Roger McKie, Dressew | BCBusiness

Roger McKie, Dressew | BCBusiness
Fifty years after opening his first store, Dressew founder Roger McKie still measures out bolts of fabric one metre at a time and cuts them by hand.

How Vancouver sewing supercentre Dressew built a retail empire, one button at a time.

In the 21st century, selling sewing notions in the heart of Vancouver without credit cards, social media, or even a website defies all business logic, but that’s exactly what Roger McKie and his family have been doing for 51 years, and business is booming.

When then 19-year-old McKie set up shop in 1961 he had no idea his millinery store would evolve into the sewing super-centre known today as Dressew Supply Ltd. “My boss in Toronto lent me $10,000 worth of inventory and I came back and rented the store on Cordova Street. That’s how it started,” he recalls. What began as a trial venture with three employees, including his seamstress mother, eventually evolved to sell dress material, and later became the city’s go-to costume shop as Hollywood North exploded.

The original Gastown business was such a hit that in 1971 McKie expanded to a larger store on Pender Street, before buying the current 30,000-square-foot site on West Hastings Street 10 years later. Today, the store is bursting at the seams with a rainbow of feather boas and sky-high mountains of drapery.

The shop’s unlikely popularity hinges on its rock-bottom prices. Roger and his son David, who helps manage the company, take buying in bulk to an extreme. For Roger, “the fun part is the wheeling and dealing,” and the father-son duo admit they get competitive when it comes to buying entire inventories from companies that are shutting down. Whether an offer includes a million children’s paintbrush sets, or hundreds of leather jackets, they can’t resist a deal.

David explains that the company also has a competitive advantage in that, “we’re big enough that we can handle 100,000 metres of fabric at one time. The size advantage was especially helpful during the 2008 recession, when the market was flooded with offerings from closing and downsizing deals. To David and Roger’s chagrin, even their current 18,000-square-foot warehouse at the eastern edge of Gastown, along with rented storage space in South Carolina and Surrey, couldn’t accommodate all the bargains on offer. Hence Roger’s latest project: a new warehouse alongside the current one in Gastown, which will double Dressew’s Vancouver storage space. It’s expected to be completed this month. 

When it comes to selling their goods, the McKies aren’t concerned about missing out on credit card sales, since even on a Tuesday morning crafty customers are already lining up at the tills. The store’s most aggressive advertising campaign consisted of “50 per cent off” signs hung in store windows for its 50th anniversary. This uncharacteristic break from tradition garnered a boisterous crowd three hours before the store opened. 

Their low-tech approach favours good old-fashioned face-to-face interaction. Since there’s no store email address, and the phone is answered only between nine and 10 each morning, the best way to contact Roger or David is in person. The 5:15 closing time and closed doors on Sundays ensure that employees can spend quality time with their families. 

David even met his wife, Jessica Bowie, at work – the old-fashioned way. He didn’t “like” her status on Facebook or retweet her Twitter posts; he actually talked to her.