When Blair Junior McFarlane, aka DJ Junior Brown, along with two childhood best friends, Sal Di Maio and soap star Jason Thompson, opened Halo, a lounge on JasperAvenue in 2001, they began to change the face of downtown Edmonton. Halo’s modern design and alternative music format was new to that quiet area of the city.
Three years later, they opened a gastropub called Red Star in the same building, serving more than 70 import beers, an Italian-inspired menu by Corso 32’s chef Daniel Costa, and McFarlane’s mother’s now-legendary Jamaican jerk chicken on monthly reggae nights – an event also made popular by McFarlane’s eclectic DJ mixes. At both nightspots, they continued to lure in hipsters, stylish young professionals and those seeking unique hospitality outside boom-boom clubs and franchise restaurants.
In the summer of 2012, more than a decade after establishment, Halo’s contemporary furnishings underwent a renovation and re-opened in November with a new moniker: The Bower. It’s a complement to Red Star’s laid-back vibe, and a relaxed, cozy, and comfortable space littered with antiques, from vintage sofas and paintings to Victorian-style wallpaper and a powerful mounted antelope head fixed above the bar.
Laid-back, relaxed, design-oriented; it’s an aesthetic 35-year-old McFarlane likes in his closet, too.
What made you decide to open a lounge in Edmonton?
When Sal and I moved to Vancouver, I wasn’t really doing anything with my business diploma from NAIT, and landed a DJ gig the first week I was there at a little lounge called 604 in Kitsilano – it was a cool tapas bar, long gone now – but that’s how it all started. We’d hang out there all the time, and then one night we were sitting in our apartment, and we said, Edmonton totally needs a place like this, with the DJ, and the music, and the food. Six months into the move we came back to Edmonton to open up Halo, then Red Star three years after that. Sal is also part owner of MRKT upstairs, so we’ve invested in the building.
This is our home. Edmonton is our roots.We’ve got so much family, and so many friends and supporters here; we’ve established a community. And it’s inspiring; there are a lot of young entrepreneurs trying to do something for themselves, who are staying in the city, and that’s awesome. I like when people, who have something creative to offer, stay in their hometown.
Where did you come up with the concept for The Bower?
Just in the last six years – travelling to L.A., or New York, or Europe, and picking out all the common things we were into, whether it was a hotel lobby or a restaurant, or a cocktail bar. They all had common trends, like filament bulbs or mismatched furniture, places that had more soul and character. We were done with that whole modern design aesthetic we had at Halo and wanted to completely switch it up.
What’s the response been like?
It’s been amazing. So far, so good. It’s honestly the same sort of reaction we got when we first opened up Halo with that very modern aesthetic; it’s something Edmonton hasn’t really seen before.
Where did you find all the furnishings?
A lot of hunting – Kijiji, eBay, local antique malls, it was a lot of fun doing that stuff.We just wanted something that was a little bit more comfortable and cozy, and matured with our tastes.
How would you describe the style of your clientele?
There’s a good blend of mature people here, from hipsters to business professionals. People who are well-kept, well maintained, and take care of their dress. They like to step it up when they go out.
What’s the draw for them?
It’s a niche market that we’re trying to provide. You come here and it’s going to be a little underground. We’re not going to play your typical Top 40 music; we’re not going to serve chicken wings. We just want to improve the quality, whether it’s the music, or just the atmosphere, and pay a little extra attention to that.
What does great style mean to you?
Great style is definitely about being comfortable, and having your voice or personality come through – so you can actually tell by what somebody’s wearing what their vibe is like.
So, how would you describe your vibe?
What’s your typical daily outfit?
In the wintertime I always wear a scarf, and then just a plaid shirt and blue jeans.
What do you do to dress up?
It’s pretty much the same. If I’m getting dressed up to go out, I’ll maybe put on a pair of dress shoes, that’s about it. I’ve got these JohnVarvatos shoes that I’ll wear, maybe if it’s a staff Christmas party or something like that. But my style is pretty consistent throughout.
Do you have any favourite brands?
A.P.C., wings + horns, and I usually shop at Haven and gravitypope. They’ve got a lot of really cool labels that nobody else carries, like Junya Watanabe Comme des Garons. That’s one of my favourites. I’ve been going to Haven ever since they opened, when it was a little bit more street wear, a lot of t-shirts with prints on them. So, when they opened, I was more into that but, as the years have gone by, they’ve matured, their clients have matured, and then they started tackling more of the dressy street wear, carrying all these new lines from Japan.
Would you ever trade the nightlife lifestyle?
If anything, it would be for a restaurant, or a boutique hotel or something like that. To stay involved with the hospitality industry – I think it’s our calling. Definitely for me, still to this day, my parents host parties and domino game-playing events, it’s all part of the Jamaican community. And at the Heritage Festival, my family is always doing something. I’ve been raised like that.
DJing is also a big part of your life. What’s your favourite type of music?
I’ve been inspired by a lot of it – funk, soul, disco, hip-hop, and house – it all intertwines. Growing up as a kid, my parents listened to funk, soul, reggae and disco, and we had aDJ booth in the basement. After being influenced by those earlier sounds, I knew where a lot of the samples were coming from.
Any tips for someone looking to open their own business in Edmonton?
Yeah, know that you’ve got to put in a lot of hours. It’s full time, all the time.
What’s the best part about running your own businesses?
You have control. You get to hang out with the people that you want to hang out with. We’ve definitely established this place for who we are. Two of my best friends are my business partners. That’s amazing. And a lot of the time people think that if you go into business with a friend it’s doomed, but we know each other so well. Our families have been going to church together for years and run into each other there. I’ve known Jason since I was in Grade 1, I’ve known Sal since I was in Grade 5, so that’s definitely the most amazing thing. It’s like a family.
Listening to music
Junya Watanabe Comme des Garons
Photography by Pedersen
Styling by Erin Monaghan
Hair and makeup by Nickol Walkemeyer
Assistant makeup by Elizabeth Bernardin
Models Meghan Martin and Nic Neiman Courtesy of Mode Models.