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Frank + Oak’s retail space at its Montreal headquarters. Photo: Richard Lam

On a snowy Thursday in Montreal, as Americans celebrate Thanksgiving and locals mourn the opening days of their interminable winter, the offices of Frank + Oak are humming with activity.

Since the clothing retailer does half of its business in the United States, the week of Black Friday is the company’s busiest of the year and the culmination of months of preparation. In the Frank + Oak warehouse in Montreal’s hip Mile End neighbourhood, workers press oxford shirts and box crewneck sweaters, hand-signing a note for each order—a small token of analog humanity in a frictionless digital experience—before piling them up on pallets destined for Los Angeles and Atlanta, Vancouver and Kitchener, Ont. Up on the sixth floor, in a barely converted industrial space, millennials in T-shirt dresses and expertly cuffed jeans tap away on computers: the web team in one corner; the marketers in another; the developers camped out under a skull-and-crossbones flag tagged with “don’t feed the devs.”

The place looks precisely like what it is: the home of a tech startup caught in the midst of a thrilling, if somewhat awkward, growth spurt. At the office’s entrance, a foosball table and punching bag sit unused. The unfinished cement floor is cut through with a couple of white walls, slapped up in a hurry when management realized the open-concept design hadn’t left space for meetings.

In one of those hastily constructed conference rooms, away from the Black Friday hubbub, Ethan Song sits with his design team. The 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Frank + Oak watches as designer after designer offers ideas for next season—swatches of interesting fabrics, sketches of new silhouettes, racks of prototypes that, if everything goes according to plan, the young creative professionals of summer 2017 will find appealingly on-brand. While the staff works to keep the day’s orders flowing, Song’s priorities are elsewhere, his sights set firmly on the future.

It’s an attitude that has helped Frank + Oak become, in less than five years, one of the leaders in a new world of retail. At a time when most traditional Canadian clothing merchants are suffering, Frank + Oak has prospered by selling its line of affordable basics to creative-class millennials across North America. When it launched, it was so short-staffed Song shot photographs himself, with co-founder Hicham Ratnani modelling clothes. Today it’s a company of more than 250 employees serving a member (read: online customer) base of more than three million. In 2015, the company topped Deloitte’s Canadian Technology Fast 50, with a four-year revenue growth rate of 18,480%.

In addition to running a website and app, Frank + Oak operates 16 bricks-and-mortar stores with in-store barbershops and cafés—brand outposts less concerned with sales per square foot than hosting whisky tastings and promoting the Frank + Oak aesthetic. “I think they’re the future of retail,” says Tamara Szames, the fashion industry expert at market research consultancy NPD Group. “What they’ve identified is the evolution of how people want to buy.”

This fall, the company launched its first womenswear line. It’s a move that more than doubles its potential market, but it also puts Frank + Oak into a much more crowded and competitive space. For a firm that has carved out a distinctive identity as a brand for young men, the expansion risks alienating existing customers and putting a strain on resources.

But it’s a risk Ethan Song sees as essential. As he explains it, selling clothes to men on the Internet may have obscured Frank + Oak’s real ambitions: to become a global lifestyle brand for entrepreneurial millennials like him and his friends. And if you have earth-sized ambitions, excluding half the population seems absurd. “You can’t be afraid to reinvent yourself,” says Song. “If you see a big opportunity in the market and say, ‘You know what, it could be a good opportunity, but I need to do what I do now,’ there’s a high chance that in four or five years, you’re going to regret it.”

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