When Christine Ray-Bratt took a good hard look at how to expand her business, she never could have foreseen where she is today.
Already the owner of a boutique-style clothing store, Chris James, in downtown Kingston, Ray-Bratt has branched out into what she calls a “360-degree retail experience” with her new business Curate.Social. The new space hosts not only carefully curated clothing from Canada and around the world, but also a private event space and a full-service 35-foot bar.
“In 2022 we have to move beyond just trying to sell people clothing,” she explains. “The reality is we have to up our game.”
Kingston locals and tourists alike can browse clothing, have a coffee or cocktail, or host events and socialize in the space on King Street, which features original exposed brick and huge windows.
Ray-Bratt says she was already planning to grow and develop her business model when the pandemic hit. She realized that “customers are expecting more” from their retail experiences. Like magic, a building she had been eyeing came up for sale.
“The space has intrigued me for quite some time, and pre-COVID we were in expansion mode,” says Ray-Bratt. “We were looking for another space to grow as a company, and COVID made it unclear. We knew we were in a growth trajectory. If we wanted to continue on in this market, it didn’t change our plan; it paused it 100 per cent.”
Born in Kingston, Ray-Bratt, who is of partly-Asian heritage, spent time in her university years working between Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Although she studied law and then acquired an MBA, she always seemed to end up working within the fashion industry.
“First summer out of school, it seemed like a cool job. I blinked and I was 40 and it was too late to jump ship,” laughs Ray-Bratt.
She worked in everything from fashion sales to production before moving into master retailing and brand management for European brands in Asia.
When the SARS outbreak hit Asia in the early 2000s, Ray-Bratt, her husband — who is also from Kingston — and their children “made the jump back” to Canada. After working for a few other chains and independent retailers, Ray-Bratt opened Chris James in 2010.
Almost 13 years later, Ray-Bratt says Curate.Social has received excellent feedback and support from the community. She admits she has been learning on the fly as she adjusts to the different elements of Curate.Social.
“In a multi-use environment, you’re unsure how people will use this space,” she explains. “We are learning constantly in the event space.”
Ray-Bratt says she has seen a lot of interest from cultural and religious groups, particularly the Muslim community, who appreciate the private meeting space.
Her concept also just received a $3,000 kickstart from the City of Kingston. Offered by the Kingston Economic Development Corporation with funding from the provincial government, the Starter Company Plus program provides business support and an opportunity for entrepreneurs to pitch for a non-repayable grant of up to $5,000. When naming Curate.Social as a 2022 recipient, the program described the business as “leading the way in experiential shopping.”
Rob Tamblyn, business development manager with the economic development corporation, says the panel of judges had never seen anything like Ray-Bratt’s business. “Curate scored very high overall,” he says. “The judges thought it was such a unique concept.”
Since the pandemic, people are seeking venues for intimate “micro-events” and those spaces were missing from Kingston, Tamblyn explains.
“Christine has been in retail for a number of years, very successful with the other shop, and she’s really taking everything she has learned and applying it to this location,” he says. “We’re looking forward to seeing (Curate.Social) in that spot for a long time.”
Grateful for the funding and resources, Ray-Bratt has focused on boosting Curate.Social’s event space – from website development, to the infrastructure required to do online bookings and reservations, to a marketing program and materials. Ray-Bratt says the program has offered a “great resource for us to tap into.”
“Having people in the industry and in the space who see business from the event perspective gives a level of insight I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” she adds.
As Ray-Bratt and her two businesses look to the future, there are big plans and even bigger hopes in the works.
“Downtown Kingston is a tourist base in the summer. As we see fall roll in, the hope is to reconnect with the community as people become more comfortable with going out and bringing events back,” she describes. “My hope and strategy for fall is to see and solidify and get the word out there about the venue space.”
The city is also home to a notable art community and hosts many events, like the upcoming Writers Festival and Art After Dark, which could provide ample opportunities for Curate.Social.
“We have events booked every month and haven’t even started booking for Christmas,” says Ray-Bratt. “It is exciting to see it working.”
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