Top Coats: 5 Canadian outerwear lines that are heating up our winter wardrobes
“They don’t make ’em like that anymore.” Belgrade-born, Toronto-based designer Bojana Sentaler Nikolic could be referring to her own line of luxury coats, which are individually made and hand-finished, but in this case she’s talking about the inimitable Karl Lagerfeld. She crossed the Kaiser’s path five years ago while working in media in Dubai. During a meeting with him about the villas he was designing, she snuck in a few career questions of her own. “I said, ‘Listen, Karl, I went to business school, but my passion is fashion, can I do it?’” she recalls. “He said, ‘What do you mean? I didn’t go to fashion school, look at me.’ He was so blunt and nonchalant. That was 2008, and I launched Sentaler in 2009.”
Karl’s predictably eloquent advice aside, another driver in Sentaler’s decision to pursue a life of design was the dearth of winter outerwear that satisfied both her function and fashion requirements. “Wool coats weren’t warm enough, and puffy down jackets weren’t as elegant,” she says. “I remember not liking winters because of those jackets.” It took a six-month stint researching fabrics in South America to solve her conundrum. While in Peru, she zeroed in on alpaca fibres, which she praises for being warmer, lighter and more durable than wool.
A ’40s wartime feel pervades this season’s wares, with menswear-inspired shapes, notched collars, oversized silhouettes and a reserved colour palette, including a deep navy that Sentaler declares “the new black.”
But navy isn’t all that’s new for Sentaler; she’s about to become a mother (at the time of our interview, she’s seven months pregnant). And while Karl may have inspired her to start her own line, her baby joy was the motivation behind her new kids’ outerwear collection. In September, she quietly launched three styles for girls, which will be expanded to a full line for girls and boys next year, sparing the next generation of Canadians from a long winter of inelegant coats. And should Sentaler’s own child one day dream of breaking into the fashion business, he or she won’t be needing Lagerfeld for motivation—just ask Mom.
Down coats have a bad rap, but Toronto-based designer Johnny Yiu is doing his part to repair their reputation. “It was the ‘Michelin Man’ look, and I wanted to change that image,” he says. “More fashion, less bubble jacket.” If anyone is up to the task, it’s Yiu. Born into the ski-wear business (he spent much of his childhood running around his father’s factory in Hong Kong), he initially didn’t want a down-filled future. “That’s the reason I came to Canada,” he says. “I promised myself I was going to get a job where there’s air conditioning.” But it turned out his ski-wear skills were Yiu’s hottest commodity. Following in his father’s footsteps, he’s helmed his own manufacturing company for the past 26 years. He offered up his solution to the marshmallow coat problem in 2003, a line of lean and luxe down jackets. Filled with a purer goose down than the industry standard, his made-in-Canada coats are then hand-quilted into a water-resistant microfibre and individually signed. Each comes with a lifetime warranty on workmanship. This season, he’s experimented with mixed fabrics, such as alternating bands of shiny silk-like poly and matte virgin wool on the “Adalyn” style. When asked if he will venture down other fashion avenues, Yiu’s daughter Tammy, the company’s director of sales and marketing, chimes in, “We’re a small team working off the principle of ‘Do one thing and do it well.’” Fans of his fluffy-not-puffy outerwear are obviously down with that.
For designer Cindy Xin, it was watching the Japanese anime The Flower Child Lunlun as a youngster in Shanghai that solidified her future in fashion: She simply had to learn how to sew those princess dresses for her dolls. Her mother taught her the basics, and when she outgrew doll-size frocks, she enrolled at LaSalle-DHU International Design College in Shanghai (now Raffles Design Institute). She moved to Vancouver in 2004 and worked as a designer at clothing retailer Mantique before launching her own wool outerwear line last year. The name Zareen, a Persian word meaning “golden,” is an homage to Xin’s Iranian husband, but her designs are inspired by classic English cuts, upgraded with dark leather detailing and off-kilter closures. She describes her customer as “someone who is looking for unique style,” but who is also “mature and feminine.” That description may be light years away from the princess dresses of her childhood, but it’s perfect for a certain modern-day princess, who we’re sure would appreciate the English bent of Xin’s sophisticated fall coats.
Their coats make a killer first impression (something the scores of celebrities who sport them know well), but Mackage’s Eran Elfassy wasn’t immediately impressed with fellow designer Elisa Dahan when they first met in high school. “I thought she was a brat,” he says cheekily. Thankfully, Dahan found him intriguing, and the two soon became friends-who-appliqué-sweaters-together. By 1999, they’d set sweaters aside for coats (of the leather, wool and down variety), and their Montreal-based label’s unexpected design details (V-shaped double collars rimmed with fur, asymmetrical closures with substantial zippers) quickly defined them. “Our asymmetrical trench had a big, big zipper, which at the time was unique,” says Dahan. “We and the Canadian army were the only ones ordering them from YKK.” Employing their different strengths for a shared passion, the two designers have managed to find a perfect balance: Elfassy focuses on the finer details (like those zippers), and Dahan deals in the big picture. This season, as with all others, the inspiration is their effortlessly cool customers, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Halle Berry and Eva Mendes. They’re also charting new territory with the debut of a handbag collection that riffs on their outerwear trademarks. Purses and parkas may be two different animals, but, like Elfassy and Dahan, the two work beautifully in tandem.
Falling in love with a Calgarian brought this New Yorker across the border, but the way designer Lauren Bagliore packs her collection for travel between the two countries qualifies her as a full-fledged Canadian: She hauls it all in a hockey bag. Since Bagliore launched her line—which she describes as conceptual yet wearable—in 2009, it’s included luxe outerwear, which her family doesn’t find surprising. “They say, ‘It’s funny that you split your time between Calgary and New York, because you always loved winter coats.’” But fashion isn’t all frothy for Bagliore. Her latest collection, dubbed “Lamentations,” is an impassioned response to the global plight of human trafficking—a cause she’s deeply involved in. There are lots of deconstructed knits in shades of black, blue and mélange grey, which she contrasts with sleeker tailored silhouettes. The Futurist Coat exemplifies the latter; constructed of polar fleece-lined neoprene, it is designed to withstand the elements. With other pieces in the collection made of wind- and water-resistant Japanese nylon, a high-tech fabric she helped develop, and some long-haired furs for the first time, Bagliore is more than equipped to handle what-ever weather the Big Apple or Cowtown throws at her.