Photo by Jose Mandojana

Dan Levy on Judging Etsy’s Design Awards, the Fashion on Schitt’s Creek and More

"The wonderful thing about Etsy—and what could potentially be daunting—is just the sheer 'choose your own adventure' element of it."

Dan Levy might consider himself the “dark horse” on Etsy’s first-ever Design Awards judging panel but anyone who’s watched a single frame of his show Schitt’s Creek knows otherwise. Together with costume designer Debra Hanson, Levy created incomparable looks for the cast that no one would expect to see outside of magazine editorials: head-to-toe Rick Owens in one scene, archival Alexander McQueen in another; Raf Simons for Jil Sander here, Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga there.

It was Levy’s involvement in the design aspect of Schitt’s Creek that piqued Etsy’s interest in having him as a judge for their inaugural Design Awards, which were launched to celebrate the innovation and craftsmanship of sellers from around the world. Other judges include style expert Joe Zee, author and artist Garance Doré, interior designer Sophie Robinson, décor expert Holly Becker, and fashion designer Anavila Misra. Of the 160 finalists selected this year, 23 are Canadian, spanning multiple areas of expertise from ceramics to jewellery. The winner—who is set to be announced at the end of the month—will receive a prize of  USD 15,000.

We spoke with Levy over the phone about his love for scouring the internet for unique finds, the process of judging the Design Awards, and which Etsy products he’d stock Rose Apothecary with.

From your work on the show we know you’re someone who loves scouting vintage stores and consignment shops. So when did you first start getting interested in the process of exploring and discovering unique finds, even before the show?

I’ve always been very creative in the way that I’ve gone about acquiring what I like and what I need. For a very long time I didn’t have the financial means to just go into a store and buy stuff. So if I saw something I liked I would often turn to Etsy to try and find it or to try and recreate it. When it came to the show in particular I knew immediately that we would be finding some great, unique, one-of-a-kind pieces on there, particularly for wardrobe but also for set design. And particularly in our sixth season I found some truly remarkable, outrageous accessories for Catherine [O’Hara] and I wish that we were having this conversation after that season aired because they truly are conversation-starters. But I think it’s an invaluable resource for people who are really interested in personalized, artisanal work, and buying directly from artists and getting to read about their stories and how they’ve gotten to where they’ve gotten to.

When you’re on Etsy, what kind of rabbit hole do you find yourself going down the most often in terms of what you love looking for?

Everything from photography for my house to vintage jewellery. I’ve been trying to find a very particular signet ring that I have yet to find, but I’ve come close. And a lot of amazing art for myself. The wonderful thing about it—and what could potentially be daunting—is just the sheer ‘choose your own adventure’ element of it. Because once you get on there, you could be on there for hours. But in the process of doing this show I’ve also received a ton of Etsy fan art, that is so incredible and elevated. Paintings and needleworks and poems and pins and t-shirts. So I realized there’s an entire subculture on Etsy dedicated to fan experiences for people. That was a really wonderful discovery for me.

For the Design Awards, from what I understand there were thousands of entries that you looked at. So how were you able to narrow it down?

Fortunately, Etsy had a really smart game plan in terms of how you go about assessing all of the art, which made it easier for me. But again, reading everyone’s stories, that was the most amazing part of this experience for me. Just hearing about how people got into what they do. So many times people left jobs to pursue their true passion, and their work is incredible. So it was difficult to look at it through a lens of ‘I’m going to take my personal preferences out of this,’ in terms of generally what my aesthetic is, and look at it in terms of quality, craftsmanship, ingenuity, saying something that I haven’t seen before, contributing something to their craft that is innovative and special. That was sort of my gaze—what are you doing here that I haven’t seen before? And how have you executed that? And there’s an amazing group of people that are just doing extraordinary work that could be sold in any kind of design store.

So if you were curating a selection of items for Rose Apothecary, what kind of pieces would you pick?

Oh goodness. What I love most about Etsy is that a lot of people will customize their work. Yes there are paintings and photographs and things that you can buy but you can also work with a lot of artists to customize things, whether it’s furniture or home decor or needlework. You can get personalized messages stitched on t-shirts. There is such a world out there. I would imagine that David, if he were to utilize Etsy as a means of supplying for the store, would only do customizable. They would have to be one-of-a-kind limited editions. There are amazing candle makers, jewellery designers, he’d probably go after some of that; artisanal woodwork furniture would probably be in there. I’ve already seen some customized Rose Apothecary t-shirts on Etsy so I think he’d probably buy those. Someone painted my actual dog on Etsy. It’s amazing. I am continually stunned by what people are doing on there.

The fashion on Schitt’s Creek is so thoughtful, it gets so much across about each character’s personality. Why was it so important to you to really nail that?
It was important to me from the very beginning that the character’s clothes tell a story of their wealth. Because I didn’t want to continue to write about ‘remember when we were rich?’ If you can find actual designer clothing and you make them look wealthy, it just circumvents so much unnecessary exposition.

What I love is that they continue to dress the way they did before they lost their wealth. They’re not dressing that way in a performative manner; it’s such a part of who they are that no matter where they live they’re going to continue to dress that way.

Oh completely. And I think that’s been the magically surrealistic element of the show, just that they continue to find these clothes, they must have brought five million suitcases to this motel. (laughs) But much like the shows that I’ve admired in the past, like Sex And The City, clothing and wardrobe choices are so crucial. They contribute such a wonderful layer of character that you really don’t have to write. And for me as a fan of fashion, if I can watch a show and really fall in love with the characters, and then in addition to that, admire the clothes that they’re wearing and feel an element of ‘oh I recognize that’ or ‘I love that outfit,’ I think it only helps lure the audience in. And in our case I wanted the show to reach out to the fashion crowd, to people who are interested in fashion, I wanted people in all the fashion hubs, in New York and Paris and London and LA, to watch the show and be able to pinpoint designer pieces that they recognize. That was really important to me. I didn’t want to just throw a strand of pearls around Alexis’s neck and say she’s a rich girl. No. She has 900 Isabel Marant dresses. That’s the kind of rich girl she is.

And you’ve been able to do this on a tiny budget, from what I understand.

Oh yeah. For me it was going to Etsy, it was going to consignment stores. In the back of my mind, because I’m a fan of fashion, there were looks from different collections that I’ve always wanted to touch and feel up close. For example I’ve long admired Raf [Simons]’s last collection for Jil Sander, I thought it was heartbreakingly beautiful. It had such a warmth and a special spirit to it that I sourced one of those dresses and put Annie [Murphy] in it. It’s a pink strapless dress, and she’s wearing it in our pilot episode coming down the stairs. For me as a fan of fashion, I was like ‘I just want to surround myself with good vibes.’ I feel like that’s what the clothes do for me in a way. That dress to me was like a little good luck charm. I remember thinking ‘I don’t know where this show is going to go but we have a piece of something that I’ve really admired involved in that process’ and that to me was quite special.

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