Devin Gilmartin’s Canvas Stretches Over New York and Beyond
He's filling underutilized spaces with stores promoting sustainable fashion. How replicable is it?
Devin Gilmartin stood inside the dimly lit former Victoria’s Secret store catty-cornered from the main hall of the World Trade Center train station and imagined the possibilities.
His sustainable apparel company, The Canvas, which he started when he was in high school, had secured a lease for the 16,779-square-foot former lingerie space with Westfield, which runs the mall in the Oculus. But Gilmartin, 24, was also angling for two more stores nearby that were about to close. They would serve as additional spaces for his retail operation, which would feature selections of clothing and accessories from 150 brands from independent designers from around the world.
He was already booking parties and fashion shows at the larger former lingerie space and a digital gallery in an adjacent room that is so close to the 1 train its sound periodically interrupts conversations.
“We actually like it,” Gilmartin said. “We were trying to figure out, do we like this or does it drive us crazy? But it’s a reminder of where we are, which is actually a good thing in a place like this. We’re literally in New York.”
At the same time, Gilmartin’s employees were coordinating with the Howard Hughes Corporation to build out a flagship boutique in a 1,400-square-foot shop on Front Street at the South Street Seaport. Its opening was in early June, and Gilmartin chugged espressos as he shuttled between the Oculus and the Seaport to monitor inventory and coordinate models for photo shoots. He slept maybe three hours a night then and helped break down the store after its launch party, which spilled onto the street and lasted until 4 am.
The two moves represent the culmination of an idea Gilmartin developed as a teenager to provide a low-cost solution for occupying underutilized spaces in the city while making sustainable fashion more accessible to his generation.
“We realized there’s a problem in the city, and that’s vacant real estate,” Gilmartin said. “There’s a lot of it and nobody has a scalable solution yet, but we could help small brands from around the world find physical retail with relations with creative landlords.”
Retailers have become more open to new ideas for filling vacant stores over the past two years as the pandemic recalibrated how New Yorkers shop and commute. The number of chain stores in Manhattan fell 17 percent in 2020 compared with the previous year, and Manhattan’s stores accounted for more than half of all retail closures in the city, according to a Center for an Urban Future report.
The decline in weekday foot traffic as city workers eschewed their commutes has decimated Manhattan’s Downtown business district. Century 21 shuttered its 13 stores, including its Cortlandt Street flagship, in September 2020 before returning downtown to occupy half its original location. The Seaport lost Sarah Jessica Parker’s footwear store last Christmas. Victoria’s Secret abandoned its lease at the Oculus in January 2021 as part of its nationwide downsizing to eliminate 50 stores (Westfield sued the retailer for $32 million in damages).
“We’ve struggled with vacancies, the costs of doing business, and adapting to this new behavior where people are traveling and how they like to shop,” said Diana Grasso, vice president of Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, which runs the Oculus. “We do have a significant commuter population still, although it’s less than what it was. Our goal is to bring in more local, diverse, emerging brands and small businesses into the Oculus to create more of an authentic New York experience.”
This summer, The Canvas got the keys for both the Sarah Jessica Parker and Victoria’s Secret spaces. But Gilmartin is taking on much less risk than a traditional retailer would absorb. His inventory is largely on demand — that is, designers fill orders directly through their own studios or warehouses. His leases are significantly shorter than a national retail chain typically receives, and he has a revenue-sharing arrangement with his commercial landlords instead of paying a fixed rent.
“He’s de-risked his community and membership side of the business and he’s de-risked the real estate side of it,” said Devin’s mother, MaryAnne Gilmartin, founder and CEO of the New York-based real estate company MAG Partners and the former head of developers Mack-Cali and Forest City Ratner. “If he was signing leases and making financial commitments, I would have said, ‘Whoa, we have to talk.’ But he’s a really savvy businessman in how he is structuring these things. He doesn’t take undue risks and he’s trying to do something really important. If he does what he wants at the World Trade Center he can solve some of their problems.”
Devin Gilmartin’s preternatural talent for real estate trends may well have formed in the womb. When Devin was a toddler, MaryAnne took him to Times Square, where engineers hoisted the 7 million-pound Empire movie theater onto railroad tracks and moved it 170 feet down the block.
She was an executive at Forest City Ratner at the time and a key part of the team that revitalized 42nd Street in the late 1990s. Her project to transform Midtown’s marquee corridor was complex, but she always discussed her career with her three children (Devin is the oldest) in a way they could understand, and brought them to her job sites when they were old enough.
“From the cradle, Devin spent a lot of time on 42nd Street watching us take 335,000 square feet of retail space and make it sing,” MaryAnne said. “As soon as he could talk, he was down there.”
Devin Gilmartin grew up in Brooklyn and attended Berkeley Carroll High School. Few students shared his interest in fashion so he had to look outside the school’s walls for inspiration. That often meant dropping in on fashion events on the Lower East Side that spilled out onto the street. At one Tom Sachs pop-up, he met Virgil Abloh and Heron Preston, designers then working with Kanye West, and asked them about West’s interest in a Brooklyn hotel project. Gilmartin connected them to a company that wanted to develop a hotel and arranged a meeting a few weeks later.
“They were sitting in a room discussing a water slide through Brooklyn,” Gilmartin said. “It didn’t actually happen, but those conversations inspired me to think about what we are not doing from a real estate perspective in the city.”
A semester abroad in Eleuthera, the Bahamas, instilled ideas about sustainability as well as the work ethic necessary to start his own business. Gilmartin woke up at 6 a.m. every day and trained with his peers for a half-marathon and a 4-mile swim. By the end of the 100-day term, he could do both.
The high school needed a new T-shirt with its insignia, so he and his classmate Tegan Maxey looked into how to make shirts for his peers out of sustainable materials, which germinated an idea for a business. In 2015, they made $20 T-shirts for their classmates to commemorate the United Nations climate change agreement and sold nearly 1,000.
“Solar efficiency and water usage is the guiding question of the school, which inspired a lot of the work that we’ve done, which is how do you live well in a place,” Gilmartin said. “Sustainability was the main entry line.”
By the time they graduated high school, Gilmartin and Maxey had launched their design firm. They partnered with Recover Brands, which uses recycled water bottles and organic cotton to make T-shirts, and even got British model Cara Delevingne to wear one. (Maxey is no longer running day-to-day operations but still owns part of the company.) Gilmartin lined up an internship at a photography studio that allowed him to network with up-and-coming designers at European fashion shows while attending college at the London College of Fashion.
When Gilmartin returned to New York, he saw a vacant 4,000-square-foot storefront at Hunter College and thought it could be a great place to showcase brands of the designers he had met. In 2018, Hunter offered Gilmartin a revenue share, a small fixed rent, and the keys to the space. He affixed a Canvas logo on the building that people could see from Lexington Avenue.
“It was at the bottom of the escalator where students would come through after class and see us,” Gilmartin said. “You would pick a design and get a T-shirt printed for you custom-made at your college. We got people’s interest in the way we were combining retail activation and real estate and fashion.”
When his lease at Hunter ran out, he approached Brooklyn developer RedSky Capital and moved his operation to a storefront on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. He stopped making shirts, began showcasing 10 brands from designers, and launched several pop-ups in Amsterdam and Paris to promote The Canvas.
He also began asking several experts in his circle, including MaryAnne, to serve on an advisory board for the company.
“He would come and ask thoughts, I was there for him for advice, and I was leading by example,” MaryAnne said. “My job as a parent is to give him roots and give him wings. He has done a beautiful job of flying. If he flies too close to the sun that’s OK because that’s how you learn. It’s a way of figuring things out.”
(Of his mother’s influence, Devin says, “MaryAnne is the great inspiration of my life and I’ve learned a lot from her in real estate and New York and how to navigate this industry. We are competitive, but in a good way.”)
Another influence was Elon Rutberg, a creative director who had met Gilmartin through Kanye West’s team and stayed in touch. Rutberg believes The Canvas has been able to attract “young culturally connected people” to locations that could eventually be anointed as cool spots.
“We’re bringing value and community into spaces that would otherwise be sitting there empty, and that value goes back to the landlords and owners,” Rutberg said. “The truth of it is that it’s rather dynamic and there’s something exciting about plugging in and out of spaces as needed.”
In January 2020, Gilmartin opened a satellite Canvas store in Antwerp, Belgium, but the pandemic temporarily closed all stores and he asked designers to make nonmedical-grade masks that could be ordered online.
By October, The Canvas took over the space at 250 Bowery that the International Center of Photography had left the previous year. Soon Gilmartin closed his other two stores and began contemplating his next location. One of Gilmartin’s friends reached out to Westfield executives, which had been looking to diversify its offerings with emerging brands. They scouted spaces that were large enough to do retail and host events.
“We can allow for someone like Devin to pop up for a short period of time and he can expand or contract based on the size of the space, so that if something works or is not working, we can ebb and flow,” Grasso said. “I see this as a fairly long-term partnership depending on how successful he is. We’re flexible so that he can relocate or take second spaces. I anticipate him being there at least through the end of the year, if not longer.”
In February 2022, Gilmartin approached the Howard Hughes Corporation about taking a vacant space at the Seaport. Hughes executives steered him toward the former Sarah Jessica Parker space on the corner of South and Fulton streets.
“The business he was running was so interesting to us,” said Ellie Chamberland, vice president of Seaport marketing at Howard Hughes. “I love the way they paired sustainability with an eco-conscious mindset along with supporting small brands and makers that don’t have the same opportunities because of constraints and budgets and what they need to continue to grow.”
If his locations succeed, Gilmartin has his eye on further expansion in New York City and perhaps beyond.
“He’s very sharp, very fearless, his intentions are good and pure, and he’s a good human,” Rutberg said. “His hunger to achieve things is very much built around how to do good things for other people — being able to turn the lights on for creators and communities that otherwise might not have the resources to do it themselves.”