Interview with Allison Smith of Allison Wonderland Clothing
Chwynyn Vaughan (CV): Hi Allison! It has been quite a while since I last saw you in person, but I really enjoy following your clothing line on Instagram.
When I decided that I wanted to do a series of interviews, you were one of the first people who came to mind for me. I studied fashion design in Vancouver, BC in 2005 and 2006. I can barely believe how long ago that was! At the time, you were already a well established independent fashion designer in Vancouver, and across Canada. Here we are in 2021 and you are still going strong. The fashion world is such a difficult industry. Your longevity is impressive!
As someone who makes my own products, one very small batch at a time, I both appreciate and respect that you still continue to have all of your clothing line sewn in Vancouver, I believe right in your studio. After so many years of being in business, deciding not to send out your work overseas could be seen as an unusual choice. Can you tell me why you choose to keep all of your work in house?
Allison Smith (AS): Well, I must admit that I don’t make everything in house! I use local factories and home sewers. I do the pattern drafting, most of the sample sewing, all of the designing and much more. The factories I use are right in Vancouver. I like to keep it as local as I can, keeping it all in the community. It is easy for me as well, as I am constantly forgetting things, like labels and zippers, that I can drop off on my way to or from my studio. I do like to know the people who are making the clothing, I have been using the same people for years.
CV: You have designed so very many, many seasons of designs! If I do the math, and then think of how many individual ideas you have actually come up with, how many fresh patterns you have drafted, how many fabric choices you have made, I feel fairly overwhelmed. This creative process is exciting, and you must feel grateful to still be doing what you love every day. The demands on your imagination, accompanied by tight deadlines and business decisions, must be exhausting, too. Over the course of time, and under the pressure, I think that many other people would have run out of great ideas by now. How do you fuel your creative self? Do you have “tools” or tactics that you use to make sure that you don’t lose the artistic aspect of yourself?
AS: I’d like to say thank you for acknowledging all that! It has been a long time and there has been a lot of all of that. These days, more and more, I redo designs from past seasons. Something that I have learned is to not throw out a good design. I’ve embraced repeating styles, they look fresh in new fabrics. It is hard to keep creative, especially these days. My deadlines for getting the lines done are my biggest source of inspiration! I am lucky to live in a vibrant community that inspires me daily. A big help with starting a new line is seeing fabric. I like to pick my favourites and let them talk to me. New fabrics and prints always give me a surge of inspiration.
CV: I have a strong environmentalist bent. I have had these leanings since I was a teenager. Therefore, I prefer to buy used clothing in order to keep some of the clothes floating around our world out of the landfill. I also enjoy a bit of designing and like to make my own clothes. So, admittedly, I am not much of a consumer of new clothing. In fact, over the past ten years, I have only bought an extremely limited amount of brand new clothing. These include only a few pairs of jeans and designs by you and another independent label in Vancouver that is no longer in existence. The oldest article of your label Allison Wonderland in my closet, is probably eleven years old. That and my other pieces of yours are still wearing great and continue to feel very contemporary. I am interested in this type of longevity (of both style and the textiles clothes are made of) and in slow fashion as a concept. Do you intentionally design for long term life of your clothing or is it more that your style lends itself to an eternal look, even though your designs are not “classic”? And what are your thoughts on slow fashion?
AS: I like to know the trends, but not follow them. I want a piece of clothing to last, style-wise and construction-wise. I love it when I hear stories of pieces in people’s closets that are years old. It means a lot to me. I definitely think of the long term life of a piece of clothing. I love slow fashion and the fact that things don’t tend to go “in” or “out” as in other eras. Or maybe it’s just me being older, so I don’t pay attention to those things. But it does feel like anything goes right now. It makes designing easier in a way, I can follow my creative urges.
CV: When my youngest child was five weeks old, she and I flew from Los Angeles to Vancouver, where my husband, an artist you know, was receiving an award. My son was three years old at the time (he stayed back in LA), so I am sure you can imagine that I was pretty busy when I hurriedly packed and prepared for the trip. Not a lot of time to think things through! While I was on the flight, finally relaxing into the trip, my sleeping baby in my arms, it dawned on me that I would be attending a gala that evening. I knew this would not be a Capital G Gala, but still I needed to dress up. The hotel I was staying at was on Granville Island, so I headed over to Little Dream, where I knew I would find your designs. I felt pretty fortunate that you had had your own child only one year before: I was a nursing mother and that adds extra requirements for blouses and dresses. I found a beautiful turquoise dress that buttoned up the front! Something that I could dress up or down. I recall thinking at the time that the necessities of motherhood had probably had some influence on your design.
Your daughter is now eight years old so you are no longer the mother of a small child, but do you think that being a mother has influenced your creativity at all? Did your designs change in reaction to your lifestyle as a mother? Are your designs now influenced at all by the sense of style that your daughter is developing on her own? Prior to having children, the moments I would run into you were at parties and art openings. Our lives and concerns were undoubtedly much different back then when we had only ourselves to think of (though I suspect you are still going to lots of nighttime events while I am at home asleep)!
AS: I didn’t know you got that dress - I know exactly the one you are talking about. I wore the black version after my daughter was born! My style and designs have changed as I have aged. I think the age thing has been a stronger factor than motherhood in some way. My clothes started out as club clothes and are now work clothes and casual lifestyle clothes. I am hoping to get back to nighttime events after this pandemic!! (My daughter is so used to me being at home now, it’s going to be tricky for her to get used to me going out again.) As I age and my body changes, I really do take into account what I want out of clothing. I think of the different ages of clients I have, some don’t mind showing some skin, some do not want to show any. I like to have a variety of dresses in my collections to cater to different needs: a dress with some waist definition, one without, a summer dress with sleeves, a strappy summer dress, etc...
It’s funny, because any time I buy my daughter clothes she never wears them - only if I beg her to. She gets a lot of hand-m-downs and she would rather wear those. I have made her some dresses and if she wears those, usually if she is trying to suck up to me (it works!) Her style is very kid- bright, lots of patterns, clashing, tacky. I have nothing to do with any of it!
CV: I know that after your daughter was born, you would take her to the studio with you and have her there with you while you worked. I believe that this arrangement lasted until she started walking. Being a working mother is very different from being a working woman without a child. If you are in the right field, as you seemingly are, the passion for the work remains. However, there are other competing pulls such as wanting to be with your child, the responsibility you have to your child and her needs, and developing a healthy and whole family life. I don’t personally think that balance is achievable and that it is more about narrowing down priorities and then trying to juggle those to the best of one’s abilities (and dropping a lot of balls along the way!) You never stopped designing, sewing, and running the business Allison Wonderland, which includes your own online store and shops across Canada and into the US who carry your line. What is it in your character that you think has enabled you to successfully do this? What help have you received that has contributed to you being able continue developing your career? What techniques do you have for dealing with the stress that inevitably occurs?
AS: It is tough, not having as much time. I do wonder where my business would be if I had more time to focus on it. It shocks me how long I have been in this business, one season after another. I’m not sure how it happened or where the time went. I think it’s stubbornness that has kept me at it. That and not knowing what else I’d do. The drive to make new designs is still in me. It has been hard over the pandemic. My online store has grown a lot which has been fantastic, but a lot more work. That is one thing that I would like to concentrate more on, but haven’t had the time. I have a really great family that has always been there to support me emotionally. They are my cheerleaders, I am very lucky. I am very good at coming home and not thinking about work - sometimes I obsess over it, but I can just turn off that part of my brain. I think being able to separate work from the personal is so important, a lesson I need to be retaught every so often.
CV: Your daughter is growing up watching you run a business and is watching you model strength, ability and follow-through. I am certain that this is just scratching the surface of all she is learning from you. What would you say are the benefits that your daughter is receiving from being the daughter of you, that are perhaps different from what other girls receive? What unique modeling does your daughter obtain as she unconsciously observes your ongoing creation of your independent fashion business?
AS: This is the opposite of what you are asking but one thing I worry about is her being too concerned with fashion, clothing and image. I try to remind her that it’s inside that matters! I’m not a fancy person, I think that helps. I do wonder what she is picking up from me running my own business and how it will affect her life choices. I have one of those jobs that girls often dream about doing, I did, so my daughter thinks what I do is pretty cool - it’s nice to have a daughter who is proud of you! I’m sure it will turn to embarrassment in a few years.
As an aside, one day when my daughter was young, she knew I made things at my studio so she asked me to make her a bicycle. I had to explain to her that I only made clothes!
CV: That is hilarious! The same thing went on around our home when my kids were younger. They thought we could make anything - really wild things!
Thank you so much, Allison, for taking the time to answer my questions. I am really looking forward to sharing your experiences and perspectives.
I have one last question. As I mentioned at the beginning of this interview, I went to fashion design school and I learned there that what you have achieved is pretty close to impossible! Do you have any advice or wisdom that you could give to someone out there whose chosen path seems like it should be impossible to have success on…but who is determined to travel it anyways?
AS: Don’t do it! lol! It’s a really hard path to go down. There are so many clothing lines out there, how does one distinguish oneself? But if you must, be prepared to do a lot of everything and be patient.
CV: That sounds like really sound advice: only do it if you are truly passionate. If you are passionate, stick with it.
Thanks so much, Allison.