It’s First Friday in the Exchange District and Wilder, Commonwealth and Oldhat’s new studio space is hopping. People mill over a spread of cured meats, cheeses, beer, and boxed wine laid out on a large work table; others lean against sewing machine tables and desks, deep in conversation. Occasionally a spirited game of darts or ping pong starts up. I pick up a paddle and manage to best a friend in a game - a fact of luck more than actual skill, since neither of us is a particularly strong player. The pleasant murmur of conversation and a subdued Spotify playlist is occasionally punctuated by peals of laughter, small cheers for winners, good-natured exclamations of disappointment by players who’ve missed their shot.
When I return for my interview with Brendon, Nate, Andrew and Nathan on a late weekday afternoon, the pitch is less ebullient, but still friendly. Each is huddled at his workstation, making cracks about “keeping things pretty” for the camera.
Wilder Goods’ Brendon Friesen and Nathan Bezoplenko (or just Nate), Commonwealth Manufacturing’s Andrew Doerksen (also known as Hoj), and Oldhat’s Nathan Dueck have joined workspace and creative camaraderie on the fourth floor of 290 McDermot Avenue. The four friends had “random discussions about the idea of joining up and having a shared manufacturing space” for some time now, with no concrete plans. But after Nathan learned of this space from studio-neighbor Lynne Mulvihill of Mud + Stone, he made arrangements to have a look, and things developed quickly from there. Andrew says, “It happened really fast. No one could think of a reason not to.”
The speed with which the space came together certainly doesn’t show. The large worktables and sewing machines that make up the core work area are fringed not only by the dart board and ping pong table, but a lounging and shopping area replete with vintage leather couch and upholstered armchairs, lit displays of goods, plants everywhere, and even a resident stuffed bobcat.
Nate and Brendon from Wilder Goods began sewing bags out of the Exchange Community Church six years ago. As Nate says, it was “where we started to learn. Without rent and any overhead costs, we were able to acquire equipment, hone our skills, and sell to friends.” When Thom Bargen opened its first location in West Broadway two years after that, they invited Wilder to join them with a shop and manufacturing space in the back. The built-in foot traffic was great for business, but four years later, they found they’d outgrown the space. Nate comments, “The number of creative people making things is growing, and it makes sense to be back downtown to join creative energy and potential customer walk-through.”
Before starting Commonwealth Manufacturing, Andrew spent time practicing on one of Brendon and Nate’s machines for a period of about six months. Then, Andrew says, “I realised Parlour had a pretty huge storage space above. When I was ready, I asked [Parlour owner] Nils Vik if he’d be willing to sublet part of that to me, and the timing just worked out well. For a long time, most of us have talked about the potential of getting a space together, but we weren’t actively looking for it. I know I wasn’t.”
Before moving to 290 McDermot, Nathan was running Oldhat out of his home. He says, “I was outgrowing any area with nice light. I would have had to go into the basement, and I wasn’t super excited about that. Every spare closet space in the house was storage for my fabric or stock; it was overtaking things, and becoming more of a work space than a living space.”
Today, we’re sitting down with Brendon, Nate, Andrew and Nathan to talk about ethics in the apparel industry and their shared love of thrift.
FULL: How has the way your source your materials evolved over time and what role do ethics play?
Nate Bezoplenko: For Nathan, ethical sourcing is written into his mission statement, and Hoj has been very intentional. I think for Brendon and I, it was a learning process that we’re not ashamed to admit going through. We now understand more about tanneries, and how they can affect waterways negatively. Leather that comes from poor countries tends to be of lesser quality. It’s cheaper, but it also comes with its own set of environmental issues. As we learned that, we were able to source better. I think we’re still in process.
Brendon Friesen: You do what you can. The supply chains are really long with cotton. You have growing, processing it into yarn, milling it into canvas, and then dyeing, so it’s pretty complicated. As we learn about it, we try to make better buying decisions. The company we buy from now is a fourth generation dyeing and waxing company, and they’re pretty proud of their process. There are a lot of checks and balances in place. But we’re new to the game, so we’re always finding out more and adjusting as we need to. There are a lot of blatant things out there that people choose to accept.
With tanneries, there are times when you can’t get any information on the leather. You might be able to get the country it’s from, but nothing about the tannery. Right away that brings up red flags. When people aren’t proud of their process, they’ll hide things. We use that as a sign to purchase elsewhere.
FULL: Nathan, I know all your hats are made from recycled fabrics, and the stiffness in your brims comes from ice cream pails.
Nathan Dueck: Yes, that’s correct.
FULL: How did you figure out the ice cream pails?
ND: My original thought was to get junky old hats from thrift stores and cut out the bill. But it’s just so labour intensive, and you’re limited to the size of the original hat. I do most of my thinking when I’m falling asleep. It just came to me. It already has a curve in it! Just like, aaaah!
FULL: When you’re finding your recycled materials, what’s your process for that? Where do you look?
ND: I mainly go to thrift stores around town. It used to take me a long time, and I’d buy a lot of bad material that ended up sitting in my stock for forever. Now I just go, do a quick pass through table cloths and curtain fabric area. Anything that looks nice, I give it a quick touch to see if it feels like the right weight or drape.
FULL: Andrew, I think most of your fabrics have been milled in Japan. Is it the same mill every time?
Andrew Doerksen: I’ve used a host of different suppliers. I’m always looking for new suppliers that have unique qualities, or a good story. I want mills that are doing things really well in areas where big companies are blowing it.
I ordered a fabric yesterday morning, and it’s from India. People might think, “Oh, you’re purchasing fabric from a third world country.” But I’m really excited about it, because it’s a fully organic mill, and traditional cotton’s a big problem in India. It’s very hard for farmers to make money. Also, pesticides have been very harmful, because they work by hand, and the cases of cancer are through the roof. So to source from an organic mill in India is something I’m super excited about.
BF: Most of our canvas is milled in India. They have highly mechanized canvas mills there. Most canvas milling is a fully computerized process. Our dyer chooses from a variety of different mills across the world. They make canvas to spec for each dyer process. It kind of works from the dyer backwards.
AD: If we’re talking about ethical concerns, I’m convinced the biggest problems lie in the growing process of cotton, and the cut and sew manufacturer. Weaving is less of a problem for me, because like Brendon’s saying, that’s highly mechanized and there are very few people even in those factories. I pay attention to where the cotton comes from, but you can only know that if it’s advertised, because a certain company wants to be transparent. Almost all the time you can’t know.
FULL: A growing buzzword for companies is transparency, but with the clothing industry, we have such a long history of not being transparent. To peel it all back and look at the different parts and what it means to be transparent at each stage sounds complex.
AD: And if you peel it back to the people at the beginning of that chain, I don’t think they’re feeling the same pressure to be transparent as the people at the end of the process. The retailer and the maker are closer to the consumer, but the one growing the cotton? The ripple effect of that pressure to be transparent hasn’t hit them the same way.
FULL: You’re all part of this movement toward manufacturing well-made goods locally, with materials that are sourced as ethically as possible. With that often comes price, and I imagine that’s something people comment on.
NB: I’d say we don’t encounter it as much as we had anticipated. When people come from other cities, they seem pleasantly surprised that our goods are priced fairly.
BF: We also pitch it in a certain way. We offer a product with a story and transparency, made with quality, well-sourced materials that’s going to last a long time. If that’s not what you’re looking for, or if that’s not what you can afford, there are other options. I can’t always afford the things I’d like, so I understand it.
FULL: I think some people carry a certain amount of guilt. An attitude can develop around the buy-local push that says this is how everyone should be spending their money. So if someone can’t afford to live to that standard, they feel badly. I certainly know makers who comment that they can’t afford their own goods at full cost.
AD: We’re definitely all frequent thrifters.
NB: Yeah, 80% of my wardrobe is thrifted.
ND: That’s the benefit of going to the thrift store so often for fabrics – the quick pass every time I go by the clothes.
AD: I understand that my shirts are priced higher than something you’d get in a mall or a big discount store. I’m not offended if people are a bit taken aback by the fact that my products are priced higher. I know that where I am today, it’s taken a lot of thinking and learning to understand the process of apparel manufacturing, and I don’t expect that the regular customer who’s uninvolved with the industry takes the time to research that. There’s a lot of information out there. I’m only offended if people don’t care to understand, or don’t care to learn. If they just think there’s no possible reason why someone would pay $140 for a shirt.
NB: We joke about people who try to crunch the numbers, asking questions about how long it takes you to make each item. But because we don’t have an HR department, or a sourcing department, and so on, there’s a lot of other work we’re doing besides physically making things.
FULL: How is that balance between thrifting and buying locally made goods reflected in your work? How do you envision customers incorporating that balance?
ND: I like displaying the hats with a large quantity laid out, and because the material is so diverse, I’ve always thought it was like looking in a thrift store. That’s intuitive to me as a way of displaying. At Folk Fest, people pick through from a large table and it reminds me of people sorting through the hangers at a thrift store.
NB: Our leather products are items we want to age gracefully and see break in. I think that’s where there’s a lot of crossover for us. I know it’s been hard to find a simple full-grain belt if you thrift it, or a leather briefcase. There’s a crossover for that personality of someone who likes to thrift, be environmentally conscious and socially aware, and also support local, and be with your product for a long time. I think that’s something our products can offer. A belt you don’t have to replace constantly.
BF: Not to mention that a lot of our designs have been inspired by products that we thrifted or have seen in antique stores. Seeing something really old that’s still in great shape like that has inspired a lot of our processes and designs.
AD: Having higher priced products naturally encourages a smaller wardrobe, or a smaller collection of goods. And that’s an awesome byproduct. I find the most encouraging thing is when a customer wants an item that I have, and then two months later they come and buy it. I know they had to save a bit for it. I know they’re valuing it more, and when I sell it, it puts pressure on me to make something really great. I feel like that’s a good pressure.