by Bronwyn Cosgrave

The Room opened in 1937 in the Robert Simpson Company department store at the corner of Queen and Yonge Streets. The St. Regis Room—as The Room was originally known—offered Canadians, for the first time, directional high fashion based on haute couture produced by the best Paris designers, including Jean Patou, Maggy Rouff, Elsa Schiaparelli and Mainbocher. In keeping with the custom of a Parisian atelier, the St. Regis Room hosted twice-daily “Fashion Reviews,” where society doyennes and important women would gather to acquire their lavish wardrobes.

A “petite, blonde, vivid” dynamo, Margery Steele joined the St. Regis Room in the late 1950s. Working her way up from fashion co-ordinator to couture buyer and, finally, to director, she perpetuated the spirit of a sophisticated fashion sense with cutting-edge direction that prevails at The Room today. Steele hosted not-to-be-missed biannual charity benefit fashion shows at the Arcadian Court, the Art Deco restaurant that was Toronto’s most exclusive dining spot. Every member of her sales team was regarded as the “modern equivalent of a couture vendeuse,” noted a Toronto Star fashion writer, because of the personal attention devoted to each of their loyal customers. Steele personally commissioned New York designers to create one-of-a-kind ball gowns for some of Toronto’s best-dressed women, prompting the Star to report: “For the top drawer establishment types it’s the ne plus ultra when Steele herself buys with you in mind.”

As the pace of fashion intensified—and ready-to-wear took precedence over couture—Steele changed the title of her domain to “The Room,” a name whose simplicity reflects the singular position The Room has since enjoyed in Canada.

Meanwhile, in overseeing “Canada’s best closets,” wrote the Star, Mrs. Steele (as she was known) exerted a style influence that was comparable to a legendary Vogue editor’s. The press noted her every move, commenting on her impeccable appearance (“My clothes are my business,” she explained); her preference for real Coca-Cola rather than Diet Coke (“She drinks five Cokes a day,” noted The Globe and Mail); and her friends Oscar [de la Renta] and Geoffrey [Beene].

Under Steele, The Room introduced fashion legends to Canada, including Giorgio Armani, Hubert de Givenchy and Thierry Mugler. Steele’s legion of clients totalled “thousands” by the 1980s and was described as a “list that [made] her uptown competitors mouth water.” As the list shifted to include female business executives along with the wives of tycoons and diplomats, The Room introduced clothes that suited their more active lifestyles, including the first “diffusion” lines, such as Mani by Armani and Bill Blass’s Collection III.

In her nurturing of young brands from startups to international success, Steele innovated another retail tradition at The Room, buying the earliest collections by Geoffrey Beene, for instance. Near the end of Steele’s forty-year tenure, as Beene became known as an “American master,” her own collection of his vintage pieces was exhibited at the designer’s 25-year retrospective at New York’s National Academy of Design in 1988.

Simpsons had then been acquired by Hudson’s Bay Company, and by 1991, The Bay occupied its flagship location at Queen and Yonge, where The Room continues to thrive. Bonnie Brooks, president of The Bay, appointed Nicholas Mellamphy as The Room’s creative director in 2009. Like Steele, Mellamphy has supported the rise of young Canadian and international designers—including Prabal Gurung, Christopher Kane, Jeremy Laing, Erdem Moralioglu, Thomas Tait and Jason Wu—buying their collections before they became international names.

Brooks also commissioned the interior design firm Yabu Pushelberg to conceive a new, sleek minimalist retail space for The Room. Stretching to over 22,000 square feet, it is a vast expanse, but it has an intimacy that conjures both the atmospheres of a luxury boutique and a gallery.

Fittingly, The Room hosts events on site that novelly celebrate fashion popular culture. God Save the Queen, a two-day event in October 2010, honoured the special relationship The Room has long enjoyed with British fashion designers, displaying multimedia installations of the leading London talents who attended, including Erdem Moralioglu, Mark Fast, Mary Katrantzou, Giles Deacon, Jonathan Saunders, Charlotte Olympia Dellal, Nicholas Kirkwood and Marios Schwab. In April 2011, When Tommy Met Anna exhibited 81 original images that’s street fashion photographer Tommy Ton captured of Italian fashion legend Anna Dello Russo.

Brenda Emslie, the current director of The Room who served as Steele’s right hand from 1994 until her death five years later, reflects on The Room’s direction today: “We have loyal customers who have never gone away and a whole new breed who appreciate our edit of brands, which is fresh, international and unique in the world,” she says.

In fall 2011, The Room opened in the Granville Bay Store Vancouver. Next year, The Room will open in Montreal. Its reputation no longer restricted to Canada, The Room is now a globally known luxury name.