Main Street Marvel

Main Street Marvel

It is nearly impossible to walk past Vancouver’s Front & Company at 21st and Main Street without doing a double take; Diana Li’s elaborate window displays make sure of this. With designs ranging from cascading waterfall chandeliers to mannequins channeling Marie Antoinette, Li’s installations have an uncanny ability to draw people into her shop. Once inside, customers find carefully selected men’s and women’s consignment clothing, as well as new clothing, jewellery, shoes, and gifts.

“I like that little joke on customers,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.

Li, originally from Hong Kong, immigrated to Vancouver with her family when she was 16 years old. She graduated from the University of British Columbia’s Fine Arts program with an emphasis on painting before moving on to study sculpture at Emily Carr University. While at UBC, she began experimenting with the space outside of the canvas. “I like to deal with three dimensional space,” says Li. “In my final year I had quite a few works that… involved the whole space of the gallery to express my ideas. I found it much more effective and interesting.” She now uses her store windows as an opportunity to experiment.

Creations Made From Unexpected Materials

Li’s at-home studio is bright and clean, yet cluttered and pleasantly chaotic. All around the room are works in progress and remnants of old installations, as well as antique drawers holding her collections of treasures. At one end hangs a half-finished display, dripping with pieces of shiny metal. When conceptualizing her designs, Li is always conscious of the customer. “There are a lot of things I’ll want to make prettier for the public as they pass by,” she says. “I’d rather people were happier after looking at them.” That said, she has a sense of humour about her designs. A few years ago she created a series of white paper dresses to hang in the window, causing some confusion for customers. “We’d have to explain to people that they were actually paper – there were no zippers, no buttons – and they would get so mad. We came across a lot of cases like that.” Following the dresses came a series of elaborate wedding cakes – also paper. “I like that little joke on customers,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.

While she still has a strong hand in the production of the windows, she is gradually passing the torch to some of her staff. Sonia Capriceru has been working at Front & Co. for five years and has helped orchestrate many of the past installations. Over a period of six months, she and other Front & Co. employees joined forces to create a spectacular holiday display. In the weeks leading up to the installation, employees often stayed until well after midnight looping wire hangers into the shape of a dress and painting mannequins with intricate designs. “We always want to build something Diana would be proud of,” says Capriceru. “I’m very aware of being part of the tradition that she started.”

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Li with her window display.

A Modest Start

The idea to open Front & Co. started on a whim after Diana and a group of four friends threw a garage sale to get rid of some of the odds and ends they had accumulated. The sale brought in a whole $100, enough to convince them to open a store of their own. They found the perfect place ten blocks from Li’s painting studio, and in 1993 Front & Co. opened its doors, selling vintage clothing and interesting items scavenged from thrift shops. “I thought if I opened a store, people would bring in cool stuff and I would get first pick!” says Li, who is still an avid collector of all things weird and wonderful. “That was really one of the urges to open it.”

Sixteen years and two expansions later, Li and co-owner Flora Cheung are going strong, despite a fire in February of 2008 that forced them to shut down for nearly eight months. Rather than throwing in the towel, they did a massive renovation that involved taking over the store next door. They re-opened at the end of October the same year—bigger and better than ever—with a fantastical Alice in Wonderland-themed display.

Front & Co. is the kind of place that makes you feel like you are looting the closet of an impeccably well-dressed friend, where you can find both a perfectly worn pair of jeans and a little black Marc Jacobs dress. “I always find things I love there,” says Olivia Mowatt, one of approximately 5,000 active consigners. “I take my things there because I figure there will be like-minded people with similar taste.” She admits that it’s rare for her to leave without spending the money she’s just earned.