Some stores are simply places to buy things. Others have distinctive identities. But few become cultural touchstones with distinguishing names that resonate from generation to generation. In the United States, retailers such as Sears, Kmart and the now-departed Montgomery Ward and Woolworth's chains achieved this distinction.

One of Canada's best-known retail names was Eaton's. This hometown department store chain was originally founded in the 19th century. In addition to its retail stores, Eaton's ran one of the few catalog operations able to bring goods to even the smallest hamlet on Canada's Prairies.

Eaton's was an iconic retailer — but even icons can crumble.

And as the fortunes of Eaton's faded in recent years, it seemed as if the chain would become merely another memory, a fate that seemed certain when Eaton's entered bankruptcy last year. Enter Sears Canada, the “True North's” arm of a retailer that knows something about being part of the cultural fabric. Sears Canada was interested in rescuing Eaton's from the ash heap if it could be done, and turned to the identity specialists at Toronto-based Design Vision to assist in the resurrection.

That's right, even before a buyout Sears Canada and Design Vision mapped an approach to what would be the revival of a great name in Canadian retail. The design team's goals included simplifying the Eaton's identity and message, broadening the customer age base, and keeping the surviving stores engaging enough to be shopping destinations.

New name, new colors

According to George Hughes, president of Design Vision, the first step involved making a clear break from the old, family-run Eaton's without abandoning the brand equity that came with the chain's iconic status. The answer was as easy as a dropped apostrophe: Eaton's became Eatons, and the chain shrunk to seven urban locations. Individual stores shrunk as well. The Toronto flagship store (which opened in late 2000 at Eaton Centre in the heart of the city) contracted from more than 1 million sq. ft. to 650,000 sq. ft.

Where the old Eaton's had suffered from a diffused, diluted selfdom, the designers aimed the new Eatons toward an aspirational niche, upscale without being inaccessibly tony. Part of this new feel, of course, was dependent upon the color palette. The color of choice for Eatons? Aubergine, somewhere between maroon and eggplant. According to Hughes and project designer Magnus Clarke, the color appeals to female shoppers without alienating males and provides a useful field color and backdrop for brands — a key to what Clarke describes as “brand-friendly architecture.”

“Eatons, like other department stores, can be seen as a house of brands,” says Hughes. “But the store's identity can't be submerged under individual vendor brands. It's sort of a paternal relationship,” he adds, making clear that Eatons is maintained as the father figure.

Classic style, modern sensibility

Given the chain's tumultuous recent history, part of the new look had to convey a sense of permanence (echoing the store's role in the Canadian psyche). To accomplish this, the designers opted for a classical look. Store entries at the Toronto flagship function as proscenium arches, framing individual boutiques from the street and promising an entry into a different kind of shopping experience. Inside the store, the materials connote elegance and endurance, from the granite-and-brushed-steel doorpulls to the cold rolled and stainless steel, glass, and aluminum composite material used throughout the interior.

The design doesn't dwell in the past. Instead, it combines its classic materials with forward-looking designs intended to accommodate various forms of new media. This tech trend adds a touch of animation to the atmosphere. The large arches incorporate space for LED centers. Lighting, while indirect, is high-end. “I like to think of the new Eatons as the first step in an evolution of the department store,” says Hughes. “We saw this as an opportunity for a kind of stewardship, a chance to preserve something that is bound into the national identity.”

W.S. Moore, III, is a Muncie, Ind.-based writer.