BonLook’s Sophie Boulanger on family being the root of her success
Sophie Boulanger co-founded BonLook in 2011 with her brother Louis-Felix after seeing a gap in the market for eyewear that was both affordable and fashionable. Although owning an eyewear company may have been her destiny, it wasn’t always her plan.
Written by Holly Walker
Born and raised in Quebec City, Boulanger moved to Montreal to attend university. After working for L’Oréal for two years, she ventured to Milan to complete her master’s degree with the intention of staying in Europe to work in fashion. Boulanger realized the industry wasn’t for her while working at Dior in Paris. As a firm believer of doing what you love, she went back to Montreal in search of her next adventure. Enter BonLook.
Initially, the eyewear retailer was e-commerce and focused solely on selling glasses online for three years. After recognizing the friction point — the need for consumers to try on glasses before buying—the company expanded with brick-and-mortar locations. BonLook’s showroom approach focuses on customization and removes the need for on-site inventory, creating a new breed of retail that breaks away from the legacy model.
What started as one small kiosk in a mall in Montreal has expanded to 27 stores nationally, with an additional 23 stores on track to open in the next two years. In support of domestic production and family run companies, BonLook is launching a capstone collection in 2019 called Made In Canada that will be manufactured by a small family-owned factory in Prince Edward Island.
At the root of Boulanger’s success is a story on the importance of family, creating jobs and making a career out of doing what you love. Here, she shares some of her insights.
On starting the business
I was my first client. I have been wearing eyeglasses since I was eight and it always cost me a fortune to change my frames. The business model of retailing eyewear hasn’t changed in probably 40 years. Most stores are what we call multi-brand stores. The fashion brands license to a manufacturer so they pay a fee, and then they sell to distributors. The distributor then sells to the optician, who sells to the consumer. As customer, you end up paying a very high price for a product that doesn’t cost that much to manufacture.
Our business model aims to cut all of that out. As a retailer for me, it’s about creative savings to my client because I know that client—I am that client.
My dad believed in us and helped us get started. Then our financial partners, Walter Capital, came in June 2016 and gave us the support we needed. They are a family fund, and we are a family as well so we found a great match. It’s really a family thing.
We have clients who stopped wearing eyewear, who then rediscovered eyewear as a fun, fashion accessory with us. That’s what I’m most proud of. We are dreaming really big. I don’t see why we can’t be as big as Aldo. That’s where we are headed. We’re just getting started.
On owning the company with her brother:
We were both outsiders from the industry, and it paid off because we are really thinking as customers. He’s a computer engineer, so he thinks he has a tech company and I think I have a retail company, but it’s the perfect match because we complete each other.
He takes care of all operations and IT, and I take care of retail development, the brand, and product. There’s this trust when you work with someone from your family that I don’t think you can have with another business partner. I trust that he’s going to have my best interests at heart, and vice versa. It’s been a part of our success.
On being a woman in a competitive industry:
In terms of competition I think we speak much better to the female clientele, and pushing eyewear almost as jewelry, and having multiple pairs. Our typical client is a woman who is going to see the advantage of having a colourful pair of eyeglasses to match with her outfit, and she’s going to come back two-to-three times a year to change it up. We are really fashion focused.
It’s probably the way I was raised, but I’ve always felt empowered to do whatever I wanted to do. My mom is a doctor; she has her own practice. Like the fashion industry, eyewear has a lot of women, and it’s probably an easier industry for women. I’m fortunate that I’ve always worked in female-led industries. For some industries and some women it’s not easy, but I also think it’s one of our strengths. BonLook employs many women.