Kirk Pickersgill and Stephen Wong of Greta Constantine on Canada, Sustainability and Catherine O’Hara
We sat down with the pair ahead of their showcase at Nordstrom.
Kirk Pickersgill and Stephen Wong are mere days away from celebrating the 14 year anniversary of their label, Greta Constantine. Since launching in 2006, the Toronto-based brand has steadily gained traction, amongst consumers and retailers alike, thanks to their effortlessly beautiful designs that fit and flatter the female form. The likes of Catherine O’Hara, Ciara and Amy Poehler have worn their designs, however celebrity clientele isn’t their focus – it’s the women who wear their designs to events away from the Hollywood Hills that they’re most passionate about.
We met with the designers at Nordstrom, ahead of a trunk show being held to give customers a first look at the upcoming Spring 2020 and Resort 2020 collections. Here’s what they had to say about why face-time with their customer is important, why Canada remains their home base and red carpet season.
Why are events like this one at Nordstrom important to you?
Stephen Wong: It’s incredibly important. These are the women that are wearing the clothes, and we find it invaluable because you get to speak with them and find out what it is like they like, what it is they dislike, parts of the body they would rather conceal, and find out about their issues. We also learn about their lifestyles, where it is that they need to wear these clothes. We always take into consideration what they say in these appointments.
Are the consumers fairly open when they’re giving you their feedback?
SW: Some are, some aren’t. [laughs].
Kirk Pickersgill: They’re very real. Once you get them in that change room atmosphere that’s when they feel ‘you see me this way and now I’m going to ask you something’ and they’re very open about it.
What were the inspirations behind the Resort and SS20 collections which you’re showcasing?
KP: My aunt has an orchid farm in Jamaica and so we visited her there and we got inspired by orchids. Well, flowers in general, but she grows orchids. Stephen knows all the names of all the orchids so he was obsessed.
SW: I love plants and botany, so for me it was a thrill to see. It’s a very extensive collection of incredible orchids that are usually hard to grow but being in Jamaica, I guess they flourish. Also the shapes, the colour, also just being in Jamaica and the fact that they’re grown outside, the way that they move in the breeze – we took notes from that.
I guess there’s some hidden metaphors in these pieces then about the way women move, and grow, and flourish.
How does the design process work with the two of you?
KP: [laughs] We have a different, contemporary way of working. We start with the fabrics and take it from there. We have a general idea and we feed off each other. We design separately but it’s the same theme, and the same outcome is going to be there. We pick the fabric, we make the clothing and then we start working on theme, because we aren’t really theme people. We just follow what the last collection was like and that moulds us into the new collection.
That’s nice from a consumer’s perspective, too, that the collections feed into one another. They’re then building a wardrobe of pieces that make sense together.
SW: Exactly. The collection evolves rather than changing dramatically.
Speaking of evolution, how do you think Greta Constantine has evolved since you began?
KP: Every day is an evolution. We never started with a business plan or anything, so it wasn’t like OK, in 2013 we have to be this way, in 2020 we need to be this way… The evolution of the brand is the growth of it all. We’re not the same as the beginning. We started off as 2 and now we’re 16. The whole atmosphere for the industry has changed, not just in Canada but internationally. And you have to adapt to that again. It’s about not having blinders on and keeping an open mind about things, and creating something that’s brand new.
SW: It happened organically. You just go with the flow. We were more than happy to grow slowly. I don’t think we’d be here if we’d tried it any other way either. It’s a learning process for us, too. For us, to grow slowly is manageable.
And I guess there’s freedom in not having set plans about where you envision the business or where you thought it was going to go.
KP: There is, but you still don’t want to get comfortable or complacent. If you do, in Canada it’s very hard to get that recognition. You have to go outside of Canada. I’m not saying you need to show outside of Canada but you have to be able to go to New York during the sale season, to Paris, not necessarily to do a show but to be involved in the market part of it because without that they’re never going to know who you are. In this day now, with social media, that’s probably one of the easiest ways to build a brand. To me, once you are on social media, you are a brand.
Do you think that the architecture around the Canadian fashion industry has gotten any better since you began in terms of supporting Canadian brands? Or do you think there’s still room for development?
KP: How political do you want to get? [laughs]
SW: There’s always room for development and improvement. In a way it’s great, being based here, in that you know pretty much everyone and you can ask for advice. Like I said, we are learning and growing and picking things up as we go along so if we ever have a query or something that we’re not sure of, we’re close enough with other designers that have maybe been there and experienced a similar thing that we could ask about those things and get really salient responses. So in that way it’s great.
Is it fair to say then that there’s a camaraderie between the designers, but maybe not necessarily within the wider structure of the industry?
SW: Yeah, pretty much. We’re not best friends, we don’t hang out or anything but being in the same industry, you have this camaraderie and it’s a nice feeling [laughs].
Why have you decided to stay in Toronto and not move to another market like New York or Paris, for example?
SW: It’s 2020, you can be in Toronto and do presentations in New York and sales appointments in Paris. I think it’s the best of both worlds in that way.
KP: Yeah and it goes deeper. It’s your family, your roots, your friends.
And this is where the brand was born, too.
KP: Exactly, that’s exactly it. We travel enough for work that it’s always nice to come home. It’s that feeling of, ‘Oh I just cant’t wait to get home.’ I mean, home is where the heart it as they say. I lived in New York for the longest time, and I still consider that part of my home. It’s not about turning your back on anywhere, but to uproot a company and to go another city, much less another country is…
SW: An upheaval.
KP: Yes. And things are run differently, too. The industry’s not run the same way in Italy that it’s run here. Here, everything is basically done yourself, you have to outsource everything. In Italy you get a factory that will do it for you. So you just do the designs and you work with them for the development but you don’t have to worry about the manufacturing. Whereas in Canada you do have to have control over everything.
Is that a good thing, to be able to have total control over it?
KP: There’s pros and cons. The manufacturing industry in Toronto, that’s dwindling. There’s not very many people out there that are manufacturing right now so that’s one of the biggest challenges. And then a lot of fabric agents are not in Toronto so you have to source out, and the timing isn’t always the best. And sometimes you’re conflicting against bigger brands that are using the same fabric and they’re buying more, and so you’re second, third in line.
You touched on this before, Kirk, there’s a lot of discussion in the industry right now around the topics of sustainability and size inclusivity – how do you address both of these in your work?
SW: The main fabric that we use is a technical fabric that was developed for the athletic brand industry – I call it the holy grail of fabric. One of the things that I love it for is that it’s got amazing stretch but also holds you in. It smoothes you out. It’s a bonded fabric that enables you to do structure but softer lines also. It’s incredible because you can wear it and you don’t have to wear the usual underpinnings. Women of all sizes [wear our pieces] and they love it.
KP: And that’s part of sustainability because we try and use this fabric every season because for us it’s easier, we know how to work with it now. That’s keeping the familiarity in the company but its sustainable in the sense that we don’t need to keep buying fabrics that we don’t use. That’s one of the biggest issues is that when you do order fabric, it comes in minimums and those minimums can be very high so you’re left with hundreds of metres of fabric afterwards – if you don’t sell it, you’re left with it. So of late, we call it shop under the table, which is us shopping under our cutting table where we store our fabrics. So we’re starting to use fabrics that we’ve bought in the past and incorporate them back into the collection one way or another instead of having to go out and shop and waste.
There’s also something to be said for getting people to invest in timeless, beautiful pieces that they can wear time and time again. That’s another avenue for sustainability in fashion.
SW: Yes. I hate the idea that people wear things once and then never wear it again. It’s really troubling to think that this is happening. We make things in a quality that is incredible so that it can be kept for however long and be worn again.
We’re in red carpet season currently – what does that look like for you both?
KP: It’s something new for us. It started about two or three years ago when we hired on a celebrity agent in LA who works with the stylists. Nothing has really changed – if we see someone in our clothes on the red carpet that’s exciting but if they don’t wear it, it’s of no disappoint to us. We’re not the label that’s going to go out there and make a dress for someone just because of their name. One day we’d love to dress Beyoncé and Nicole Kidman, but that takes time. The red carpet is fun to watch and it’s the icing on the cake when you see your designs on a certain talent.
When you dressed Catherine O’Hara in that gorgeous black and white column gown for the 2019 Emmys, how did that come about?
KP: That happened through the stylist but it had more stipulations than most. [Catherine] wanted it to be black and white, because she wanted to mimic her character as Moira. So we sent her a couple of sketches, and she saw the first one and said, OK I want that. It was easy. She was very easy.
What can we expect to see from the brand this year?
KP: Growth. We’re moving studios. Growth and continuation and seeing what these ladies want!
Nordstrom is hosting a second Greta Constantine pop-up at its Yorkdale location on January 30 from 1-4pm, where you can meet Kirk and Stephen and customize your own piece. For more details, or to RSVP, call 416 780 6630.