With our Success Stories, we aim to put forward men and women we admire because they stood out by pursuing their dreams. We hope that their stories, and mostly their journeys (often treacherous), inspire you to make your dreams come true. To make sure their message’s essence remains intact, we decide to move away from a traditional interview and let them write their own stories (all we did is edit the text and chose the pictures).
Today, we want to introduce you to Castle Ho, owner of the five 1861 boutiques. Castle is a remarklable entrepreneur who moved to Montreal from Malaysia in 2001. With nothing but a passion for fashion and a degree in fashion design, she built her little romantic empire…
When I was younger, my auntie Sandy — who was a dressmaker — was living right next door to us and I spent a lot of time hanging out at her atelier. I would dress up my dolls with her scrap fabrics while she was working. I was fascinated with her beautiful fashion sketches and thought to myself that, one day, I wanted to do what she did. One of the most beautiful thing was to watch her make her own wedding gown with the beautiful beading and details. It was like seeing Cinderella making her own ball gown and, for a little girl who loves playing dress up, it was simply magical.
Since then, fashion was all I knew I wanted to do when I grow up. I also have always been in love with movies of love stories of princes and princesses in their extravagant outfits from the Victorian era. It all looked so dreamy that they moved me into another world where everything was like a fairy tale… I was fascinated.
After studying one year in fashion design in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I moved to Montreal in 2001 to complete my studies. Arriving in Montreal in January, right in the middle of winter, from a tropical country, was like being an alien landing from another planet. I was dressed in bright colours from head to toe : bubble gum pink jacket, purple floral pants and baby blue platforms. We didn’t wear much dark-coloured clothing back in Malaysia since it was always too warm out. We believed that wearing bright colours would keep us cooler. Fashion trends were completely different here compared to back home and I didn’t own anything black. I had a hard time shopping at first since everything was all about darker colours during winter time and it took some time to understand and adapt to the culture and styles of the city. Now, I actually really love seasonal changes!
After I graduated from Fashion Design at Lasalle College, I started looking for jobs in design. No luck, nobody would hire someone that didn’t have any design experience. Therefore, I decided to set up a little studio at home and make my own clothing. I created a clothing line called Castledream and had them on consignment in a couple of shops. Everything was going really well and I still remember the feeling of seeing someone on the street wearing the clothes you made for the first time : it’s so exciting and touching. But slowly, I was loosing passion in what I was doing because I was spending like 90% of the time working alone in my studio. It was getting harder for me.
In 2005, I met my fiancé Simon Touzin. We fell madly in love and have been inseparable ever since. Simon knew how much I loved fashion and he’s always been the most supportive of my passion. One day, I was talking about maybe opening a clothing boutique. Without any doubt, Simon offered to help me with his life savings. My dad took out his retirement fund and along with my own savings, we were able to open my own boutique. It was extremely nerve wrecking because I was so afraid to fail these two men that I loved most. I felt like I was in a casino, except I hate gambling.
In 2008, we opened our first boutique Razberry and had to do everything DIY because of our tight budget. Simon was working on a computer all day long and he didn’t really know much about renovations back then. His dad Réjean would come from from Trois-Rivières each day to help us renovate and taught his son how to do these handy works.
Working day to day at the boutique helping clients find their perfect wardrobe quickly inspired me to open our second shop. I wanted to cater something more sophisticated and I had a better idea of where my direction was. In 2009, we opened the doors of Boutique 1861 on Sainte-Catherine street. I went way back to my childhood inspiration and I wanted to bring back the glamour of the Victorian era, encouraging the modern women to have fun by bringing a little magic in their daily lives through clothes.
In 2012, we decided to open a second Boutique 1861 on St.Laurent Boulevard. It was totally a spontaneous decision. It just felt right. St.Laurent has always been our happy place, we used to spend a lot of our after work moments around the area to see friends for drinks and dinner. During that time, Simon would go to his day job, which was located right near the shop, and came to help us after work.
During the early years of Facebook, we would share daily posts of our new items on our page. People would often ask if we had a website where they could shop online. A few years later, we really felt bad to disappoint them by always saying no. In 2013, we decided to build a website. Simon took 2 months off from his job to help build our site. He had never built an e-commerce site before and, but after some time of self-teaching with the internet, he learned to put together a site for 1861. We spent long hours trying different things, but weren’t happy with the early attempts because they just didn’t have the right spirit. So we kept trying until we fell love. On March 13th 2013, 2 months later, we were finally ready to launch. The day of the official launch, we actually had a major web bug and the site was all messed up. After working for 2 months, everything crashed. Thankfully Simon managed to work together with our website provider to get everything fixed by the afternoon. Phew!
We totally thought we thought managing the e-store on the side WAs going to be a piece of cake… but we quickly realized how much work it takes to run this operation. At that time, I was already managing 3 boutiques and it would be too much for me to do it alone. Simon decided to leave his bright career and well-paid job as an artistic director to help us to carry on. When people asked him why he threw away such a great career, his answer was that he had to choose between a job he loved or the person he loved. He chose me without any doubt. I would never forget the moment he announced it to me: I was speechless. At the beginning, we were working from the store basement and a team of 3 ran the website. Sales were really low during the first year or so, but we never gave up. Time passed and as we needed more help to get everything done our team grew. Thankfully, shoppers and clients slowly discovered us and sales started to improve.
A lot had happened in the last few years. Although Romanticism has always the biggest part of my inspiration, I also really admired simplicity. Therefore, we started La Petite Garçonne in 2013 to bring a minimalistic touch. The inspiration came from the 1920s era, when women first started getting jobs outside of their homes and when Coco Chanel had designed clothes that were inspired by men’s fashion. Then in 2016, came our wedding boutique Boudoir 1861. It’s an intimate space inspired by vintage fashion for the brides and their bridesmaids. You can walk into our bridal boutique anytime during opening hours : we wanted to create something different and less traditional for our clientele. In the same year, we also opened a part 2 of La Petite Garçonne called Chapitre 2, a shop that’s inspired by being at home and feeling cozy. It offers accessories, intimates, a variety of candles scents that are made in Canada and more.
Through our adventure, we feel so lucky to have gathered so many amazing people to work with us : it’s truly like a big family. When there’s a challenge or difficulties, everyone is always ready to help and work together in order to solve the problems. Being nice doesn’t cost anything and I feel like everyone at work understands this value. We treat each other like family and our clients like dear friends. I think it’s what keeps us enjoying what we do everyday and pushes us to keep going. <3