Meet The Accessories Sewing Studio II that's located in Roncesvalles, found on the westend of Toronto. It's owned by a passionate, creative entrepreneur, Charmain. She and her team sew our super-comfortable reversible accessories such as The Transform Leg Warmers, The Reversible Bandeau Bras, and The Travelista Headbands.
Angela and Nina met up with the founder, Charmain, to talk about how she got started, her love for upcycling, and her other side-hustles (in addition to already owning her own sewing studio!). We hope you enjoy the interview and photographs of the space below.
Her interview is fascinating. And I think you'll love to hear her perspective on how one of our pieces looks simple, but is actually a big sewing challenge.
Tell us about yourself
Charmain: I’m about to celebrate 12 years in business, most fashion businesses don’t make it past the first year and most small businesses don’t make it past 3. With my business I’m like, “let’s make it locally here. I’ll help smaller designers, make less. If you want to start with 5 things and make sure those 5 things are made well and will sell, cool.”
I also have a personal fashion line where I start with basically garbage. I repurpose things. I keep taking more fabric because people give me free things they consider as garbage. It’s fun and I dig it.
How did you get your start in fashion?
Charmain: It’s funny because I feel like as a little kid I was always about the clothes. The laundry we had to do because I had to change 4 times a day. We’d be getting ready for dinner and all of a sudden I needed a dinner outfit. Imagine a little four year old saying, “I’ll be right back I have to get in my formal dining wear!” So I became a fashion designer. It literally was in my DNA to care about fashion.
Growing up there was no money, and everytime I wanted something new, I could only get it during Christmas and birthdays and it came out of necessity.
My mom is a childcare worker, and she also grew up poor. You just had to fix your things and make your own things. She always made our baby clothes. I started making doll clothes and then fixing things as well. I remember as a kid looking at an oversized shirt and thinking, “what if I cut the sleeves off and belted it like this? That’d be a super cute dress!” I remember I started doing that after the age of 10, just after my mom taught me how to sew.
Which designs do you sew for Encircled?
All of Encircled’s accessories are made of fabric scraps and they seem simple to sew but really they’re not.The Reversible Bandeau Bra especially is probably one of the hardest pieces to sew in the collection.
It’s so funny because I’ve been contracting for 12 years and I’ve been sewing for 25 years and I’ve worked with clients making the same things a lot. But my mind is always in that mode of figuring things out. I’m always learning, and working with Encircled’s accessories that look simple but are not, has pushed my skills a little bit.
It’s just incredible the little details in the bra, like if you don’t want any serging showing, I’d have to sew this part first and then move on to the next step. Sometimes it’s the simplest learning experiences and you think, “what the hell is that?! Why didn’t I think of that half an inch when sewing would make a difference?”
What does your typical day look like?
Charmain: Oh, my typical day is scary. Now that I finally had the brilliant revelation to give my first assistant a key, she comes in around 9 AM. I get in sometime around 11 or noon. Usually the first hour or two is checking emails, organizing my staff, making sure I’m on top of client orders, double checking my very colour-coded schedule.
I’m still lead sewer in all my contracts so I’ll usually spend a lot of time on the sewing machine. My day starts at 11AM-12PM and goes until the morning. This kind of schedule used to happen to me by accident a couple times a year when certain clients would do tradeshows and I would take on extra work. But my business has grown so much that I now have three people working for me part time, three interns, and 2 extra people that will come in when we’re in a panic type of situation.
I feel like in the last three years it’s been steadily growing and the last year and a half there hasn’t really been a slow down. There used to be lulls in the seasons where I had more time to design for my line because I had the down time, but then it’s like crap, I can’t buy groceries. I try to crawl home (I live across the street) to get a couple hours of sleep and then come back and do it all again.
What is your passion, and what does it look like?
Charmain: I remember, in design school when I was younger, the frustration of getting this brilliant idea and it's this beautiful design, and all of a sudden you’ve created this textile in your mind that doesn’t exist. And you just go crazy trying to find it. I’ve had clients and friends who’ve had the means to go out of their way to get fabrics custom milled, but for me it just isn’t realistic because I’ve never had money going into any projects.
My first job after college was for this designer named Sydney and he had no formal design background. He worked in film and on his breaks he’d get the sewers on set to teach him how to sew. He took jeans apart to learn how to put them together and developed a line of custom jeans. He got really good at it and started his own business. I was his first assistant and getting to learn that one on one, coming out of school from a class of 35, that was an amazing hands-on, intimate kind of teaching.
Back in the day I realized denim was one of the most common garments in any North American wardrobe. People get rid of them so often, whereas I would keep a pair of jeans forever and keep patching them. Especially for women, jeans that are tighter, the inner thighs go and they're like, “okay these are done” but I look at that like “that’s a whole lot of fabric!”
Denim is such an incredible anomaly when you think about colour theory, how a blue garment became a universal staple over anything grey, black or white. Even with the 3 of us here, 2 out of the 3 of us are wearing blue jeans. Black goes with so many more things but yet somehow this blue workers garment made it to be the most universal thing especially with fashion that is so fleeting. Denim is always there. It’s always there every season, every year, every decade.
I’ve worked and designed with denim for 14 years and still when I finish a pair, I think, “Oh my God, I made these! They are like store jeans, they are real!”
Tell us about your personal fashion line.
Charmain: With my collection I start with basically, garbage. I repurpose things.
I do custom denim, and a lot of kimonos. For me it kind of depends on the fabric. I’m kind of backwards from most people’s design process because I care more about using whatever fabrics I have. My design process is actually to make a pile and to sit in it. And then I start to figure things out.
When I was back at my mom’s place, an old friend of mine asked if I was still doing the jeans thing. I’m like sure, and she came and left 10 pairs of jeans at my mom’s back door step for me. People just love getting their things used and I work with what I’ve got. There’s a surplus of stuff on this planet of everything, and we have to stop acting as if there’s somewhere “away”. There's no away, this planet, just the idea of a linear supply chain is a joke to me. There is nothing linear about a spherical planet. We have no end point that stops. It keeps going, it’s a round situation. The landfills are filled and the land is full and it’s for growing. It’s not for filling with crap just because you don’t want it in 2 months
For my other line I collect leather coats and fur coats for my line of bags. I have a bag made from old car upholstery, a crazy 90s jacket, and random canvas scraps.
At one point I approached upholstery companies, called, and asked them if I could have their garbage. They were so pleased, they were like, “5 garbage bags are sitting at my door right now, come and take it.” The scraps were huge pieces for me when I’m making little patchwork bags.
I’ve started my own collection again, were starting to go through stuff. But production is first, so it’s slow going with my own stuff.
What are some reasons to support
Canadian made products?
Charmain: There are so many reasons. There’s the human rights, environment and ethics of it.
Now that we’re in the digital age, someone's got a camera or a video of the way people are being treated. We know where things are made now. We know the conditions they are made in. Even with documentaries you see about sweatshops, that's a factory that they let a camera into. There are so many sweatshops you aren't getting past the front door. The buildings are unmarked, locked doors, no clocks on the wall, no breaks, it’s horrific to get things cheaper made overseas.
I think we need to adjust our idea of need and want. You may want 5 new shirts, but you need 1, maybe 2. It’s a matter of getting 2 that are made well than 5 that are garbage and will fall apart, just because it’s $5 each.
[You need to] Know the actual retail formula of making clothing, that materials and labour x2 is your wholesale. And then x2 is your retail and that’s your lowest markup. If you buy something for $5, it was made for less than $1.25 including shipping, materials, fabrics, and labour. That is ridiculous even at whatever wholesale you can get the fabric at. If you’re buying from Canada it means there’s less shipping, packaging, and pollution created.
Fast fashion labels can put out a new collection almost every week. We don’t need so much choice. We don’t need that many new things all the time. To throw away clothes, especially in fabrics that are made with any synthetic blend, it’s going to outlive your grandkids. They’re still here, every piece of fabric that has been created since the invention of plastic is still on this planet in one form or another.
Just because we have a waste management system in North America, and just because we don’t see it, and we can get rid of it very quickly, it’s still here.
We need to understand our responsibility and how much we use and consume.
Why do you love working with encircled?
Charmain: I love that we have such a similar vision, that the pieces I sew are made of scraps and that made me so happy when France [our Production Manager] first explained it to me. I’m making your garbage pieces? I’d love to make your garbage pieces! I love working with waste.
When I moved my studio around a while ago all of a sudden all of my bags of fabric scraps started coming out of the nook and crannies and it was like we had a garbage mountain. But it’s not garbage. Not until something is a dirty broken piece of foil, it has use and it has value. And when France told me about the fabric scraps from the way the Chrysalis Cardis are cut, you ended up with these rectangle pieces and that’s how the headbands were designed. I was like, “oh my God, you are my fashion soulmates!”
What’s your next adventure?
Charmain: I want hemp farms. My goal is to start in Ontario, but to have a textile manufacturing factory on site and cater to a retail and manufacturing set up.
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