Thursday, 1 May 2014

Paper Dress

This has been a brutally long winter. Months of bitterly cold weather, early darkness falling, and endless bundling in order to go out to do anything at all forces you to dig very deep to find a reason to keep going. On top of the endless, bone-chilling Montreal cold, we lost our dear old dog, Dora, at the end of March. I always emerge from winter feeling like I have very little left, but this year I feel like I have excavated my entire foundation and have little more than some old bones and a broken dish with which to greet spring.

My partner, Neil, and I have been talking a lot the past few months. We live and work  in the same space, and winter for us is a time of very long hours, social isolation, a bit of depression, and a lot of introspection. Something about the season forces you to think about your life and work in a different way than during the warmer months. We ask ourselves every year “How do we get through this winter?” as if there exists some particular act we can perform to avoid it entirely. In searching for the answer, we inevitably dig up issues that we didn’t even know were buried.

Despite my depressing entry into the subject, one of my greatest pleasures is talking through life’s events with Neil and trying to make sense of it all. We share the same burning desire to get to the truth of our own existences, and I think he would agree that we share the same belief that all of us humans, while ignorant and often profoundly cruel, have the potential to be empathetic and kind beyond any expectation.

One of the subjects that came up for us during the winter was the existence of recurrent themes in our lives. It seems logical that anything that appears again and again in your life, whether a feeling, an aesthetic, an addiction or a craving, is trying to tell you about a part of you that needs some attention - either in a healing way, or in a way that gives more honour to its existence.

Neil is an artist who paints small, photo-realistic paintings of a variety of subjects. For 25 years he was primarily focused on identifying and painting decrepit and forgotten buildings. He is currently working on a series of paintings documenting a day in our lives in our live/work space. A lifetime of introspection while working has led him to understand that all of his work is a way of expressing his core feelings of invisibility. Painting the buildings was a less direct way of expressing this through elevating and honouring similarly “invisible” objects, while his intimate series documenting our lives is a more direct expression of the fact that he exists. A “Neil was here” sort of statement. 

This winter, one of the insights I have come up with about my own work is that Birds of North America is very closely tied to my lifelong feelings that the framework for life we are sold as children by society, parents and institutions is completely fraudulent. I remember starting to feel this intensely sometime around the age of 13 and it has never changed or gone away. It’s always there in the back of my mind - an awareness of the unreality of my own existence. Though I enjoy life, love deeply, believe in people and in goodness, and commit to showing up to work every day, I simultaneously live with the knowledge that all of this is pretty meaningless. Not just pretty meaningless, but likely ENTIRELY meaningless. This is something I know, deep in my bones, that it all amounts to nothing in the end. 

The way it manifests for me is feeling like I am a child pretending to play at life. I show up every day wearing a little paper dress and I act out my story on a tiny cardboard stage. I have often had the overwhelming urge to try to rattle “the matrix” by performing absurd acts to see if there is some governing body that will notice, decide to intervene, and in revealing itself, provide an answer to the question of whether there is something more going on in day to day life than meets the eye. 

I have tried many things to break through the feeling that my life is just an endless series of meaningless acts, but nothing really ever worked until I started to direct my energy into Birds of North America. Within its protective framework I am able to build my own reality and fill it with beautiful things that I know are authentic. It is my way of creating meaning in a world where very little has ever made sense to me.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Elvis Jumpsuit

This is what I consider to be my most embarrassing design ever. It is now fondly referred to in-house as the ‘Elvis Jumpsuit’. It’s from my second collection, Spring 2008. It has been stricken from the public record and I am highlighting its existence for the sole purpose of illustrating a point: things change.  

There is a misconception, perhaps more in art and fashion than in other areas, that a person is supposed to enter into their field fully formed. They are expected to have a clear vision that they will sustain throughout their 40-50 year career and they should be able to tap in to their genius right out of the gate.  

It takes time to develop any talent into a real skill, whether it’s as an artist or designer. As I design the 14th Birds of North America collection, I feel more aware than ever of not only how much my judgement has improved over the years, but also of how much my design aesthetic has evolved.

Designers need time to learn, take risks, make mistakes, and be able to get back up and try again without going bankrupt. The way a designer proceeds after deciding to start a line of clothing plays a large part in determining how long they can financially afford to continue and this is the largest factor in allowing a designer to improve enough to have any kind of longevity.  

The fashion industry is an expensive place to make mistakes, and one of the biggest pitfalls for new lines is the temptation to put on a large fashion show. Fashion shows are highly appealing to new designers for many reasons. The process of starting and operating a line of clothing is so overwhelming that the prospect of one event that promises to propel you into the stratosphere of success can be irresistible. The ego boost and the powerful feeling of being ‘the designer’ backstage at a national fashion week is intoxicating and can be addictive.

The enormous downside to doing a big launch with a fashion show is that the designer has to put a lot of money up front, usually without the experience to judge the show’s actual value to the business. The cost of participating in a fashion week in Canada can easily consume the entirety of a label’s start-up capital.

After investing in a fashion show, new designers will often find it a struggle to support themselves while they develop their next collection. Smaller labels rarely get direct sales out of runway events, so there is little or no immediate financial gain to be had. They soon have to confront the impossibility of paying for fashion week appearances over and over, and since there is no other option, they silently slip out of the scene confused and feeling like their careers are over.

The first three years are the hardest for new designers, and that is already a long time to hang in financially even without the expensive burden of a show. A significant number of Canadian lines have started with a big launch only to disappear entirely a year to 18 months later. It takes several seasons of mailing out look books and making calls to stores for the buyers to believe that your line will even be around long enough to be worth investing in. On top of that, they have to actually like what you're doing and the clothes have to be well made, fit properly and sell once they are in the store - not a guarantee! Most people have to mine every personal financial resource possible to make it through the first few years.

 I can speak for most functioning independent designers when I say that we cannot afford to pay for regular fashion week appearances. We support ourselves, the continuation of our lines and our seasonal production exclusively through the sales of clothing we make the previous season.  

I feel very fortunate to have been able to sustain Birds of North America for the six years since I started. Even so, I often feel like I’ve only just begun to understand what I’m doing. More than anything, designers need time to evolve. Had I not survived those first few years, the ‘Elvis Jumpsuit’ might have been the unfortunate defining look of Birds of North America. Seeing these old photographs again reminds me that I have made some progress after all. No disrespect to The King!

Sunday, 6 October 2013


The start of ‘selling season’ is suddenly upon me again. We completed the Spring 2014 collection in late August and will take orders from stores over the next couple of months so we can produce the line over the winter and have it ready to ship by February.

Meeting with the store buyers is always interesting, and though I found it extremely stressful in the first few years, it has become easier over time. Many buyers order straight from the catalogues we send out by mail and e-mail and I am not privy to the selection process. Others I see in person here at our studio or at their own boutiques.  I’ve learned a lot about the art of buying just through watching so many stores do it!

In the beginning I felt like I was on the opposite side of the fence from the buyers. I thought it was my job to somehow ‘convince’ them to buy from my line. I’ve realized over time that both designers and buyers are essentially storytellers, and that you need to find someone who likes the kind of story you have to tell and is enthusiastic enough about it to want to pass it on. When you find the right match, it’s joyful and effortless for everyone involved.

In this business, it’s easy to succumb to the pressure to tell a story that will appeal to the most people possible, even if it’s not the tale you really want to tell. I have to be conscious of current trends when designing a collection, but it’s much more important to me to tell my own story than it is to provide something that will appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Essentially, I design a wardrobe for the same girl every season. She is me, in a time and place beyond adult concerns, fear and cynicism. She is able to delight and revel in all the places she finds beauty, without fear of judgement.  

The buyer is also trying to tell a story though their store. The stores in which Birds of North America works best are those that have a story to tell that is joyful, whimsical, and during the summer months often evokes a seaside vacation in the 1930s or 50s. Our collection can often provide a missing chapter in the seasonal story they are telling.   

In my experience as an observer, I’ve seen buyers work in many different ways. Some base their selections heavily on trend forecasting while others simply go with their personal favourites. Some prefer a more involved sales process in which I hold up each garment and describe its qualities and features while others seem to prefer to see the collection ‘cleanly’ without the distraction of a guided presentation. I try to gauge what the buyer prefers and then either get involved or try to make myself invisible.

Buyers are very much like designers. The good ones are able to go into their heads and visualize the overall effect they are trying to create for their store and then break it down into a practical plan for buying. All of this while maintaining a strong connection to the spontaneous delight that drew them to Birds of North America in the first place. Through their stores, they have a statement to make about the world just as any designer or artist does and they communicate it through a thoughtful curation of clothing.  

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Pear Shaped Girl

Working on patterns for spring 2014 last week, my thoughts kept wandering into how I perceive my own body and the implications of using one's less-than-ideal measurements as a standard for fit. I use myself as the size 6/8/10 fit model, depending on whether it’s a bottom, top, or a dress, for all Birds of North America clothing. I think this is a fairly common practice for independent designers, but unheard of for larger lines which hire fit models with proportions closer to the “ideal”.  

I don’t remember being conscious of the shape of my body when I was a child. Into adolescence and puberty I became more aware of where I differed from the images of models and other representations of “ideal” women I was exposed to. My body tends towards the “pear shaped” - smaller waist and upper body with bigger hips and thighs.  I envied women with narrow hips who could wear any shape of clothing and look good. For me, high waisted anything was permanently out, full skirts were out, clingy dresses were out, any pants that were cropped or pleated were out, out, OUT. They all just seemed to accentuate the part of my body that felt out of proportion.

I, like most women, have the odd day or two or three (usually monthly!) when I feel like a hideous beast. My hips are usually the part of my body that attract the brunt of my scrutiny. On days like these it feels ludicrous that I make clothes to fit my shape - as if I’m fitting clothes on a deformed mannequin. The product would logically be deformed as well.  

Positive but realistic body image becomes essential to developing good patterns when using oneself as a fit model. As a designer, I’m essentially trying to transform and elevate the look of the body through clothing. If I’m not feeling good about my own body and it’s the one I’m using to fit clothes on, it becomes very difficult not only to objectively assess designs for fit and appeal, but to find inspiration in clothing at all.

As BoNA has evolved, I’ve also had to evolve in terms of my self-perception. I finally figured out that to look your best you just have to find things that actually fit, no matter what shape you are. Now, when I fit a pant, dress or skirt to my own body, it feels like an action of honouring and elevating the kind of shape I have. Instead of trying to hide the fuller hip, I try to use it as a tool to accent the rest of the figure.

I often hear from women who buy Birds clothing that it feels like it was “made just for them”. From what I can tell, these women often have the same kind of body proportions as I and, like me, have had trouble finding clothing that flatters them. What I’m noticing more and more, as I learn to look, is that this particular kind of body seems to be one of the most common types, it’s just not represented very well within the culture of our beauty standards in North America. It’s therapeutic for me, and very gratifying, to be able to offer clothing that women feel incredible wearing, and to know that I fit it on myself.

Beauty standards differ enormously between cultures and evolve over time as well. For someone growing up in North America in my day and age (I am 34) I have been pummelled my whole life with images of either super fit women with a more androgynous body type, or extremely thin women with no hips and a very large bust. Like it or not, these are the images that dominate our beauty culture at the moment. It is this standard of beauty that I am reacting to, and it is particular to my age, geographic location, and time.

Historically, women have had a challenging social journey and it continues to play out in our relationships with our bodies today. I sometimes feel like I can sense the weight of centuries of women not just wanting, but needing to present as physically attractive in order to secure a mate and be provided for. 

Feeling as if our bodies don’t meet the “ideal”, whatever it may be, turns very quickly into feeling like we are of less value in general. My job as a designer is to try to take the focus off of our own perceived physical shortcomings by honouring our natural shapes, in all their diversity, bringing us one step closer to the body “ideal” becoming a non-issue.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Strangeness of Seasons

As a fashion designer, I live in a bit of an alternate universe when it comes to the current season in clothing. Right now, the Fall 2013/14 collection is going through the process of grading, cutting, and sewing, and I am simultaneously designing the new collection for Spring 2014. Because of this rhythm, I generally exist in a season that either feels like ancient news, or in a season that isn’t yet up for discussion or observation by anyone outside of the studio. The Spring 2013 collection going out to stores over the last couple of months was the last step in a VERY long process of design, samples, sales, production and delivery and I usually have major “collection fatigue” by the time it actually hits the racks. I don’t want to look at it, I don’t want to wear it, I don’t want to talk about it!

Of all the periods in this semi annual process, I feel the most satisfaction in what I am doing right now - putting together the bare ideas for the new collection. The base concept usually manifests foggily, like a train coming from very far away. I almost feel it as a physical presence at the very back of my head. As it approaches, things clarify and small details become apparent.  

This part of the process is when I feel most in touch with my inner self. There is usually a starting point - always a dress for me - that sets the tone for the rest of the collection.  It sometimes ends up being the only item of its kind in the collection, but something about it releases the rest of the ideas and feelings.

Design for me comes from a place that has more atmosphere than specific details. I often have an image in my mind that represents the season and the feeling I want to convey and I use it as a foundation for the rest of the collection. Practical considerations come later - at this point in the process, I just let ideas spill out unedited. After that it goes through a series of “reality check” filters - can you wear a bra with it? Is it flattering?  Would I actually wear this? I also have a rigorous “lunge, squat and kick” (patent pending) routine that designs have to pass. I want women who wear Birds to be able to move freely and function effectively in their real lives.

This period is always more fleeting than I would like. It’s the time when I get to be my thirteen year old self, creating clothes alone in my room. A time before the ravenous demands of business ownership consumed the infinite dreamspace of childhood. Before long my sketch book fills up with crude line drawings and written details and I am ready to start the muslin process. I’m always surprised when, a few weeks later, I find myself with 30 odd designs that are ready to move forward.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Leave the Kids Alone

The world of fashion remains a place that is unrelated to my experience of clothing. I have always just loved to sew. No-one led me to this realization nor tried to guide the path of my development and education too closely. I had a personal, intense interest that I pursued privately in my bedroom at home, outside of school hours.  

Because the school I attended had a mandatory uniform, I had nowhere to wear the things I made and no one to see them. I would usually find my way downstairs at a certain point in the evening because I wanted to show my parents something I had constructed. They always congratulated and praised me in a way I felt satisfied with - not too much and not too little. They acknowledged my work enough to affirm that I was doing something of value, but it didn’t enter the territory of over-praise that the parenting culture of the moment often slips into. 

There is so much discussion in the media these day about parents micromanaging their children’s lives - worrying that if they don’t enrol them in every available extra curricular activity and expose them to every obscure experience possible, that their child is not going to reach their full potential. Humans are way more complicated than that. Kids find a way. They know what they like. Leave the kids alone.

If there was one thing that helped create the right environment for me to develop my skill and interest in sewing and clothing it was that nobody cared. In other areas of my life it felt like everyone was too involved. Small scholastic, musical and dance achievements were extrapolated either into grand future successes or were seen as terrifying premonitions of future failure at life. When it came to sewing, my parents didn’t see my often questionable efforts as the work of some kind of prodigal fashion genius whose growth they should harness and direct. I was just a teenager, quietly immersed in sewing alone in my room. There was no social value to what I was doing, no culture to support or validate it, no place to display it, and no way of assessing it. It was the one thing I had completely to myself outside of the hyper-controlled world in which I existed.

I taught myself to sew almost entirely through trial and error. I made a lot of mistakes. A LOT. I basically destroyed clothing and fabric for the first ten years of my sewing development. After a couple of years I had exhausted my mom’s closet of things I could “cut up”. Luckily, I discovered Value Village around that time and it allowed me access to unlimited, affordable raw materials with which to experiment.

I would buy piles of clothing, often vintage, take it all apart, look at how it was made, and put things back together in a different way. I repeated this basic activity for years. By the end of high school I knew how to make just about anything. Not “properly”, but well enough. I was totally reckless with my experimentation because there was no one watching and no one to judge me.  

The mother of one of my good friends was saying recently that she and all her peers who were given sewing training in high school in the 1960’s were cripplingly afraid of not doing things “correctly” when sewing. In order to create an acceptable quality garment there were specific skills you were supposed to master - the mitered corner, the vent, the bound pocket. The result was an environment where it was impossible to take any risks when it came to clothing construction because anything that didn’t fall within the prescribed guidelines was considered to be wrong. I always feel incredibly sad hearing this type of story because sewing and clothing construction is a source of such joy and freedom for me. Despite what many teachers and mentors will tell you, there is no “right” when it comes to creation, and presuming to judge the value of someone else’s work based solely on how well they stay within the lines is not particularly broad minded.

I have alway felt absolutely fearless when it comes to anything to do with constructing clothing. I would say that I am borderline reckless when it comes to developing patterns and working on the fit of muslins. I don’t agonize and second guess myself, I have no sense of shame at not doing it “right”- I just do it and judge later. As a result I am fairly prolific when it comes to pattern and muslin development. Recklessness hasn’t always served me well in life, but in this case it is a very valuable tool.

I didn’t receive any official training or much “interference” in my work by others until I was almost in my 20’s and by then I had developed my own style and my own approach to constructing clothing. At that point I had the confidence and skill to easily integrate all the boring technical stuff that institutions lean so heavily on. I am so thankful that this thing that I have loved so purely since I was a child was spared the judgement of peers, the assessments of professors, and the advice of parents while in its tender developmental stages. It allowed me to find the beauty and freedom in it early on without it being turned into something that was “work”. We all have the natural ability to find the right path for ourselves if we are just left alone to follow our genuine interest.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Dodged Another Bullet

This time of year, in the weeks after the bulk of the new collection has gone out to stores, I live under a cloak of anxiety as I wait for the stock to be received and to hit racks across the country. It’s always the same thing: I fear that the new collection is going to bomb. Everyone will hate it. People will open the boxes as they arrive and say “what is this garbage she sent me?” It will signal the beginning of the end for me: my ruination, my humiliation. 

Logically, this makes no sense. All the stock that goes out has been ordered in advance, and I find myself, more often than not, personally going over every item before it gets packed. Despite this, fear creeps its way in.

I read a biography of Albert Camus several years ago and something he said has stuck with me since. He believed that creative people should never publicly express doubt about their own work. I can’t remember what justification he had for his view, but what seems important to me now is that it forced me to think about what my own opinion is on the subject. I feel more compelled, as time goes by, to share the doubts I have about my own work. Is this the right thing to do? I feel like one of the most important things I have to offer as a creative person is the willingness to be honest about my experience of life and find it tragic to see other people in fashion trying to fool everyone into thinking that they have it all figured out.

I’m totally lost. There, I said it. I’m lost and we’re all lost. I consider it a great strength to be able to admit it. It doesn’t mean you can’t still do excellent work in the face of futility and hopelessness. For me, clothing is intensely personal. It’s the main place I see and interpret beauty in the world and that’s why the whole process is so complicated.

The truth is that I have great confidence in my work. I obsess over it and do whatever is necessary to make sure that everything going out under the BoNA label is as good as I can possibly make it. If I didn’t believe I was creating something of value and integrity, I don’t think I would be comfortable sharing my doubts about it. 

“Dodged another bullet”: That’s how I feel each season after the new collection has been received by stores and reports start trickling in that it is doing well. To my indescribable relief, I realize that things are going to be fine and my world feels at peace once again.  

I think most people who make their creative work the centre of their lives never get to a point where they think they have made it, no matter what level of success they achieve.  The creative urge is a chronic disease. In fashion, you submit two collections a year for a check-up but there is no curing the source of the trouble. It is the striving to create the ultimate version of what you imagine that keeps you going.