Imagine wearing the same dress every day for a year. What style would you choose? What brand would pick? It’s a commitment that requires some foresight. In January 2015, award-winning journalist Elizabeth Withey pledged herself to one black knit, t-shirt-style dress from one independent Edmonton brand, WORKHALL, for 365 days and documented the experience online. (Google “Frock Around the Clock” to see for yourself.) It’s a shining example of the kind of quality, style and longevity coming out of the fashion industry in Alberta.
Although Googling “fashion” isn’t exactly going to turn up an onslaught of results from Canada’s prairies, Edmonton actually had one of the largest garment manufacturing companies in the British Commonwealth prior to World War II. The Great Western Garment Company (GWG) launched in 1911 with a vision of supplying functional, hardwearing clothing for Alberta’s bourgeoning workforce, and, after American denim brand Levi Strauss and Co. purchased GWG in 1961, it became one of the province’s largest industrial enterprises, mastering the art of stonewash and coloured denim for more than just the blue-collared male labourer.
However, in 2004 Levi’s closed its American and Canadian factories in favour of international outsourcing. These days, mass-produced fashion in Canada can be pricey, and so, when you’re fresh out of fashion design school — Marvel College, in Edmonton’s case — small-scale, handmade construction from a 100 square-foot studio (or, rather, your parent’s basement) is typical. Until now, that is. Twenty-five year old Nicole Campre is one entrepreneur striking up an interesting balance between local and international small-batch garment manufacturing that’s never been seen before in Edmonton.
The chief designer and creative director for her minimalist clothing line, WORKHALL, Campre produces asymmetrical women’s tops, flowing dresses (including Withey’s t-shirt dress), tailored jackets and edgy menswear at factories in Vietnam and Los Angeles — North America’s largest fashion hub — and owns and operates three boutiques in Edmonton, one of which functions as both a retail environment and its own tailor house with three full-time seamstresses. “It’s a global world,” says Campre. “There’s nothing wrong with supporting a designer or manufacturer in another country and doing it here, too. At the end of the day, we’re all doing the same thing.”
Gathering outside investment from family and friends (which she’s paid back in full), working long hours (her longest stretch so far, she says, was 21 hours), and taking a risk on a really big dream, the young designer positioned the company for fast growth when it launched in late 2013. Fittingly, WORKHALL’s flagship location was opened in Edmonton’s industrial-style Warehouse District on 104th Street Promenade in the Great West Saddlery Building. A year later, she opened a second boutique in one of the city’s trendiest shopping destinations, Old Strathcona. In September 2015, she moved the flagship to the historic McLeod Building downtown, where she’s created a new kind of retail concept. Here, design work, pattern drafting, live sewing, custom orders and tailoring services are all elements integrated into the customer’s shopping experience.
Located at the top of a hill overlooking the Edmonton river valley — North America’s largest urban green space — and surrounded by a sea of cool, independent restaurants, the scene is idyllic. The 1913 landmark boasts soaring ceilings, marble walls and lies a half a block from the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald, a renowned and regal retreat for out-of-towners and visiting celebrities alike. “It’s my dream store, what I always wanted,” says Campre of the gallery-style space. “A new experience in the city. We want people who visit to have a really good impression of Edmonton fashion.”
“People say retail is dying,” she continues, “But I think the old, traditional retail is dying. Providing different experiences and services — that’s what people want.” Here, Campre and her team of seamstresses sew two new styles — mostly knitwear — and as many as 40 to 50 garments a week. She aims to triple that in the future, all the while maintaining the same affordable price points (from $28 to $200) she offers with her garments sourced from Vietnam and L.A. “I’ve always been a firm believer that people are willing to pay for the product regardless of where it’s made,” she says.
“They want to pay for the quality, the fabric. I don’t want to pay more just because it’s made in Edmonton. The fabrics are the same; it’s the same quality that we’re doing. I want it to be competitive.” Campre travels to District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City (commonly known as Saigon) in Vietnam twice a year for four weeks at a time. While there, she works closely with the factory owner, My Kien Nguyen, and six other tailors to design monthly collections with interesting modal and linen blends that will be rolled out over the next six months. Every four weeks, 12 to 20 boxes of clothing arrive in Edmonton from Ho Chi Minh City. From L.A., four major collections of knitwear arrive throughout the year.
It’s fast paced and unconventional, as so many fashion houses produce seasons in advance. “We’re a little last minute. We sample, but we don’t sample everything,” she says. “A lot of our designs are built off past designs. Our design process is a work-in-progress.” As for what she’s learned from the Vietnamese factory: “I’ve physically worked with [the tailors], and they’ve picked on me because of my inexperience,” says Campre. “And I’ve grown so much with them. It’s been a really amazing relationship. Customers can find Miss Kien’s full name on the labels of our garments.”
Having graduated from the fashion design program at Marvel College in 2011, much of Campre’s business experience has also been fast paced and on the job. How does someone become so accomplished in so little time? “At first, it was just being very naïve — jumping into something without realizing,” she says. “And I actually prefer doing that, because if I thought of everything I’d be overwhelmed and I wouldn’t pursue it. I guess I’m just more motivated by my customers and by the product, and supporting Edmonton fashion.”
She’s also motivated by travel. “I’m exposed to the industry in L.A. and Asia — it’s so quick and progressive there. Every time I go back, there are new transformations, every four, five, six months. And I see what they’re doing and it inspires me to try it in Edmonton. I don’t really think of myself as an expert or anything. I’m just very ballsy and just trying something to see if it works.”
Campre currently has 10 employees, who she describes as “creative” and “passionate” people, and, perhaps, just as “ballsy” as she. Many of them are former Marvel College students that interned at WORKHALL. It’s a unique opportunity for new grads, and Campre’s goal is to take on interns who she could anticipate hiring. “I just throw things at them and they’ll do it,” she says. “Sometimes they’ll do it wrong or they’ll do it slow, and we’ll talk about it, and next time it’ll be better. I just want to give them a place where they feel inspired and where they want to come to work.”
Campre’s third boutique is a primary example of that want. Set in WORKHALL’s former flagship space in the Warehouse District, the store is now called For the Core, and it’s based on a concept she saw in action while touring Japan: a fluid pop-up shop that renews its name and full product line-up every six months. From ready-to-wear items and jewellery to wedding gowns, the slogan is “Not Made in China”. For Campre, it’s about exploring WORKHALL’s failures (the brand originally launched with a mission to offer products only made in Canada) and satiating her curiosity. “We just wanted to do something fun and exciting, because this space is perfect in that people jump on things really quickly [on 104th Street] and they help build it.” Like Campre’s vision for her own business, she has big hopes for the Edmonton fashion industry. “I would like to see it grow to a point where it’s nationally and internationally recognized, that the brands grow to be competitive, not even with fast fashion, but competitive in the international design community.”
“That’s what we’re trying with WORKHALL,” she says. “And Edmonton is the perfect testing ground for all of my ideas.” One doesn’t need to Google “foresight” to see that Campre’s got it.