Toronto Retailers Embrace Slow Clothing

As H&M, Walmart, Target, Gap and other major international retailers grapple with the moral and technical challenges of producing fast fashion in Bangladesh, a movement to change the way people think about what they wear seems to be inching mainstream.

Call it slow clothing.

Instead of trendy, mass-produced pieces that might not last more than one season, slow clothiers sell classic silhouettes and basics like t-shirts, but in organic, eco-friendly or recycled materials, made locally or sourced ethically.

They work with seamstresses in Toronto, tailors in Haiti and artisans in Bangladesh. And they’re moving further from the niche they used to occupy to reach a larger audience of consumers who are becoming more interested in where their clothes come from and who made them.

Mini mioche, with a flagship store on Queen St. W. that sells organic, made-in-Canada basics for children, opened a second location in April in the Distillery District, one of the city’s hot spots for slow clothing.

The store sells silky-soft clothing for children, from onesies to size six, made of organic cotton sourced in India and woven in an Ontario mill. The t-shirts retail for $25 to $28 depending on size, and are made to be handed down. Although there are new colours every season, they are neutrals that can be mixed, matched and layered.

“We have quite a loyal following,” said Alex Goth, operations manager for the brand, which has an online presence in addition to the two stores in Toronto. The line is sold at some U.S. boutiques.

Demand from moms has spurred the launch a line for women, which includes $45 t-shirts and slim, well-fitting hoodies in similarly soft fabric for $108.

Down the lane and up a flight of stairs, at the showroom for Fashion Takes Action, founded by Toronto mom and eco-fashionista Kelly Drennan, similarly inspired brands have been rounded up for sale.

“There’s definitely a lot more interest for clothing that is ethically produced, especially since the Bangladesh tragedy,” said Carmen Siu, sustainability resource co-ordinator for Fashion Takes Action.

“People are slowly making the effort to seek out eco items.”

The Fashion Takes Action showroom carries labels including the Azadi Project, which employs artisans in Bangladesh and Pakistan. An A-line skirt, lined with a pattern of printed and embroidered camel silhouettes, sells for $78.

A label called Local Buttons works with tailors in Haiti, recycling fabrics from the second-hand markets in Port-au-Prince. A black Local Buttons vest with a plaid back goes for $63. Sunglasses by a label called Botany, with wooden frames, sell for $110.

The showroom also promotes services like Dye It Black, which will, for a fee, repurpose your clothing by dying it black.

“I think about it more in terms of sustainability. The time has come for something like it,” says Michelle Miller, a Toronto textile designer who launched Dye it Black last year.

She has died jeans and wedding dresses to turn them into cocktail dresses. She uses fixed, commercial-grade dyes that don’t rub off on furniture or other clothes.

Business has built by word of mouth, and is growing every day, she says.

“It’s come a long way since it started,” she says. “There is more of it, which means the price can come down a little bit.”

But she says it’s still harder to find sustainable clothes for work on Bay Street than it is for weekend wear.

Elizabeth Cline

,

author of

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

, says that what started as a niche market, with stores like Forever 21 and H&M producing fast fashion, ended up going mainstream, with everyone jockeying for a piece of the lucrative fast-fashion market.

Canada’s Joe Fresh label, owned by Loblaw Companies, was one of those being produced in the building in Bangladesh that collapsed in April, killing more than 1,000 people.

The tragedy horrified many consumers and galvanized retailers. Loblaw Companies was the first and remains the only Canadian signatory to the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord, a legally binding, comprehensive agreement also signed by H&M and other retailers worldwide, aimed at ensuring worker safety in Bangladesh.

Earlier this week, an alliance of North American retailers including Walmart and Target laid out their own plans for better practices in Bangladesh.

People used to save for clothes, build wardrobes around a few quality pieces and update seasonally with a few choice items; that idea is foreign to young shoppers today, according to Cline.

But sustainable clothing may be changing that again.

Sarra Tang, owner and founder of Hoi Bo, which handcrafts purses and clothes on site, said her intention when she founded the company six years ago was not simply to make a great product. She wanted to make sure that the people who worked with her made a decent living and that she used products that were safe for the environment and her employees.

She opened her store in the Distillery District in August 2012 and has a loyal clientele. Her products don’t go on sale because they’re priced right, she believes, from $65 to $580.

“I think that the market is definitely growing for hand-crafted, sustainable products because there has to be an alternative to what exists currently. People are becoming more and more concerned with the providence not only of the foods they eat, but the goods they consume.”

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