When I first met Sara Duke, she was wearing a freaky yellow party dress at her store on Bloor St. She said she was dressed as one of the Toddlers in Tiaras. (it was close to Halloween). The second run-in, was at her pop-up shop near The Gladstone on Queen last summer. Somehow in our brief conversation, she managed to share her deep, obsessive love for Rocky films. I know right then, I had to get her to do INLAND. Here is Sara, speaking for herself - just as she should be.
Where did you grow up and go to school?
I grew up in the suburbs (or Toronto), but moved to the Annex the second I was out of high school at age 17 3/4. When I was a fashion design student at Ryerson, I moved to Church and Welesley. I lived in a tiny 600 sq foot apartment that doubled as a studio. I lived there first on my own, then with my beloved Catsam (rip), then I got married and my husband moved in.
Wow! Great guy!
Poor guy! For years, we had no table to eat at or couch to sit on... The whole place was sewing machines, judies and a huge drafting table, rolling racks, and a bed! I loved that apartment and still miss so many things about the area.
What got you hooked on designing?
As a kid, my grandmother watched me before and after school and in the summer- she totally indulged every single creative activity I showed interest in. She worked as a sewer in a blanket factory before she retired and showed me how to use her domestic machine. At some point, my mother found out and said I wasn't allowed anymore because I was going to sew over my fingers. I am pretty sure we just ignored her because I don't ever remember stopping. So, my Baba at age 4. (I have never sewed over my fingers, ever.)
I started altering vintage clothing and patterns and shopping for fabric as an angsty 12 year old to look as weird and as angry as I felt. So the real stuff started to happen around then, I guess. But basically, I decided to be a fashion designer before I started going to school.
Why the masks in your collection photos?
I avoided models and photo shoots for as long as I possibly could as a designer. Once you present your clothing on a model, it assigns a certain age/race/high/weight/look to the clothing and I never wanted to do that - like how sometimes artist leave their work untitled as not to impose meaning onto their audiences. I always wanted a customer to conceptualize themselves in Sara Duke stuff and not dismiss the garment as not being for them because of the way it is pictured.
The masks are an attempt at making the drop-dead-gorgeous Amara Mancuso look a little silly and become more... human, I guess. More like the real person she is. It's a way for me to dispel some of the assumptions that having a young, pretty, white girl model might assign to the collection.
And it's also super practical! Photo shoots don't get any better the longer they drag on. So, a mask means no make up, no hair, no retaking pictures when Amara blinks. My amazing photographer, Alex Wesson, got that shit done inside a couple of hours! http://www.alexwessonbirthphotography.com
What 's your opinion on the terms "fast fashion" and the "slow fashion movement"?
I think that we have all come to realize that fast fashion is crappy. Like, really crappy. New, with tags, it hangs weird and puckered- and that shit just goes down hill fast as soon as you wash it. I think fast fashion is stupid and a lot of work and cost too much money. I hate it and there is no reason for it.
Where do you source fabrics and materials?
I am Parkdale based, which has it all! And good thing, because I am a pretty lazy person. Everything Sara Duke is made from is sourced between Spadina and Lansdowne, Queen to Liberty Village. All fabric, notions and manufacturing, including screen printing, happen in that little bit of Toronto.
So, I'm gussing your studio is in Parkdale too?
It's in my house! I love it! I wear PJ's and a scrunchy to work most days. Like, right now... PJ's and a scrunchy!
You had a shop in Bloordale. Why did you close it?
I love Bloordale. It's filled with the most amazing people who were so kind and supportive and wonderful- Closing that shop broke my heart, I totally miss all of those awesome locals. What happened was that it got to a point where the shop started gaining momentum, kind of at the same time as the line started getting carried in more stores. I am very hands on (or a control freak or terrible micro manager) so I could either have a shop or be a designer, there just wasn't enough time for me to do both well.
In your opinion, is retail or wholesale better?
Definitely retail. I really enjoyed having a store, the information that you gather seeing 25 different women in the same dress is so valuable and really made me a better designer. I loved being connected to a community, I was accountable for things and it was very grounding, humbling.
This is where I jump in to point out how important INLAND is to designers - to be on-site the retail environment, seeing clients try on garments, discuss, explore, discover.
Wholesale is tougher. I am not very good at the talky talky fashion stuff and trends and fancy shiny selling. So I am always talking about how a shirt is great because it doesn't touch your armpits and you don't have to wash it every time you wear it; or how a particular dress has "lunch room"; or how maxis are really great if you have kancles... Not really the reasons to pick up a new line. But I do OK. And, again, I can not stress enough the amazingness that is PJ's at the office.
What are the rewards/challenges of being a Canadian independent designer?
Oh. This is always a hard one. I personally just want to make a living - pay my bills, buy some cheap wine, maybe one work trip a year to a new Canadian city and another trip some place warm in the winter. I don't need to be a millionaire, nor am I all that interested in being an international brand. The way things are, I get to work with only amazing people and still get to be pretty hands on in the studio. Things are very rewarding and not all that challenging. But I suspect it would be different if I was doing things a different way with different goals.
Where do you see Canadian fashion in 5 years? Locally and globally?
I don't know, but they have this really cool thing in Quebec. There are a lot of regional chain stores, more like boutiques with a handful of locations. I really hope for more of that.
What were you doing before designing?
I worked in the industry for about 5 minuets in couple of different design departments right after graduating from Ryerson. It didn't go so well. I am not very good at sitting still, wearing nylons or heals, or not saying fuck all the time. So I started my own thing and I never sit still, wear nylons or heals and I say fuck all day long!
What else do you do that's amazing?
People always think I am the nicest because I take on neonatal foster kittens, but really I'm just a cat lady that got married young and never achieved her full potential. So there's that. I go to the Toronto Humane Society and they give me a pile of very tiny cats, so tiny they can't see or hear, sometimes there is a mum. I bring them home and feed them if they need feeding and weigh them and pet them for a couple of months and make them into nice kittens. It's really amazing, but because I like cats - it's super easy.
What was your most recent design inspiration?
I've been going through family photos from the nineties for the past few seasons to get me in the mood.
There you have it! Sara Duke ...in her pjs. There is no way you want to miss this lady!
Meet Sara Duke at INLAND. September 6+7, 2014