special occasion.
The idea of making the store like the universe of Marie Antoinette was really the goal for 1861. People also ask why it’s called 1861. At first, we had the logo designed as a cameo, like in the Victorian era. Then, we tried to find a name that fit, but I couldn’t find a name I liked. Simon ended up looking up the address of our first store on Sainte Catherine and it was 1861, so we decided to call it that.
As for La Petite Garçonne, the store is inspired by Coco Chanel, 1920s. She was the one known for taking men’s suits and turning them into fashion. The inspiration came from when women first started wearing pants and started to have jobs. La Petite Garçonne is edgier, less girly, and has a more a masculine touch.
AZ: Why is 1861 and La Petite Garçonne perfect for young women starting off their career?
CH: Young professionals are starting to find their way and what they truly like. They can come to the store and feel like the items are made for them. We’re really clear on what we’re about and we are known for being girly at 1861. People started to get that we encourage them to dress up and that they don’t just need an occasion. It’s like, just live it! Have fun!
I see the clients that shop with us often and that they keep going out of their comfort zone each time. That’s like the biggest reward because they feel they look beautiful in the items. There’s nothing wrong with looking good. Also, our price point is really affordable so you don’t feel like an item is too expensive.
AZ: Any future plans to expand outside of Quebec?
CH: Physical stores no. We want to stay small and unique. We’ve had many franchise requests from everywhere even from the Middle East or France, but we are a niche and we don’t want to open a franchise because it becomes like copy, paste. I think for the moment, we want to be one of a kind. People come to Montreal, and I like the concept of being unique and that you have to make the trip here.
The moment you franchise anything, it doesn’t become unique anymore. You would be able to find the same store in another city, so you wouldn’t feel it’s special to Montreal.
You have to come here to visit the store, if not, ordering online can still be delivered to you wherever you live. For the people who actually come to Montreal, they can say they came to the store because they were in town. It’s not a common experience and makes the city more unique.
AZ: What are a few tips you would give someone afraid to launch a clothing line or to go after a career in fashion?
CH: If you have the passion, just do it. Even if you fail, at least you tried. I find that fashion is the most important thing that we do in life. As long as you’re willing to work hard, then just do it. Otherwise, you’ll never know and you’ll always think “what if”. There will be moments for you to fail and moments for you to succeed, but you will only find out by doing it.
Hard work in fashion is one thing that it takes because it’s not an easy industry. Fashion moves fast and people always have flavor of the month and it’s hectic. You have to keep up, but if you love it and you’re not afraid to work hard, then go for it.
Even like with the men’s store we lost a lot of money, but I did it and I’ll never say “what if”. It gave me experience and you figure it out along the way. When I had the clothing line, people were wondering why I quit for retail. Everything is an experience and the passion part was the strongest for me. Whatever I’m doing, I need to love it. If I love it, I just follow that and that’s what keeps me going each day.
AZ: Can you tell us a bit about what you’re currently working on and what’s in store for fall 2018?
CH: We just launched our concept store Édition Été for La Petite Garçonne. That’s something that’s really fun because we wish to continue and have a new concept every 3-4 months. Now I have to think of the next concept for when summer is over, but I don’t know what it’s going to be yet.
2018 is the year for us to look back because the company grew a lot. I went from 1 little boutique in 2008 to 6 boutiques, an online store and 130 employees later. A lot happened. It was like a light. I used to work at the store with 2-3 other colleagues and all of a sudden we’re now a big family. It’s a big jump.
Now it’s about focusing on everything that happened and to improve everything we have built. In bridal, I have bigger plans to expand into more private appointments and to have better capacity to help the brides that come in on the weekend.
The space is not enough and they don’t get much experience one on one, so we want to improve that and to really get more specialized. I mean, in fashion if you don’t keep going forward you get left behind. Thankfully, I’m obsessed with it and sometimes I have to tell myself to stop.
AZ: What do you like to read that’s fashion related?
CH: Magazines. I’m very visual and I like to look at pictures. I don’t really like reading, but pictures inspire me. That’s why Instagram now is a source of inspiration because it’s all photos I base myself off of for Boutique 1861 dresses. I also love decor and decor accounts. It’s about capturing and gathering this inspiration everywhere. I love book magazines for the photographs and there are a few I like collecting because I like having something physical.
Now everything is going digital, but I like to keep the beautiful photographs. I’m constantly looking at what’s new and I love mood boards. My office is like my mood board because I need to be inspired constantly. Even the office behind the scenes I try to make it inspiring. I like my colleagues to feel the essence of the company and understand where all the 1861 inspiration is coming from.
It’s amazing to see how inspiring anyone around you can be. Castle went was able to turn her big dreams into a reality in a country that was completely foreign to her. You can really do anything you set your mind to as an elegant young professional.
Be sure to get your hands on nice boutique 1861 dresses!
Hope you enjoyed the blog post on Boutique 1861 dresses! Comment below which one of Castle’s stores is your favorite.