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The Story of Quebec-Based Clothing Retailer Hatley as it Marks 35 Years

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Retail stores Little Blue House and Hatley have their roots in the lakeside village of North Hatley, Quebec in the 1980s when Alice and John Odland moved to there from Toronto.

They opened the Little Blue House in 1986 and today it has 13 shops in Canada.

Their three sons – Jeremy, Nick, Chris – opened the first Hatley store in 2007 in Whistler, BC. There are 12 locations, eight in the US and one in the UK. Hatley is sold in over 3,000 boutiques across 37 countries.

Image: Hatley
Alice and John Oldland (Image: Hatley)

The two family businesses are based in Montreal.

“This business has been through some transformations. The business in 1986 was my mother’s gift shop,” said Jeremy Odland, the Chief Operating Officer. “My mother was quite a well-known artist and she opened a gift shop in the little town of North Hatley where we grew up. In that gift shop she had an art gallery. That’s the Little Blue House. It’s actually a little blue house in my hometown.

“In around 1992, 93, five or six years into that, the store that she owned, my mother was painting chicken, turkey, farm animals on aprons.”

The aprons with the whimsical farm animals sold like hot cakes. John Odland took the aprons to Sherbrooke, Quebec where they sold quickly. Then to Toronto.

Image: Hatley
Oldland brothers, Jeremy and Nick, along with the CFO, Christian, hard at work painting the boutique in Quebec City

From that success, the Odlands started a kitchen apparel company selling oven mitts, aprons and chef hats. Many more gift items followed.

In the late 1990s, the three sons took over the business. It then started to make kids’ clothing. The Little Blue House is really meant today for the tourist market.

“It really happened very organically,” said Odland.

“The DNA of Hatley is kids, kids, kids. Then we got into women’s apparel and we realized we built a great brand, we have a lion’s share of moms. It’s been a slow build but a very good, very profitable, exciting build getting into women’s apparel. And the Hatley brand is the one we’re known for. It’s the bigger of the businesses. It is sold in the better boutiques all around the world.”

While today the company is headquartered in Montreal, Hatley’s heart and soul is still very much in North Hatley. The village’s heritage, its gorgeous lake and simple lifestyle continue to influence everything the company designs. In fact, North Hatley has been the backdrop of many campaign photo shoots and will continue to be.

North Hatley is located on the northern shores of Lake Massawippi, a freshwater lake 14.2 kilometres long at its longest points and 1.9 kilometres wide at its widest points. The company says the quiet hamlet holds a special place in the Odlands’ hearts, not only because it’s where the family first started Hatley in 1986, but because its scenic beauty, surrounding nature and simple lifestyle continues to heavily inspire its brands.

“Protecting North Hatley’s heritage has always been important to us. Since 2007 we have been donating a percentage of our proceeds, as well as resources to Everblue Massawippi, a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of Lake Massawippi and its surrounding watershed,” says the company.

Odland said 12 months ago the future was looking pretty bleak because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The company was on a growth trajectory and everything ended 18 months ago.

Hatley & Little Blue House Niagara-on-the-Lake

“It was horrific what happened 18 months ago in the retail industry. We thought we were going to lose our business. Now here we are 18 months later. Growing again, rehiring everybody. It’s great,” he said.

“I’m almost somewhat shell shocked by the experience in what we’ve just gone through. Our general goal is to keep doing what we’re doing. I don’t have a grand vision. We’re going to open more stores. I don’t know what the future entails. I think what we want to do is just maintain the status quo. Have a company that is so much fun to work at my staff want to come here every day. I don’t want to go so big privately that there’s a threat of bankruptcy around the corner. If I just do this the rest of my life, I’d be happy.

“But we’ll probably open five or six stores per year, grow ecommerce, add to the line. We’re going to get into winter apparel.”

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior National Business Journalist with Retail Insider in addition to working on his own as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training.

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