smythe designers
image courtesy Smythe. Design by Danielle Campbell.

Self-Isolation Diary: How Smythe’s Designers Are Co-Running Their Brand During Quarantine

From frequent Zoom meetings to binge-watching Tiger King to nightly spa treatments, here's what the two have been up to.

With people around the country now in Week 8 of self-isolation, FASHION is reaching out to some of our favourite Canadians to get a peek into how they’re living their lives in lockdown (remember: #StayHomeSaveLives). Each week, keep an eye out for new self-isolation diaries from actors, designers, athletes and artists who are riding this uncertain time out with us.

This week, we’re hearing from Andrea Lenczner and Christie Smythe, co-founders and designers of womenswear brand Smythe. The two are self-isolating in Toronto in their respective homes, faced with the challenges of running a brand while social distancing, maintaining team morale, grappling with an uncertain future and more. Here’s how they’re doing it.

How are you running your business from home? What sort of routine works best for you? 
Andrea Lenczner: We started with daily conference calls that became daily Zoom calls that became 3x a week Zoom calls. They happen at 10am while the kids are on-line learning. I have been moving around the house trying to figure out the best work “station.” I’m in my third (and hopefully final) spot in the kitchen.

Christie Smythe: I take all calls from my car since my house is open concept and it’s the only way to ensure focus and quiet. Everyone is used to seeing me on video calls in my car with a toque on. Last week, I even did my quarterly shareholders meeting from the car. I also started a daily COVID work diary to help me remember what decisions were made when… things are changing so quickly.

image courtesy christie smythe

What are the challenges of trying to co-run a brand while social distancing? How are you touching base and keeping communication going?
AL: I miss the impromptu support and cross-pollination of ideas we get from our team. We huddle so often to both be creative and to problem solve. That kind of energy has been temporarily lost. We can’t WAIT to be back in the same room.

CS: Our biggest challenge is doing fittings. Pre-COVID there would be 5-6 people in a room for a fitting. Now, its one of us trying a garment on at home, maybe couriering to the model to take photos/video and then couriering to the pattern maker for changes. Not efficient!

It can be tough to stay creative and optimistic during a time of such crisis. As the designers behind Smythe, how are you dealing with that?
AL: At the beginning, the business stress and reacting to the house of cards did kill my creative energy and we solely focused on business admin and mitigating loss. I couldn’t have designed a sandwich if you asked me. I learned I need to be happy and calm to be creative.

CS: Before COVID closures, we had received our fabric selections for Spring 2021 so I managed to bring it all home and begin the conception process, which I then passed on to Andrea so that we could discuss. We are just at the point now where we are sharing ideas and starting to think about execution of a sample collection.

How are you keeping your staff positive during this time?
AL: I think just the frequent touching base (seeing faces on video) and laughing about what we USED to think was a big problem at work helps… Sharing the nerves and, I hope, having honest dialogue about fears and the unknown.

CS: Concentrating on the tasks at hand keeps moving the team forward. I try and touch base with everyone individually and periodically. We have also carved out time for “non-work” calls where we socialize, drink and play lame games. I try to highlight the small victories (like a purchase order opening up) when they happen.

image courtesy Andrea Lenczner

What are you doing during down time to keep yourselves entertained?
AL: I am reading Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile. It opens with an oh-so relevant quote from Churchill that says “It is not given to human beings—happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable—to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events”. Of course, before I read anything during lockdown, I binge-watched Tiger King.

CS: I’ve been biking, taking infrared saunas, and my daughter treats me with a nightly spa treatment. So far my favourite was the homemade coconut oil hair mask. 

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in adapting your business to run from home, and also of working in an industry that many people aren’t willing or able to spend money on right now?
AL: The change in consumer behaviour was noticeable and fast. We are lucky to have very loyal customers and we have done some e-commerce events to inspire shopping with a purpose, for example our promotion to raise funds for University Hospital Network.

CS: Since we are non-essential, we worked with one of our employees’ initiatives called #sewbettertogether to donate Smythe fabric and labour to create non-medical masks and PPE that were then given to frontline workers.

Has this lockdown made you reflect at all on your lives, relationships, brand, or the fashion industry at large?
AL: It has made me resolute that we sit down as a family every night for dinner, programs be damned. It’s so important and we had let that get away from us at our house.

CS: It’s a real lesson about diversifying risk. Smythe started as a wholesale business and we are so glad to have launched e-commerce two years ago. We hope to invest more in DTC in the future. I also think that the slowing of fall deliveries that is happening out of necessity is something that should have happened some time ago and will make a lot more sense to the consumer.

What is your hope for the fashion industry in a post-COVID world? 
AL: I think Covid has made conscious consumption hit home.
CS: I agree. But don’t make it boring and safe. Fashion needs inspiration and risk!

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