Behind the Seams with Olive+Elliot

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Tell us about your brand – your vision, mission, guiding principles. 

olive+elliot is working to bring the Textile Industry back to Canada. We believe in the strength and potential of people to build and flourish in any conditions and to develop the economy accordingly.

As President Modi of India stated late last year at the International Textile Summit, “Textile is such a field which acts as a bridge between the agriculture sector and Industry.” And we firmly believe this.

Our approach is a hyper-local supply chain for Luxury Canadian retail, grown, milled and manufactured here as a Product of Canada.

Rather than relying on Global Supply Chains that are the trademark of Fast Fashion and contribute to Fashion’s notorious place as the world’s second largest polluter after oil, we are creating an organic, ethical and sustainable model we hope to replicate in the years to come.

We’ve been working with the United Nations Association in Canada on Active Citizens and Social Enterprise training toward tackling some of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals with indicators to be ambitiously reached by 2030. We’re focusing on: #12 Sustainable Production and Consumption, #15 Life on Land, #8 Decent Work and Economic Growth, all of which we believe lead to number #11 Sustainable Cities and Communities.

We will be piloting the growth of Canadian textile crops this year, right here in Toronto, for expansion in the years to come. Meanwhile, we are creating our first collections with zero-waste design in mind while ensuring that our products are beautiful.

What were you doing before starting Olive+Elliot?

Before olive+elliot, I was working on a JD/MA at the University of Ottawa and Carleton’s Norman Patterson School for International Affairs and interned at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Most of my education and experience centered around political analysis, political communications and the study of Power. However, when I made the decision to leave law school, I didn’t know how to sew a button, let alone how clothing was made or where it came from. It was January 24th, 2016, the day I started the @oliveandelliot Instagram account and the day I had just acquired a used sewing machine and table. That evening a dear friend taught me my first few tricks on the machine and from then on, I was hooked. It was so exciting to make something beautiful come to life out of a flat piece of fabric, to make something from nothing.
At the same time, I started to teach myself to garden, and quickly realized sewing and farming, were intimately connected.

I then started taking part-time sewing courses with Richard Robinson Haute Couture Fashion Academy in Ottawa, started attending workshops with Just Food, a sustainable farming not-for-profit in Ottawa, and started seeking out business courses with Invest Ottawa and Futurpreneur.

I started to think about how to tie everything together into my own company around February of last year and was fortunate enough to get sustainability training and coaching with The Natural Step in March of last year.

It was in May that I started to work with Ryerson Fashion Zone part-time and moved to Toronto in November 2017 to work with them full-time.

How do your values shape your business?

The brand started with the sewing machine landing in my living room that January day and has since reflected our effort to build with fearless determination and transparency.

I want to create beautiful items for people who share our values of perseverance, compassion, courage and maybe a little comedy along the way. Because life doesn’t always go as expected, life is an amazing opportunity to build what you can, and staying humble and true to yourself should always have moments of self-reflection expressed in comedic ways after we have learned important lessons. There is a quote at the end of Voltaire’s book Candide: “We must cultivate our garden” and often here in North America it is taken to mean we must tend to our own affairs, but in France, where Voltaire was from, it means we must do what we can. And I take a lot of inspiration from that quote. I believe in the power of people and their potential to create and do so for good. And creating good jobs for people to build our local economy is one of our central efforts.

It’s reflected in our desire to bring a sustainable industrial approach to agriculture, manufacturing and fashion here in Canada.

System-wide change toward more circularity in our industry is necessary and we hope we’re taking a step in the right direction. As Fashion Takes Action and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation advocate, educate and push this essential change forward, we hope to contribute to their efforts by doing our part in this, by doing what is in our power to do.

What is the Ryerson University Fashion Zone and how has it helped jumpstart Olive+Elliot?

Ryerson University is home to Zone Learning Incubators, where startups like Fashion Zone can benefit from their resources, support, networks and high-level advisers from a broad range of disciplines. Many universities are beginning to incubate startups, especially emerging from their ecosystems.

Getting to work at the Fashion Zone has meant a tremendous amount to me. I feel very lucky to get to work in their space. The best part of my day is showing up and getting to work alongside some amazing, focused, determined and hard-working teams where we push and help each other to grow, develop and succeed.

The culture that Andrea Romero and Olga Okrimenko have developed in the space is exciting, motivating and very supportive, and it has been my great pleasure to be a part of it.

What is your personal relationship to fashion/clothing?

As a kid I remember loving this bright green sweatshirt with white cats on it: needless to say, I was a little clueless. Then in high school I switched to a love for Annie Hall inspired clothes, a look I developed when I spent a semester in Madrid and saw Spanish fashion for the first time, meeting people who dressed like something out of a magazine. Wide legged wool pants with turtleneck sweaters or oxford shirts and maybe even one of my dad’s old ties were what I sported in the second half of high school.

I moved to Ottawa for university and started trying on anything and everything and cobbled together a personal style from vintage finds and retailers that had an emphasis on colour.

I love colourful clothing. One of my favourite pieces is a bright turquoise winter coat with angular mustard embroidery at the hem, which I find is so cheery and a little unexpected in the winter. I think of it as a coat one might wear to the theatre. It has a bit of a vintage vibe, which is very me.

One of the best things we could all start doing for the planet is buying more vintage clothing and getting it altered or, better yet, learning to tailor it ourselves. Buying vintage means we’re reusing clothing rather than throwing it out or buying new fast fashion which rests on murky ethical foundations. Plus, vintage clothing is often better made and built to last.

But nothing compares to the transformation that happened when I started to learn to sew my own clothes. I remember starting with simple accessories like scarves, but soon under the online tutelage of Tilly Walnes of Tilly and the Buttons, an indie sewing company out of the UK, something changed. There is no greater pride in style and fashion than wearing something you have made yourself for yourself, that fits like a glove, and in a design and fabric you love.

If there are any beginner sewists out there, I highly recommend Tilly’s online workshops – they are the loveliest.

What or who inspires you?

There are so many amazing and strong women in my family, and I am proud and even humbled to know them.

The name olive+elliot, in many ways, is inspired by them.

“Olive” refers to the olive farm my mother grew up on in the South of Spain. She grew up on a farm, enveloped by the smell of orange and jasmine blossoms, in a tiny village and at 16 was accepted to the University of Madrid Complutense. At 22, she came to Canada on a SSHRC scholarship to do her PhD. My mother is a tireless unstoppable woman who has worked hard her whole life and has built so much for herself from the $72 my grandfather gave her when she left the farm at such a young age.

My dad’s family is from Thunder Bay, Ontario (then Port Arthur), and his mother, my grandmother, was a member of the Scottish Elliot Clan, hence “Elliot.” She was the daughter of a clergyman in St Catherine’s, and she was a kind and fearsomely intelligent woman who went to the University of Guelph and then the University of Toronto. She had a fascination with bio-chemistry, always beat us all at checkers and never took herself too seriously, despite being impeccably dressed, often making her own clothes.

My Aunt Helen, who I lost a few years ago, was a Women’s Studies and History professor at Lakehead University. She was a trailblazer in so many ways and a rock of support and inspiration not just for me but for the many, many students who went through her courses. She taught me how to put myself in another person’s shoes, how to never give up, how to find the beauty in life’s simple joys and the importance of close friends. I remember her love of Christmas trees which she would intricately decorate with all the souvenir decorations she had collected from her travels, garnish everything in tinsel, turn out the living room light and watch everything twinkle by moonlight. The tree was often still up into the early spring.  Occasionally it would start new growth: new green branches would emerge, and I always thought that was magic.

My sisters are important sources of strength for me, my middle sister just graduated from medical school in Sydney Australia, and I am very proud of her focus and courage to move halfway around the world and practice her profession because of a childhood dream. My youngest sister is one of the kindest people I know, full of empathy and determination that no one should be left behind. She is a formidable advocate for those who have no voice, and I am so encouraged by her and her convictions that there is a lot of her in olive+elliot’s values.

Finally, I have been so wonderfully lucky to meet some incredible women working in the fashion industry. From my sewing instructors in Ottawa, Karissa Besharah of Presence Prevail and Emily Williams of House of Antlers, to Andrea Romero and Olga Okrimenko, who manage the Fashion Zone, to Peggy Sue of Peggy Sue Collection, to colleagues at the Zone and the Joe Fresh Centre, like Stephania Stephanakou of House of Anesi, Lindsey and Alexandra Lurosso of Nudnik and Ashley McFarlane of Omi Woods, who are tireless and fearless and inspire me to keep getting better every day.

olive+elliot is inspired by all these and so many more people I have been lucky enough to have in my life, and it is an ode to how they can work together to build, lift and create something from nothing and do so with grace.

When you think of the future of sustainable fashion what do you see and what excites you the most?

I think one of the great things about sustainable fashion, where it is now and where it is going, is the amazing diversity we see in approaches. Some people focus on organic fabrics, others on upcycled fabrics, others on zero waste design, others on natural dyes and all of them are beautiful, innovative and, most importantly, sustainable. I’m so impressed and inspired by the designers and innovators in this space.

I’m excited to see us all grow and reach, improve and transform and keep pushing the envelope and keep encouraging each other.

I find the sustainable fashion industry is incredibly welcoming: maybe I’ve been lucky, but I’ve found that in this space there is room for everyone who is in it to develop, learn and grow.

I’m excited about the things to come, everyone is working hard on their craft, and I feel so lucky to be in this space.

What is one thing few people know about you (that you care to share)?

I’ve often kept my acting background undercover. I went to Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts in high school for theatre. While there, I ended up starring in a YTV children’s sketch comedy show called…. System Crash. :/

Keep up with Olive+Elliot by following them on:

Twitter: @oliveandelliot

Instagram:@oliveandelliot

Website: http://oliveandelliot.com/