The diversified culture of Montreal offers an ideal setting to create art through fashion. Two Montreal businesses, Kimberly Fletcher and It’s Not Cool It’s Weird (INCIW), work with drastically different crafts, leather, and vintage clothing in Montreal. However, both companies demonstrate that quality, dedication, and passion are key ingredients for the articulation of this form of art and that Montreal is a great setting for its showcase.
Kimberly Fletcher is the designer behind Kimberly Fletcher, crafting beautiful leather handbags and accessories at an atelier—what they call a workshop in fashion—in the Plateau. Fletcher graduated from the fashion program at Marie Victorin College in Montreal, and then went on to study in leather school, a subcategory of study within the program dedicated to leather. Here, Fletcher was discovered by Louis Lamarre, the designer behind Territoire Atelier, and was invited to work with him at his leather goods boutique in Outremont. It was here that Fletcher found what would become her passion: Leather handbags and accessories.
“It was a huge opportunity,” Fletcher said. “School will always be there if I want to go back, but this [was] the only chance I [may] have. So I [grabbed] it.”
From there, Fletcher flourished. She was barely 21 years old and was making collections with nearly every designer in the handbag industry, the most notable of which was m0581. m0581 is a well-known company in the city that locally designs and creates handmade leather goods. However, for Fletcher, this meant less creative work, and in the end, she wanted to move on.
“One morning, I decided [that working in someone else’s company] was over [for me],” Fletcher elaborated. “I wanted to start my own business because I was kind of sick of putting these other designers’ names on the product that I made. I [thought to myself] ‘Today is Friday,’ so I quit everything. I went to business school from there and I started my own business.”T here’s a particular advantage to starting a business in Montreal because permits are low-cost and more accessible. The tourist clientele of Montreal also tends to come from a wealthy, international background. Consequently, they’re also searching for local designers. The market is also seemingly reverting back to small-scale production, which places value on quality, construction, and finesse. This is part of the reason Fletcher chose to have her atelier open to the public.
Fletcher said that she tries to establish an active relationship with her public.
“The mentality of the consumers is amazing,” Fletcher said. “They are very concerned about how people are working. When they come into the atelier and they see the [sewing machines], they are more impressed [….] For them, it’s kind of an attraction. It’s very old school, but I think it’s working.” Apparel and handbags fall into different sectors within the industry in Montreal. According to Fletcher, the seasons operate at a disparate pace. Department-store buyers for handbags don’t all purchase around the same time, as is typical with clothing lines. It’s also quite a smaller circle to run in, as far as competition goes.
“[The designers in the leather goods industry] all have the same suppliers that we go and buy our [leather] skins from,” Fletcher said. “We’re always there around the table talking about our new collections [….] I think [the competition is more within] every team. They believe so much in [their] product [and in] always wanting to be better and better. We are a jungle but we do respect each other’s art.”
The loud and unapologetically unique clothing brand INCIW was created around two years ago by a trio of young designers The eco-friendly group is made up of Maria Mariano, Pascale Cleary, and Catherine Gagnon, who curate vintage pieces to redesign, renew, and sell. Mariano is a former McGill student from the biochemistry department who picked up freelance fashion photography, discovering her love for style and design. Cleary and Gagnon are sisters and models who loved fashion from a young age.
The idea behind INCIW is to make structural changes in the foundation of how fashion is produced. Rather than subscribe to fashion’s fast-paced production using new materials that are replaced every season, INCIW wants to slow the industry down to appreciate what already exists. In the long term, this may become the only way for the fashion industry to be sustainable.
“We really love fashion and love to express ourselves in this kind of art form,” Mariano said. “We just kind of wanted to develop it in a different way. We all wanted […] to have a structural change in fashion.”
Inspired by the underground, quirky vibe of Montreal’s subculture, INCIW created its clothing based on what they see in hte city.
“The diversity [of Montreal]—that’s what I like, that’s what we like,” Cleary said. “I could just sit and watch people passing all day and I could just be fascinated.”
These three ladies manage the entire company, from the creative direction to the finances. Working out of a basement atelier, the three complement each other throughout the entire process.
“I think that’s actually the awesome part about us because we all bring something that the other one is missing, and we’re always having a blast,” Gagnon said. “Together, we’re all getting along so well and our ideas all connect but in a different way. It just brings the magic.”
INCIW’s approach adds a particular value to its clothing that people are seeking at a reasonable price.
“[It] brings back the whole ‘couture’ feeling where it’s, ‘This one jacket is yours, but it’s accessibly yours,’” Mariano said. “It’s almost like you’re kind of buying an art piece.”
Gagnon also said that materials from the past tend to be better quality.
“Nowadays, we feel like everything is made cheap, made on purpose to break and re-buy,” Gagnon added. “That doesn’t go with our vision. Our vision is very great quality stuff and the production is just for you [….] It can just last long, forever.”
Vintage fashion is sometimes misunderstood because it branches off into so many sub-categories. There’s a sector of restored vintage clothing where any type of stylistic reworking is strictly forbidden. Often, they cater to a very specific aesthetic or era. INCIW opted for a more artistic direction while taking advantage of the superior quality of old textiles. Because of this, INCIW does not necessarily follow seasons in fashion, but is instead constantly creating new pieces.
“We have a lot of creativity, so we want to add something, modernize what’s old and make it new,” Cleary said. “We take risks.”
Montreal cultivating local fashion designers
H owever, the transition into owning a boutique is a difficult step. Both Kimberly Fletcher and INCIW rely most heavily on their online presence for sales. From an individual business website to third-party websites like Etsy and Depop, the Internet is a growing market. The costs of owning a fashion business are also high; from paying for a studio to buying materials, to renting a space—it requires an exuberant amount of money.
“[A third-party web-seller] is more accessible at first,” Cleary said. “Accessible in the sense that the structure is there, it’s known already, [and] there are people doing it.”
For Fletcher, selling online before opening a physical shop was also about getting to know the customer.
“I wanted to be sure the product was good enough for the market,” she said. “I wanted to test the price, the quality, and know what the customer was thinking. When you’re in the business, you have to respect every step [….] So at first, this is the reason why I just wanted to start slower and put my name out there and the product, and then I will be ready to go onto the next step.”
Last year was big for Fletcher. She produced all the accessories that accompanied Philippe Bubuc’s collection down the runway. Bubuc recently won the 2015 Menswear Designer-of-the-Year award at the Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards.
“[Bubuc] told me, ‘Every year I will come back to you because I love the quality,’” Fletcher said. “To be acknowledged by someone [who] is bigger than you is always huge.”
For both of these companies, fashion is more than just an industry. It’s a form of art that is the basis of human interaction. The precision, care, and dedication afforded to each and every piece does make a difference—not only in the products themselves but also in the mentality of the wearer.
“It’s your armour to the world,” Gagnon said.