Over the past few years, the market for locally made apparel and accessories has been growing in Winnipeg. And to my mind, March and August, Wilder and Tonychestnut are at the forefront of that growth. Each of these local makers show a passion for good design and high quality materials and a commitment to keeping products made by local hands.
Alesha runs March and August Underthings from her home in West Broadway. Her friendly, mixed-breed dog Judi greats me at the doorway. The space is clean and white, furnished with a mix of vintage finds and newer, modern pieces. Her sewing machine looks out over the front yard and the cutting table is filled with samples she's considering for the upcoming spring collection. A photo of her smiling partner hangs in the corner of an inspiration board.
Alesha has been making underthings as March and August for over a year now. Prior to that, she'd been working on a number of different projects. She tells me, "I've been trying to figure out my medium for a long time." After fashion schooling and apprentice work, she'd been designing and sewing different items of clothing, but nothing felt quite right. "I've always wanted to empower. I wanted it to be more than, 'Here's some cool clothing' or, 'This is really cute.' I wanted [what I made] to have that empowering message." Feeling frustrated, she took a break from making clothing altogether and planned to transition into the food industry. "And then I learned how to make underwear from a friend and taught a class on making it with her, and all of the sudden I just became obsessed with making it. I was working on something in the food industry and was supposed to be making a business plan for that, and I kept leaving it aside to make underwear for my friends, and I was like 'What am I doing? This is amazing and I love it, and I'm spending hours and hours doing it. I'm ignoring this other thing completely.'" That realization sparked others. "I realized I've always wanted to create with my hands, and work with fabric. I've always wanted to empower people to learn to love all the great things about their bodies. And so everything just came together all of the sudden, and I was just like, 'I'm going to do it. I just have to send it out there.' And once I did that, it was amazing."
Alesha's underthings are both comfortable and stylish. She uses fabrics like bamboo cotton in her work for softness, and is always looking for ways to make her things more comfortable. And the cuts and fabrics are both fashionable and incredibly flattering. Her stuff just makes you feel good about yourself. The models she uses on her website have all sorts of body types. And on her Instagram feed, she shares photos customers have posted of themselves in the underwear she's made (with permission, of course). The message of empowerment rings through with every photo and every story she shares. She's happy that "People get it. I don't need to explain it in a big, long paragraph on my website. They see the product and they get it. I'm sure that social media has a lot to do with that too." She adds that this has "helped me stay inspired and helped bring my brand where I wanted it to go."
At the moment, Alesha's working on putting together the spring collection. She's in the final stages of picking out samples and making decisions about design. She also plans to release a custom bridal package in the spring. The package will offer a customized fit and options for both traditional and non-traditional brides.
And in the back of her mind, she has thoughts about expanding. For now, she's able to handle the work, but as her business increases, she may have to consider other options. Maintaining the balance between the value of having something that's "still handmade and local" against her personal health and wellbeing is something that's important to her.
Brendon and Nathan of Wilder have been perfecting and expanding their work with canvas and leather over the past five years. It began with five sewing machines in Brendon's basement where "the ping pong table was the cutting table." Then Brendon's church, the Exchange Community Church at 75 Albert Street offered them a free space to work, as long as they kept it open to people and brewed the occasional pot of coffee. He tells me that time was "more or less working on our craft and having fun." Most of their work was for experimentation, or making commission pieces for friends.
Then, when Thom Bargen opened two years ago, they offered Brendon and Nathan the space to work in the back, and an area for retail display removed from the coffee shop by a handful of steps. Brendon says that "being in the public spotlight was a motivation for us to take things a little more seriously and give it more of a go." Since that time, their business and expanded and evolved rapidly.
They started out working primarily with canvas because of its toughness and durability. They wanted to design products that looked better with age, instead of falling apart. Nathan says, "We were always drawn to stuff that was more timeless and durable, and that would age nicely." To this end, they began experimenting with leather: adding small things like leather handles to a canvas bag. Once they began that process, they found it opened them up to a "whole world of leather." Now a number of their bags are made entirely from durable, high quality leathers, using time-tested old processes and a lot of hand stitching. And although Wilder began primarily with bags, they've been shifting into other types of products. They've recently released more home goods, like plant hangers and coasters, and are currently working with a friend to produce wood, canvas and leather camp chairs. Brendon hopes that people will use them on the road while also being able to find a space for them in their homes. He tells me, "All of our stuff, we design it to be beat up, but we try to make is so that you can dress it up too."
When it comes to the kinds of products Brendon and Nathan might make, they always want to leave the door open for experimentation. Brendon says that "Ever since the beginning, we've experimented with making different things: hats, pants, other articles of clothing. ... If we're experimenting with something and realize that this is something we can actually do well, and we have a good design going, then we might deviate into that direction." But he also says, "I'm pretty obsessive with proper equipment to do something. If we don't have it, we're not going to associate ourselves with it." Nathan adds, "We want to make sure we pay respect to specific crafts."
In addition to their expansion into housewares and the soon-to-be-released camp chairs, Wilder has recently started selling their products through their website. They've begun with wallets and plan to add canvas goods soon.
As Jill leads me up the stairs of her South Osborne home (a home her husband together with friends and family built themselves) toward the Tonychestnut studio upstairs, she tells me working from home is "both a blessing and a curse." She used to have a studio space in the Exchange, but once they built the house, it just made sense to build a workspace into it. The room itself is a treasure: a few of her remaining items hang on a clothing rack, fabric lies in piles on shelves, and every surface is covered with items of beautiful design. You could spend an hour just picking up each piece and looking at them one by one.
Jill's been making clothes as Tonychestnut for the past 7 years. (She started out doing primarily custom work). And for the past three years, Jill's unique and well-designed items have been available for purchase only through her website or her trunk sales. The materials she uses are high quality, and her designs are magic; they hang beautifully and seem to look great on everyone. During her last trunk sale at Little Sister Coffee this past fall, the thirty pieces she brought sold out in about forty minutes. She realized that if she'd been able to produce more stock, she "could have sold it three or four times over." So recently, she hired two seamstresses and is currently looking for an intern. With more staff and greater inventory, Jill has exciting plans for the future of Tonychestnut.
She recently began selling items at HutK in the Exchange District. It started out as a one-time-only, twenty-piece sale, but she's decided to continue replenishing and adding to the items available there. Although those pieces "will always be different from what I have on the website or at trunk sales," she hopes customers will be pleased to have a more traditional venue to access and purchase her clothing.
Jill's currently making final edits and working on samples for her spring collection. The trunk sale for those items will likely happen sometime in April. She's also planning on travelling the trunk sale for the first time. She wants to start in Montreal, then Ottawa and Toronto, where she's seen a lot of demand for her products, and perhaps head west for Vancouver.
Finally, there's her new project, #projectgetdressed. Jill says, "I feel like February is a downer month. So, when you're feeling bummed, which I feel like most people, as least in Winnipeg in February do, the best thing to do to help yourself is to help others. So, what I'm doing is I'm being selfish, and for this whole month I've been making clothing for myself, to build up my own wardrobe, which I never do. (I rarely wear my own clothes, because I usually just make to fill orders.) But I'm making two of each garment, and the second once will be sold online and all the proceeds are going to go to a charity that clothes people in Winnipeg." The online sale begins today, with a sweatshirt designed in collaboration with Thought Shapes. And for each day of this last week of February, a single, one-off item or outfit will be sold through her website, with all the proceeds going to "a local charity that will provide outdoor clothing for men, women, and children who are living on the streets in this cold." If you're lucky enough to nab one of the five garments or outfits, kudos to you. If not, look forward to the spring trunk sale, or head down to HutK to check out her pieces.
I've chosen these local designers and makers for this post because I genuinely love their products and think they're doing special and noteworthy things. If you ever have suggestions for local businesses or entrepreneurs you'd like to see featured, please, let me know in the comments or email me at fullbellywornsoles(at)gmail(dot)com.