Workspace of the Month: Inside SSENSE’s State-Of-The-Art Montreal HQ
Montreal-based retailer SSENSE has a global following not just for its curated selection of streetwear and luxury fashion but also for its distinct point of view—cool, confident and cutting edge.
It’s an unmistakable vibe that’s consistent at all touch points: on its clutter-free website and app, at its David Chipperfield-designed flagship store in Old Montreal and in its unassuming corporate headquarters in the Garment District. “Our office is very understated, which is a lot of what we’re about,” says chief people officer Julie Forman.
An early adopter of a less-is-more aesthetic, SSENSE fashioned its open-concept space in a brutalist style. It was designed by local firm Atelier Barda, which created custom fixtures like concrete Chabanel chairs that sit amid dozens of tropical plants in black resin planters.
You won’t find any blue-chip artwork on the white walls or any corner offices or other status signalling; members of the C-suite share the same space as every other staff member, and the flashiest thing about it is its unobstructed view of the city, stretching from Olympic Stadium to St. Joseph’s Oratory.
In the two decades since CEO and co-founder Rami Atallah created the e-commerce platform as part of his graduate thesis in computer engineering at Polytechnique Montréal, SSENSE has become a world-class retail leader, achieving a $5 billion valuation in 2021.
Its fashion offerings—which focus on luxury houses like Balenciaga, Gucci and Saint Laurent and emerging brands like Jacquemus and Chopova Lowena—have been rounded out by additional categories, including pet products, housewares, personal-care items, tech and kidswear, over the past four years.
Since moving to its current address from a previous space a few blocks away in 2013, the company has expanded across three storeys of the building, taking up a total of 16,000 square metres.
The multiple groups that work there range from legal, finance, HR, merchandising, marketing and customer-experience personnel to a tech team of 300 dev-ops and data engineers, quality-assurance testers, user-interface designers and product experts.
During the pandemic, renovation plans were reconfigured to accommodate a hybrid work model, which was officially put in place last year. Most of the company’s 1,800 employees—who are based in Montreal, Toronto, New York City, Dallas and London—work remotely, but those based locally can choose when to use the office.
“It’s really about letting employees decide how to spend their time and when they need to collaborate in person with colleagues,” says Forman, who joined SSENSE last year after working at organizational-consulting firm Korn Ferry.
The company’s real estate team created open areas with flexible seating configurations, like communal tables, mobile desks and window counters with stools, as well as spaces dedicated to meetings, including an auditorium that seats up to 500, and a quiet area for deep work.
There are also a whopping 39 on-site photography studios, with even more located at the company’s fulfillment centre 10 kilometers away. In these lively spaces, a cacophony of music and upbeat chatter fills the air as photographers capture as many as 1,500 brand-new products per day for the website.
In short, it’s a fashion lover’s paradise. “It’s probably the largest closet in Montreal,” says Forman.