Douglas Coupland x Simons

Vancouver-based artist and author Douglas Coupland has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to his cutting-edge take on the modern world and everything in it, and his 3DCanada project is no different. The crowdsourced artistic collaboration with the Quebec-based retail chain Simons aims to capture a snapshot of today’s Canada—in three dimensions.

Between this year and 2017, Coupland will visit Simons locations in six cities across the country (his next appearance will be on November 14 at Vancouver’s Park Royal Shopping Centre location, which opens mid-October) for special events where participants can have their heads scanned in 3-D and then take home a 3-D–printed bust. Coupland will then create a sculpture made up of hundreds of the small busts, to be unveiled in 2019 at the forthcoming Simons location at Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto.

Though the project sounds like something more suited to an art gallery than a clothing store, visual art has long played a vital part in Simons’ vision of retail, says Angela Stinson, Simons’ director of store development.

“It’s always been a part of our DNA—creating an environment that people can feel comfortable in has been a really important part of our stores,” Stinson says. “There are people who are not necessarily going to museums all the time or engaged in art practice, but still seek a sense of beauty—so it’s not really about whether or not you’re viewing art as art, or simply as beautiful components to the store experience.”

Stinson has been busy overseeing the many elements for Simons’ expansion across Canada: the family-owned retailer, founded in 1840 by John Simons as a dry-goods store in Quebec City, established a reputation as a fashion leader in Quebec and now has its sights set on bringing its savvy mix of private labels and designer brands to the rest of the country. Beginning this year and continuing into 2019, Simons will open seven new stores across Canada, defying recent retail trends that have seen other high-profile chains close their doors.

Simons’ interest in working with Coupland stemmed from the artist’s forward-thinking ethos, Stinson says. Part of Stinson’s role as director of store development is to ensure the planning of each new location involves design that’s not simply functional, but also part of the overall experience—for example, the chain’s first location outside of Quebec, opened in 2012 in the West Edmonton Mall, features an eye-catching interactive architectural installation by designer Philip Beesley, while the exterior of the new Park Royal store was crafted with panels designed to evoke Salish woven ceremonial blankets to honour its location on Squamish land.

“The West Edmonton Mall store gave us that platform to show other landlords that the Simons brand would resonate in the rest of Canada,” Stinson says. “The retail market is kind of volatile right now, but I think we’ve got so much history—we’re family-owned, a Canadian brand, been around for 175 years—that itself resonates with Canadians.”

“There are opportunities to create store environments that are a little more engaging than the typical,” she continues. “What sets us apart is our product assortment and that mix of high/low—it’s really how people shop these days.” In connecting with Coupland to discuss a potential art installation for their new Vancouver store, Stinson and CEO Peter Simons quickly realized that the artist shared Simons’ fascination with the 3-D printing process.

“Peter was in my studio and saw the 3-D printer and he knew exactly what it was,” Coupland explains. “I was impressed. We discussed where 3-D is going, and we hashed [the project] out over a half-year or so. Have you been looking at 3-D-printed fashion? Check it out. Talk about the next wave,” he enthuses.

At the three 3DCanada events to date, Coupland has been met by lineups of participants eager to be scanned via an iPad-like device—the process takes about 30 seconds per image, and onlookers can view the image onscreen before it’s printed and ready for pickup in-store the next day (about 100 will get the chance to take part at each event).

“There’s something about 3-D printing that captures everybody’s imagination,” Coupland says. “They want to be part of the future. And I was amazed at how many people over 60 came to be scanned, and they were really stoked about it. 3-D printing is as big, if not bigger, than the invention of photography in the 19th-century.”

When asked if he can describe his vision for the final installation, which will be composed from hundreds of the 3-D heads printed at the Simons’ events, Coupland is cagey. “Nope,” he says. “You’ll have to wait, but I do think it will show what is possible with ‘group photography’ in the 21st century.”

Coupland’s vision of a “group portrait of Canadians” dovetails nicely with Simons’ expansion as the retailer aims to reach out to shoppers across the country. “I think this is a departure from what we’ve done historically, but as a company, we’re always looking forward,” says Stinson. “Technology is a part of looking forward, and I don’t think we’re in denial that it’s going to shape our future, and could even change a lot of the pieces of our business.”

“In the end, we’re taking technology and applying it to art, and the final product will be a beautiful piece that everyone can appreciate,” she says. “That aligns perfectly with the Simons philosophy, and it’s going to be really interesting to share that with our customers.”