With a Zara seemingly on every block, fast fashion is ever present (and ever accessible). Finding brands with products and practices that are cool, fashionable and line up with your ethics, that’s another story. But worry not, weary traveller! Look no further than Eleven Thirty Shop, Comrags, People’s Product and Wild Moon Jewelry. We’ve collected some of the best in the biz (the business of sustainable and ethical fashion, that is) and got to know them a little better.
Photos by Yuli Scheidt
Videos by Ceecee Lu
Produced by Sophomore Media
Eleven Thirty Shop
Alexa Schoorl and Mariel Gonzalez
Sophomore When and why did you want to start a collection?
Mariel Actually, about four years ago to the date yesterday! I had a company for a few years prior to opening up the shop, and so did Alexa.
Alexa We both had our own leather bag businesses.
M Yeah, and we outgrew our spaces. I rented the shop on College, and then a mutual friend introduced us. We were just going to share the space as separate studios; within a week, we decided to just shut down our own businesses and open one up together.
A And we got matching tattoos!
M Right away. There was kind of no looking back after that.
A Everybody thought we were crazy because we didn’t know each other, and we were just putting our businesses together, and we also had no money. But we just did it, because we had no other choice. We just did it.
M There was no other goal, it was just, “I’m doing this.” I think we both eventually wanted to work with somebody else, so it kind of just felt like we landed in each other’s laps. We were like, “Ah! Then let’s just do it now.”
S Was there an “a-ha!” moment where you were like, “Okay, this is working, people are responding?”
M Yeah! We were planning how to go to our first trade show as separate brands, and within that meeting, it was at Alexa’s house, we were like, “Do you want to just close it and go together as one?” It just did well that first year, and that was kind of it. We were like, “Oh! It worked. Let’s just keep going.”
A We just hit the ground running. We got together in July, and then the trade show was in September, so it’s like a wholesale trade show, so between that time we decided to work together, came up with a name, merged our brands, made a line and went to the trade show and got enough orders. We hit the ground running and it just worked right from the start, which was good because we didn’t have the next month’s rent! [laughs]
M I think we were very excited about it, and that energy was palpable, so you’re able to get other people excited about it. And we really believed in it and wanted to do it. We were just like, “This is what we do. This is all we want to do.”
A Yeah, we just went to New York and were like, “We’re designers, and this is our brand!” even though it was so fresh. And it just worked. But, yeah, probably because we believed in it so much. We’re both very stubborn in a good way. Sometimes.
S Production is all in-house in small batches. Focusing on creating less waste and pollution, how does the production process influence the design?
M We make everything in-house and all of our suppliers are Canadian. We have a small studio, so everything has to be used. We don’t have room to just have a surplus of everything. We create our patterns — and all of the smaller patterns, we make sure we can fit in between. From those scraps, we find a use for those, like zipper ends. We’ll change strap sizes to allow for the maximum use of everything.
A We use everything.
M Yeah, we use everything. All the little leftover bits, we store, and we make these leather poofs. They’re patchworked leather with all the small scraps, and then stuffed with all the leftover scraps. So 100 per cent of our leather scraps are used.
A With the design, we keep in mind the different parts of the leather that we have to use. We end up with scraps this size a lot, so we design something smaller to use up all those little bits.
M Or we’ll have a seam somewhere to allow for an easier cut on a piece so we’re not always cutting down the centre, and as long as the leather isn’t affected in its integrity then we’ll use that part in wherever it fits best.
S What are some of the hurdles you’ve faced or lessons you’ve learned in the industry, particularly when choosing the least invasive and polluting options available?
M It’s expensive and it’s hard, and you have to make that choice and choose to do something that’s a little more difficult for you, but you feel better about. We used to order a few things from the States, I think that was as far as we went, but we eventually cut everything down so that it was all Canadian. If it wasn’t manufactured in Canada, then at least our middle person was Canadian. But the biggest hurdle is finding that.
Canada doesn’t have a huge industry in terms of fashion and production, and even less with leather goods — although the industry used to be bigger. So finding tools, materials, hardware — even leather — can be difficult, but we try really hard and we’ve been able to figure out where we can fit everything in with those parameters.
A We’re not for everybody because people will just go and do fast fashion. I mean, we don’t so much anymore, but we used to because not everyone can afford a $300 bag. We convinced people because it’s a really good product that’s going to last, hopefully forever, and that is incentive to spend the money in the beginning. Just buy one, and buy a really good product.
M We make everything. I think once you let people see all of the work that goes into something, you start to question the value. If it takes thirty pieces and three different people and a few different machines to go into one bag, and somebody can see that — our production is in-house so people have a little bit of access to see how we make things — then I think they understand a little bit more about where the cost comes from.
And Alexa and I make every single bag. If you can communicate that, then people understand they’re not just buying a purse. They’re buying into all of it, and also supporting a lot of other people besides this business. We have employees and we also, like I said, buy Canadian, so it’s supporting that entire chain.
S So the transparency.
M Yeah, people like that. And we are very transparent about everything. There are some things that are proprietary so you don’t have to share, like specific sources, but we are very transparent and every easy-going and will answer any of those questions of why.
S What does ethical fashion mean to you?
A I think it just means making the best decision that you can. As we’ve gone through the four years, we’ve changed things up and made better and better decisions, mostly around what we can afford.
M Yeah, as soon as we hit the point where we can afford an even cleaner, more transparent raw material, then we do that. So we grew into that.
A Or just using the best quality products, like solid brass — all of our hardware is solid brass, but we used to have things that weren’t solid brass, but that’s going to last even longer, so it’s ethical in that way.
M A lot of it is just so that we feel good about it. And it’s nice that it also then lends itself to other people feeling good about it and it adds to a greater good, but I think it all stems from Alexa and I wanting to feel completely okay with what we’re making. We have a love-hate relationship with the fashion industry because it’s a huge part of the world, so many people are employed by it and everybody takes part in it by wearing something or buying something. I guess in order to feel good in that industry, we have to be able to feel good about what we’re making.
It doesn’t really come from like, “Oh, we have to be really ethical, so we need to do this thing,” like, no, that’s just the right thing to do.
A It’s not even really a concept behind our brand, that we’re ethical fashion. That’s not what we claim. It’s just what happens because we personally want to make the best decisions, like to make a super quality product, those are the decisions that end up getting made. But also, we try to pay our staff as well as we can.
M We keep everything in-house.
A But that’s so we can control it, but also control the decision-making and continue making those good decisions, because if we send it out, we don’t know what other people are doing or how they pay their employees. So we know what’s going on.
We are an ethical fashion brand, but I feel like some companies have, like, that’s the first thing. We don’t preach that or anything.
M We do in our actions, it’s not so much in our words. It’s not something that we advertise, it’s just in the entire way that we are.
A We wouldn’t feel good about it if we didn’t make those choices. That’s also how we live our lives.
But we also love designing and making the best thing we feel good about, and part of that is using good materials that haven’t been produced in a harmful way to the environment or to people. You know, choosing the best materials that we can, to make this product we can stand behind and feel good about. We don’t want people to be bringing it back and being like, “Oh, it just fell apart because you used cheap materials.”
S What do you have in store for the future? How do you hope your brand contributes to a more sustainable or ethical fashion future?
A We’re doing a re-launch next Thursday, July 20. First, we’re announcing the start of a union of us and a Canadian jewelry brand, Alynne Lavigne. She shares our space now. We’re launching our new concept which is called “Eleven Thirty By You,” and it’s the idea of building your own bag. You can choose from classic Eleven Thirty shapes, and all the different colour waves that we have, and we’ve created a whole line of different straps and tassels and things that you can clip on your bag, so you can just come in and pick all your components and then your bag will be made ready to order.
M It’s supposed to be a collaborative experience between the customer and us. Your dream bag!
A Yeah. The shop is still a shop, but it’s going to be more of a collaborative space where you can come in, sit and talk with us and we’ll work it all out and then your bag will be made to order.
S That’s awesome, and that kind of goes back to finding something you really like and can invest in.
M Yeah, and we have a small shop so we can’t keep so much stock, and everything’s usually made to order, and we don’t have enough room to display every bag. So this way, everything is available.
A And things will only be getting made when they’re ordered and purchased, and there’s no excess. Moving forward, it’s continuing to make a product that’s long-lasting and doesn’t go out of style.
We’re trying to branch into the homeware sector. We’re just so practical and it comes through in our bags. There’s no huge concept behind our brand, other than we make the things that we like. They’re super useable and really good quality.
M We don’t take ourselves so seriously. We take what we do seriously, but as people, we’re pretty goofy.
A We make good bags.
M Yeah! That’s our thing.
Find Eleven Thirty at 1130 College St. in Toronto, and shop online at eleventhirtyshop.com and for worldwide stockists.
Sophomore When and why did you want to start Comrags?
Joyce Well, we started a long time ago in 1983. Why did we want to? I don’t know, we just did. We worked together in school, and just started the label.
S How has the brand evolved over time?
J It’s changed a lot from starting small. We had success very early, sold across the U.S., Canada, Britain, Dubai, things like that. But then both of us had children and families, so when my daughter was born, we scaled back, opened a storefront and have been so much happier.
S Comrags has maintained a hands-on approach for 30 years and each garment is produced in-house above the retail store. Have your design or production processes changed over time? How did the two influence one another?
J Well, Cornish and I are both very hands-on, but we do have seamstresses and we have assistants, we do all the pattern making. The only real change is now we do our grading on the computer. But I still do that, and one reason we did that is because physical patterns take up so much space; they’re heavy and there is lots of waste and wasted time, because we are always designing new things. We think we’ll keep our repeated old style, and sometimes we do, but we’re always changing. Our dynamic hasn’t changed over the years, but we’ve always wanted to just have fun. And that hasn’t changed.
S What does ethical fashion mean to you and to Comrags as a brand?
J I think for us, it’s something that we’ve always been true to; it’s trying to create something local. At one time, we could get fabrics made in Canada and that’s the one process that we aren’t able to control. We have to buy fabric outside of the country. One of our seamstresses has been with us for over 30 years; it’s a family-oriented thing and we really like to encourage our staff, appreciate our staff. What’s ethical is we just try and be honest and not create garbage. We want to create clothes that people can invest in.
Part of our success is that our clothes are timeless and last for a long time, but obviously, we do want people to keep buying, but we don’t ever want them to throw out a piece of Comrags.
S What are some of the hurdles you’ve faced or lessons that you’ve learned while trying to integrate ethics into Comrags?
J We haven’t consciously always thought, “What do we want to do that’s ethical?” because we’ve always worked that way. We’ve always been very family-oriented and trying to make a business where we appreciate all our staff and our customers, so it’s not something that we consciously do. But, like I said, we’ve always wanted to not create waste — so buying fabrics, we try really hard to buy them from countries that have regulations; we don’t know everything. Honestly, we don’t always ask the questions, but we try. So, again, just being aware of where it begins and where it ends is how we deal with it.
S What’s next for Comrags? How do you hope to contribute to a more sustainable or ethical fashion future?
J I think we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. Some of our fabrics are made from recycled pop bottles, things like that, trying to think like that and asking more questions to our fabric suppliers. You know, we have a good thing, so we’re just going to keep going with that. We are in the twilight of our careers, so hopefully we’ll just work less.
Comrags is available at the studio and storefront at 812 Dundas St W in Toronto, online at comrags.com, and at individual boutiques all across Canada.
Eva Parrell and Chelsea Mazur
Sophomore When and why did you want to start People’s Product?
Eva It was after I’d been working in fair trade for a little while. I’d been working in arts and crafts, specifically in southern Kenya. Me and Chelsea were working a lot together and, at the time, decided that we should probably partner up and find some artisan groups who we could really connect with and create amazing product with.
S Can you speak a little bit more about #MeetYourMaker?
C #MeetYourMaker is pretty much just giving you the insight to everything behind your product—meeting the actual people who make it, from the hand weavers to the hand dyers to the female collectives who are sewing your product, packaging it all up—it’s just giving consumers an insight behind your product.
S What’s the significance of that? Why is it important?
E We want to empower the consumer as much as we want to empower the maker, and by creating the value of offering the story to the consumer, they’re able to take the product and feel as good as they look in it.
S What does ethical fashion mean to you and to People’s Product as a brand?
E To People’s Product, ethical fashion all started around the human aspect. We launched into ethical fashion wanting to support people and artisans, beyond paying them a fair wage by supporting their communities, giving them healthcare benefits and providing education for their kids.
As we learned about ethical manufacturing and we visited our manufacturers, we learned about sustainability. So by going to the manufacturers and watching them dye fabrics and then wash them and the run-off go straight into the community’s water system, it was that real-life experience that brought sustainability really into People’s Product. It is a really important part of what we do today. We don’t use any bleaches in our fabrics and we have everything hand-woven to order, because that means we don’t have any extra stock fabric, ever.
S What are some of the hurdles you’ve faced or lessons that you’ve learned while trying to integrate ethics into your brand?
C It’s a learning process. When we started, I remember Eva was actually working before in fair trade and sourcing fair-trade silk. Sometimes, since people believe everyone in the fair-trade process should be trustworthy, it’s not always true, and some people do want to take advantage of that, and want to take advantage of producers and take a cut, and take it away from the people who are actually making the products or these beautiful fabrics.
So you really have to build a trustworthy relationship with your producers. For us, we work with a fully fair-trade certified organization, so that means they have to go through a lot of checks, they have to continuously make sure that they’re covering all their bases of everything that goes into fair trade and sustainability and healthcare — all the benefits really have to be there.
S What does People’s Product have in store? How do you hope to contribute to a sustainable or ethical fashion future?
E People’s Product has some really cool stuff coming up. We’re actually launching seven new pieces at the end of this month, which is a really big deal to us. We’ve been working on those for a long time, we’ve had these fabrics handmade and custom-made for this specific project. We have a launch party coming up at the end of July, as well as a pop-up shop, which will be our first solo shop to date.
C We’re also launching a new website, so we’ll have a new shopping function. We really want to promote a body-positive shopping experience for women. It is so hard to shop online as a woman, and if you do not have that one body type that is shown online, you don’t know what your clothes are going to look like. So for us, it really makes sense to show what our clothes look like on different body types and show that women can look amazing in our clothes from extra small to extra large. Hopefully we’ll keep expanding on that.
E Right now, what we’re launching is our new shop function, so every size is the same as a colour variant. You click on it and you’ll see a model in a size medium wearing clothes with their measurement and height, and same with the large, same with an extra small.
You can find People’s Product at peoplesproduct.ca, and follow along at @peoplesproduct on all social media channels.
Sophomore When and why did you want to start Wild Moon and Biakoye?
Asia I wanted to start Wild Moon Jewelry because I was going through changes in my life that made me feel like I needed to do some form of creative expression. Before Wild Moon Jewelry became what it was, I bought a whole bunch of jewelry supplies and just started making things. Jewelry is what really stuck because I had a lot of community and family support, purchasing and loving the pieces that I made. That was six years ago.
Since then, I’ve created so much jewelry — maybe over 400 pieces — and have been featured in a lot of magazines and music videos and photo shoots. But I was always really interested, on the side and academically, in international development. Last year, I visited Ghana for the first time going back to Africa for me, which was really eye-opening. I worked with a group of women, the Obrapaa Women’s Group, who wanted to start their own jewelry collection. I helped them to develop their brand Biakoye, and their brand exclusively works with recycled glass jewelry beadwork. I support them through selling on my online store. Now, I’m going back to Ghana in August to continue assisting them to develop their brand while, at the same time, doing my own thing, too, with Wildmoon. It’s growing into a social enterprise.
S Can you walk us through the production process? With both lines, how do you go from idea to design and then, finally to market?
A I’ll start with Wild Moon. I do a lot of sketching and I source inspiration from a lot of different places — so maybe different magazines or blogs, sometimes to inform my design — but what really pushes Wild Moon Jewelry forward is every time I find new trauma or challenge that I’m going through or working through, I use that to really feel my creative process. I don’t see any of my challenges or my mistakes as something negative; I always use it to fuel the creative energy behind my work. Coming up with an idea for a piece of jewelry is a lot harder than making it. It takes me a lot of creative juice to make a design.
But when it comes to Biakoye, the women that I’m working with are so amazing and so creative. When I got to Ghana and I saw the jewelry that was at the markets and the amount of creativity and uniqueness that is in the traditional beadwork, I was really just blown away. What I did when I was working with the Obrapaa Women’s Group is I knew that the way that the way that they’re making jewelry already is so beautiful and amazing, but here, chokers are really trendy. So we adapted some of their designs that would usually be long or extremely big and bold to just be small chokers. Their collection has done really well here, so I’m very excited about continuing to expand the market beyond Ghana to North America and so on.
S How did you come across this group?
A I’ve been connected in the international development scene in Toronto for a while. A friend of mine connected me to a program officer at Crossroads International, who was looking for a women’s entrepreneurship advisor, specifically to work with arts-based businesses.
I proposed a six-week program to assist this group of women to brand and build the jewelry that they were already doing. We went from picking what possible names could be for their collection, to finding out what the brand promise is going to be, and then figuring out what we want the visuals to look like, what we want the models to look like, where do we want the jewelry to be sold, and who do we want to be wearing it.
So we worked through that whole process over a six-week span, and came up with some amazing, beautiful visuals. These women were already working together before I came through, but I assisted them to make it a really beautiful-looking brand. I think that it’s really good for me, because I’ve been able to learn so much from them, but also my artistic passion of making jewelry and my career goal of working in international development is coming together in this project.
S What does ethical fashion mean to you and to your brand?
A Over the past year, I’ve really been pivoting Wild Moon Jewelry to be more of an ethical brand. When I was in Ghana, especially seeing that the Obrapaa Women’s Group used primarily recycled beads — glass that was recycled from all over the city goes to this recycling plant, where they melt down the broken glass, and then they make beads out of them and then they hand-paint them. So even the beads in this necklace were hand-painted. But it’s all recycled.
And I thought to myself, “Wow. Our society is so obsessed with consumerism. And here is a beautiful example of creativity and eco-consciousness.” So that really inspired me for the juice behind my new collection, which is called “Deep Work/Download”.
Wild Moon Jewelry, for me, is always evolving into something better than it was before. I think that aligning myself with true eco-conscious or eco-fashion, I feel like my soul is going in that direction. When I started putting effort into making my jewelry more of an eco-conscious line, I got a lot of support from people in the community, too.
I applied for this program, the United Nations Association in Canada has a program for businesses that are specifically trying to “green-wash” themselves. I was happy to get into that program, so now my business is partnered with the U.N. Association in Canada Green Corps program, around ethical and sustainable fashion. I’m making really good movements forward with a lot of different businesses moving in that direction.
S In the process, what are some of the hurdles that you’ve faced or lessons that you’ve learned in trying to integrate eco-consciousness into your brand?
A I think that one of the challenges that I’ve faced trying to make my brand more ethical, or eco-conscious, is the availability of eco-conscious and ethically-sourced materials. Right now I work primarily with those recycled beads from Ghana, and also precious metal clay recycled silver. Those two materials — maybe people wouldn’t have used them together before, but because they’re both recycled, I’ve really used them heavily in this collection.
Biakoye and the new Wild Moon Jewelry “Deep Work/Download” collections can be found at wildmoonjewelry.com.