Fashion may be many things to many people, but good for the planet it is not. Take “fast fashion,” clothing so inexpensive it can be worn for a very brief time. Producing it accounts for millions of tonnes of carbon emissions and other pollutants. And once the fleeting purpose is fulfilled, it becomes disposable and ends up in landfills.
Led by such celebrities as Michelle Obama, Cate Blanchett, Emma Watson and the Duchess of Sussex, there’s a growing movement towards sustainable fashion. Which means wearing items made of eco-friendly fabrics, such as responsibly grown cotton, or recycled materials. And they’re preferably produced locally under fair conditions.
For now, the number of designers and retailers of environmentally conscious products is limited. Meet five Canadian women working to change that, making sustainable and stylish fashion more accessible.
Preloved – Toronto
Julia Grieve calls herself “an accidental environmentalist.”
“When I founded the company in 1995, I just wanted to create unique clothing made from the vintage sweaters I loved,” she says. “Then I took it a step forward.” Preloved pioneered mass-producing women’s sportswear using many types of recycled knitwear, plus men’s suits or fabric overruns from other manufacturers. Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst and Anne Hathaway are among the long list of celebs spotted wearing the label designed and made in the Scarborough facility. Regular folks can buy online or from boutiques across Canada and the United States.
It was no accident that Grieve walked the 2019 Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards red carpet in May; Preloved was nominated for the H&M Sustainability Award. She is often called to speak or appear on panels about sustainable fashion and believes she brings a fresh take. “While there are many serious discussions ongoing about sustainability, I think it’s important to also focus on the positive side,” she says. “You can make a difference and still have fun; it is fashion, after all.”
Inner Fire – Vancouver
Serendipity also played a part in Leah Emmott’s transition from yoga teacher to designer and company CEO. Eight years ago, she developed an ovarian cyst that required surgery. During her recovery, she played with creating yoga tops with catchy slogans, employing her skills in graphic design and marketing. And her designs quickly ignited interest in the yoga community and beyond. “I called my company Inner Fire because the tumour had been replaced by a new kind of fire in my belly,” she says.
Today, her label produces yoga and lifestyle wear for both men and women sold in hundreds of boutiques across North America. Known for nature-inspired prints, Emmott also continues a yogic dedication to promoting more mindful consumerism. Every item is made to last many years and produced in Vancouver of responsibly sourced materials. She credits much of her success to the community of people attracted by her brand’s ethos and the story behind it. “People want authenticity in more than just the fabrics,” she says. “That is an important element of my business as is making an impact in both the local and global communities.”
Tanya Théberge – Toronto
This sustainable fashion designer once sewed close to $750,000 worth of ethical diamonds on a Garrison Bespoke jacket worn by Drake. And couture embroidery, minus diamonds, features highly in her most recent women’s collection, Théberge Army. “I’m both an army brat and a rebel, so the collection puts a new twist on military,” she says. She learned haute couture techniques in Paris at the École de la chambre syndicale, whose alumni include Issye Miyake and Valentino. Every one of the dresses or jackets she produces is unique, made to order for the customer. And Théberge insists on sustainability in every link of the supply chain. It wasn’t enough to use fabric made from recycled water bottles; she visited the landfills in Haiti from which they were culled.
In her next collection, out in the autumn, she tackles denim, a fabric known to be highly polluting. For now, she lets her collection, only available through her website, to shine on its own merit. “I want my designs to be wearable way beyond one season, yet not look sustainable,” she says. “I don’t follow trends or cycles; my designs are strong and timeless.”
SOULiers Studio – Ottawa
For many, veganism goes beyond dietary choice to infuse a lifestyle. SOULiers Studio founder and owner Lise Beutel wanted to walk the talk. But finding stylish shoes and accessories that were also vegan proved an exercise in frustration. “I figured there were other women out there like me, and so, two years ago, I set up an online shop to make it easy for them,” she says. Through the website, you can order a killer set of statement stilettos or browse the core collection, meant to be worn everyday in the real world.
She carries major brands of animal and cruelty-free products, such as Meghan Markle’s fave sneaker line, Veja. There also are lesser-known labels that combine European flair and craftsmanship, including Bordeaux-based Minuit sur Terre or Fera Libens of Milan. Beutel also sells men’s shoes, and women’s handbags, belts and other accessories, available through her website only. Orders over $100 ship free of charge in Canada. “I have an excellent return policy,” she says. “Plus, I offer the kind of personalized service you’d expect from a small boutique.” Which means she’s available via email to consult on any fit or style dilemmas you may have.
Noémiah – Montreal
A flight of fancy took Noémie Vaillancourt into the world of fashion design. In 2008 while pursuing a master’s degree in French literature, she started making fun, flirty jewelry with feathers as a hobby. They were a hit with classmates. “I loved playing with the colours and natural patterns in each,” she says. Fast forward: she abandoned academic life to study the technical side of fashion production, interning with prominent Montreal designers Valerie Dumaine and Travis Tadeo.
In 2015, she founded Noémiah and launched her first prêt-à-porter collection, combining her sense of whimsy with crisp, minimal lines. And using responsibly produced natural fibres and biodegradable fabrics, sewn locally. Vaillancourt is best known for her playful original prints and embroidered patterns, all developed in collaboration with local artists and graphic designers. “I try to be aware of my surroundings and the planet the best I can in my little business,” she says. “Now, even the big fashion players are moving in the sustainable direction. Maybe together we can create a critical mass.” •