Welcome to Still Eagle’s Spotlight Series. Here is where you can find out more about Still Eagle's favourite suppliers - in-depth interviews with the designers and manufacturers we have chosen to work with because they share our concern for sustainability, earth-friendly materials and fairly made clothing and other products.
This month’s Spotlight focuses on one of the few staunchly made-in-Canada companies that we carry at Still Eagle. The last time I checked, Still Eagle’s website had close to 10,000 items. Out of all those products, and in 31 years of hemp-store owning business, Nick (Still Eagle’s fearless leader) has written a review for exactly one item; a pair of classic hemp pants by a little Canadian company called Abaka. Based in Quebec, Abaka is one of a small handful of companies that are still staunchly Canadian-made. We sat down with Mario Hamelin over the phone from his newly opened store in Shawnigan, Quebec, and talked about his evolution from economist to eco-wear, and how hemp can save the world.
By Amanda Euringer
Thirty-five year old Mario Hamelin has the kind of voice that puts you instantly at ease. His French accent is strong, but his passion for environmentally sustainable clothing is very clear. “Hemp can save the world,” the father of two states earnestly over the phone from his newly opened store in Shawinigan, Quebec. “It is the best eco-fabric. You can make so many products with it. It is good on the soil, you can grow it in the same spot for 20 years.”
Mario first heard about hemp in his teens while he was working in a health food store in Ottawa. He bought a pencil case from a company called Simply Hemp who were using heavy gauge hemp fabric to make bags. He still uses the pencil case today, a testament to the durability of nature’s wonder-plant. Mario later traveled extensively through India, Nepal and the Philippines in his late teens and early 20’s, taking trips while working on a degree in economics, and found rough-made clothes in the same durable fabric.
It was in the Philippines that he started the company Abaka. “Abaka is an indigenous word for a plant that grows there that they call ‘manila hemp’. It looks very similar to the hemp plant, and is a strong sturdy fibre.” Mario got the idea to get into the clothing industry because he loved the idea of hemp fibre, and found it hard to find clothing that fit his smaller stature well. While traveling in India and Nepal he had some shirts made, and thought that he could make a business bringing clothing from overseas to the west.
“We started with handbags and wallets. The idea was to import the products from the Philippines, but then I realized it was hard to do, and that the quality wasn’t really top-notch.” Mario then found Efforts, a company that wholesaled basic clothing in hemp and bamboo, and sold wholesale fabric, and the idea of making clothing in Canada instead suddenly seemed feasible.
Abaka’s clothing is currently all made by local seamstresses in various basements around his hometown. Mario cuts most of the clothing himself, and his partner (and mother of his two small children) Karine Brassard designs the clothing.
“The clothes are basically still hand made,” laughs Mario affably. “I cut all the products myself. First it was just with scissors in the basement of my parents home, but now we have a machine.” They started with great men’s clothing, and have grown slowly over the years to include a fantastic selection of funky-classic designs for the whole family (including one of the best pair of baby pants/ onesies I have ever put on a small child).
Mario would love to just use hemp-blend fabric, but Abaka has had to branch out to other fabrics for a variety of reasons. While Mario was initially attracted to eco-wear by the wonders of hemp he quickly learned (like many companies before him), that there are a few major issues with the product.
“The main problem is the fading. The colour is going to fade inevitably. The durability of hemp is good. I still wear t-shirts that I made 7 years ago, the fabric is thinner, but it’s softer, but it’s so comfy you know? It softened with time. I’ve realized that customers go more for the look at first, and then the softness. Hemp at first is not soft, unless you treat it. We have to tell people, “you know after a couple of wearings it’s going to be your best shirt”.”
Basically if you sell hemp, you have to re-educate most of your clientele to understand what they are getting. Hemp works well for men’s clothing, where they are used to rougher textures, and woven fabric, but for women’s clothing it’s a tough sell. Considering that 80% of clothing sold is to women (not just women’s clothing, but they also purchase for men), that makes hemp a difficult fabric on which to base of your company.
Hemp, says Mario, is also more expensive than other fabrics like bamboo, and even if you can find it at a similar price, you won’t have nearly the same choice of colours and textures.
Also, what little hemp fabric there is gets produced by, and sold to, much larger corporations. Small companies like Abaka often end up waiting for their orders, if they get them at all.
At the root of this all these issues, explains Mario, is the fact that hemp fabric simply isn’t being developed because the US market is so anti-hemp. It must be possible to make great hemp jersey that holds it’s colour and shape, but it simply isn’t being done because the world’s biggest market won’t buy it or develop it. At one point Abaka even tried to develop its own fabric.
“We tried to get some hemp yarn, and we tried to make it ourselves, but the yarn wasn’t good quality. All the good fabric and yarn, the demand was all staying in China because not enough people ask for it in North America.”
Hemp fabric production is also expensive, says Mario, because you cannot use the same machine as linen for hemp. It needs a specific machine. “There is a huge corporation (in Canada) who is apparently working for the army and parks, and they are taking the hemp stock to produce yarn, but it’s all secret. There is a guy here (in Quebec) who grows hemp for oil, and he is giving the rest of the plant to this big corporation.” Mario doesn’t know when or how hemp fabric will come out of that, but hopes that the cold war on hemp will thaw sooner rather than later.
“For Abaka, I would like to keep at least 50% of the products out of hemp. We keep the men’s stuff mostly out of hemp.” This season saw Abaka making more of their women’s line out of bamboo, which Mario chooses as “second best” after hemp because soy is so genetically modified, and because of the great quality of bamboo fabric that is manufactured right in Quebec.
As for keeping production at home here in Canada?
“We might end up eventually making a few products overseas to keep cost down, but that’s really not the main focus right now. For right now, our focus is to have a cottage industry that the money stays in your town where you are from. I think the market for products made in Canada is going to grow, that people are learning that if it is made here, the money stays here and that is good for the economy.”
Good news also for those of us that love classic clothing that is also easy on the planet.
This Spotlight focuses on one of the few staunchly made-in-Canada companies that we carry at Still Eagle – Movement Global. We met owner/operator Amrita Sondhi five years ago, and loved her soft, mix and match, modular and reversible styles. Plus with Movement Global’s mandate of ‘buy less not more’, and ten percent of their profits going to a micro-credit loan foundation in Kenya, how could we not carry their clothing? Our in-house journalist, Amanda Euringer, caught up with Sondhi this past week over Skype, and talked about her earth-loving “bottom line”, and why – when so many other companies have moved their production overseas – she has chosen to continue to be proudly ‘made-in-Canada’.
It’s a gorgeous spring day on Bowen, a small island off the coast of British Columbia. Amrita Sondhi is proudly showing me the container gardening project on her deck, the plants already well under way in the moderate coastal climate. Not that she has a lot of time for gardening; Sondhi is a busy woman. A long-time yoga teacher, new ball-rolling teacher, TV cooking personality, author of two ayurvedic cookbooks (the latest one will be launched in June)…oh, and of course her clothing line, the 52 year old Sondhi is the epitome of the hectic modern woman.
“I make clothing for this busy 21 century life-style we are all living. Women today do so many things…they are mothers, working on computers, running off to a yoga class. We need clothing that can go with us through all those activities,” says Sondhi, her distinctive voice warmed by the flavors of her mixed heritage.
Born in Africa, but of East-Indian descent, Amrita was fascinated with her mother’s sewing machine, and fashion, since she was a young girl. Years later, after her family moved to Vancouver, she ran a very successful clothing store that manufactured and imported clothing from India. Most notably she was one of the founding members of a little company called Lululemon.
Sondhi met Lululemon owner Chip on the top of the Grouse Grind in Vancouver, and felt that they were on the same page – interested in developing and making yoga clothing. A few years later that page turned – Lululemon took a decidedly corporate path, and Amrita knew it was time to leave. On the top of another mountain – Kilimanjaro – in her home country of Kenya, Amrita decided she wanted to start a clothing company that was truly sustainable from its fabric down to its manufacturing, and Movement Global was born.
“The idea was to have an eco-friendly, sustainable line that grew without pesticides, where you could have very few items, that were not “disposable”, and that would give you tons of looks. It was the whole idea of the anti-fashion, fashion movement. I wanted to be super edgy, and super classical at the same time.” Amrita laughs, acknowledging what a huge task it has been.
The first part of her sustainability vision was to base her clothing around the then “new” eco-fabric bamboo rayon jersey. Bamboo grows faster than almost any other plant on earth, needs no pesticides, takes up hardly any room, and will grow just about anywhere.
“It’s the cashmere of the vegetable world,” says Amrita. Bamboo has an incredibly soft feel, and – like cashmere – is thermally regulating, and naturally anti-microbial. Basically, it will keep you warmer in the winter, cooler in the summer, and needs less washing than other fabrics.
Amrita acknowledges that bamboo has become somewhat controversial in recent years, but that she still stands by her choice. “I have to tell you the truth Amanda, I don’t know enough about it yet. I know they talk about the pandas going extinct because they are growing too much bamboo, and I hear stuff about the method of processing… but what I hear about the bamboo that we get is that it is being processed under the Canadian standards which are very high, and OTEC certified.”
Amrita says she still believes that bamboo is a viable eco-material. “Even organic cotton is way more resource intensive, because it has to use so much land, and water to grow.” Plus the quality and feel of the fabric, its ability to hold its shape, and its durability are incomparable.
One of the ways that Movement Global ensures their designs are sustainable is by spending the extra money on the highest quality of fabric manufactured in Canada.
“People tell me that my clothes are (comparably) more expensive. But sometimes the things we do in our fashion are quite expensive. I could tell with some other lines that the fabric they were choosing was because they were trying to maximize their bottom line profit. But that wasn’t a part of my mission statement. Movement’s mission statement was that this was a sustainable product. Well if it’s a sustainable product then the fabric has to last.”
Not just sustainable to build, but sustainable to keep.
The extra details that go into their line to make each piece wearable in more than one way, and the expense on top quality Canadian-made fabric may mean that Movement’s clothing is pricier than some of their competitors, but to Amrita it has been worth it for the loyalty of her customers, and for the integrity of her “bottom-line”.
“Sometimes people apologize when they come to my store and they say, ‘well I would buy more but nothing that I’ve bought so far has worn out!’ And I say, well that was the point! What it also creates, in the long run, is a healthy bottom line because now, five and half years later, when many companies would be bankrupt, we have the most loyal customers.”
It was because of that same bottom line and customer loyalty that – when many other companies are choosing to move their manufacturing overseas – Movement Global chose to stay in Canada
Sondhi went to China to look at the eco-factories. They were massive industrial complexes that were very clean, and the workers seemed happy, and it would definitely have been “cheaper”, but she heard again and again from her clients that it was really important that she keep the line ‘made in Canada’.
“Not only is it amazing to have it in your country, and to support Canadian business, and to have the disposable income of the workers also be spent in Canada, and not having transportation costs that are exorbitant for the environment, but also I can have relationships with all the people who make the garment. It’s wonderful.”
The extra expense is worth it for all those reasons?
“I think so. I think that people notice when product is made abroad. There are so many people that come in and tell me that they used to wear Lululemon when it was made locally, and they don’t wear it anymore now that it is not. This line fills some of those same needs without it being corporate.”
The final piece of Movement’s sustainable bottom line has to do with the Pamoja Foundation (http://www.pamoja.org/pamoja.html). Ten percent of all Movement Global’s profits are currently going back to Kenya to be used in the foundation that Sondhi started in conjunction with the company. Sondhi has had a chance to see the money at work first hand on return trips to her birthplace.
“One lady who had a tiny little loan from Pamoja, she was selling groceries on a piece of cloth, in an open market place. The next time I saw her she had a little shelter where she could put her produce, and then the next time I saw her, she’s got two of those, and she’s doing well.” Micro-credit loans from Pamoja allow many women to buy the inventory that they couldn’t buy otherwise, and they wouldn’t be able to get those loans from banks because they don’t have the normal collateral.
And that is all a part of Sondhi’s ultimate vision, which is to have the clothing manufactured by cottage industry companies who are being funded by Pamoja’s micro-credit loans, in the actual countries they are being sold in.
A holistic vision indeed!
“We are still a ways from that”, laughs Sondhi, “but I just saw a video of a 93-year-old woman teaching yoga,” so there’s still plenty of time to make her mountaintop vision a reality.
Our first SPOTLIGHT: an inspiring story of two Kootenay clothing designers who, after connecting with Still Eagle, evolved their line from regular cotton to organic cotton, and in the process, helped supply other clothing makers with more sustainable fabrics.
About five years ago, the Still Eagle team ran into this creative duo during festival season up here in the Kootenays. Back then they were just making some hip bags in conventional cotton fabric. Today they have become one of our favorite design teams, using only organic cotton blends, and creating one of the funkiest and most environmentally sustainable lines of clothing we have found.
Amanda Euringer, our web writer, sat down with 30-somethings Chad White (Rabbit), and Marie-Pierre Bilodeau (EmPee) to talk about their journey from street vendors to globetrotting clothing designers, and their commitment to creating clothing that doesn’t take more than it gives.
It’s one of the first sunny days of spring. Chad and EmPee (the phonetic spelling of Marie-Pierre’s name) have just returned to Nelson, BC, from six months in Bali with their largest and most exciting season of clothing to date. They look cool; both dressed in their own designs, lightly tanned, and eager to talk.
Chad and EmPee have been friends for over a decade, having met in Toronto, and over the years selling their wares at various festivals throughout the world. But it wasn’t until they went to Bali together that Rabbit and EmPee was born.
Rabbit and EmPee found the locals in Bali were much more receptive to their creative designs, than they had been in say, India or Nepal. “India is ancient and very traditional,” explained EmPee, “and the tailors are very committed to their ‘India style’. They would often tell me ‘No, no, no, we can’t make that’.”
Bali, on the other hand, attracts designers all over the world because the tailors have a high degree of skill, and they will also make anything you can imagine. They began designing some items together, and found their individual styles blended fantastically.
And the move to organic? “That was Jen at Still Eagle,” says EmPee. “When we were first making clothes we didn’t use organic cotton. Still Eagle made a big purchase, and then Jen gave me a small lecture.” EmPee laughs, “The way she did it…it just made me go off and research (organic cotton).”
“It was really funny,” remembers Chad, “because EmPee came back from that talk all riled up". They Still Eagle team had recently decided they would be avoiding buying anything for the store that wasn’t organic. "They were the first store to actually buy a big order from us, so we were like: I guess we better look into this. We didn’t even know a store could do that! [Tell you they wouldn’t buy clothing unless you were using organic material]”
When EmPee started looking into the damage that is caused from conventional cotton processing she was shocked. “I didn’t know it was that bad.”
The most shocking part?
For Rabbit and EmPee it was the water contamination, and the lack of sustainability for the land. “These [conventional] companies are not looking after the local people at all. It is just complete exploitation of a crop for the cheapest price they can get it from the people. And mostly they are poor farmers to begin with, so there is really no money going back into that community.” Plus ultimately the land is ruined so the people end up with nothing.
Rabbit and EmPee had already been working with local families to create their clothing, and paying fairly for it, now that they were dedicated to organic material they realized they were going to have to source it themselves.
“Back then, there wasn’t even any website or way of sourcing eco-materials. They don’t grow organic cotton in Indonesia, so I had to actually go on a trip to Jakarta, and go to factories.” EmPee chose a huge company in Java that also ships to the Gap. They get the organic cotton from India, and weave the fabric.
Rabbit and EmPee have now become suppliers of organic cotton fabrics in Bali. “Jen would be proud of us,” chuckles EmPee. The factory had wanted very large orders of the fabric, and although they balked at the price, Chad thought they could just keep it and would use it eventually. When the other designers in the area heard they had stretch organic cotton, they began asking them for the fabric.
“It’s not that much more expensive,” explains Chad, “when we started bringing it in people wouldn’t listen to us really, that it was a good thing to have. But now more and more people have come on board.”
EmPee has become so impassioned about being sustainable that she started designing arm warmers to use up the smaller pieces of material. Often there is a lot of waste when a pattern has been cut out of a sheath of fabric.
“EmPee is hard-core (about being sustainable)” laughs Chad ruefully, “it’s almost annoying. We don’t throw out any of our scraps. We have bags and bags of scraps in all these different colours.”
“We’re going to use the smallest pieces to make rag carpets.” EmPee sighs, “It’s really hard to make an entirely sustainable piece of clothing.”
For the next year, Rabbit and EmPee are hoping to tackle dye. “There is one guy in Bali who dyes naturally, and it was fun going around to see how he does it with big vats of flowers and leaves, but it’s just not cost effective for large production.” Rabbit and EmPee hope to take advantage of the organic dye certification offered at the same factory where they get their fabric. “I didn’t know they had that option, or we would have done it this year. Of course they want an even larger order.” EmPee grins at Chad, “but we can always just sell it to more people.”
As for having their clothing manufactured overseas? “I really wanted to move it [to Canada],” says EmPee, “but it’s just too expensive. It might be okay for our simpler designs, but the more complex ones, no way. It sucks that we can’t be local, but I also like supporting the community (in Bali) too. People get to send their kids to school because of our business.”
Chad agrees, “In Canada many of the workers are from China anyway, and it’s way more expensive (and cold) for them to live here. In Bali we pay them the same amount of money, but they are home, and the lifestyle is pretty nice, and much cheaper.”
In the meantime? Rabbit and EmPee are making their semi-permanent home here in the Kootenays, as permanent as two globe-trotting gypsies can be. “I’ve been all over the world, and this is one of the most beautiful places there is. In Pass Creek (where he has friends) there are deer in the streets, and the water is so clean. It’s pristine, and there are not that many places left like this,” says Chad.
Hopefully, if more designers embrace sustainable clothing manufacturing practices, it will stay this way.