Favourite: Horses Atelier
I love stumbling on new brands. Even more so, when I get to sit and chat over tea in a showroom with people who like to talk about fashion, what it means, dressing yourself vis à vis your sense of self. I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Claudia Dey and Heidi Sopinka in their Toronto studio, design duo behind Horses Atelier. They’re meteoric rise over the last two years is partly in thanks to Vogue’s support, but mostly based on their tireless work to feminize minimal silhouettes in beautiful textiles that women love to wear.
Dey and Sopinka both come from writing backgrounds, some helicopter piloting and motherhood too. They are mainstay’s on the Canadian cultural scene but the last thing that was expected of them was fashion design. Naturally they bring an extraordinary sense of intrigue, travel and humbleness. But read for yourself and see their space as we sat yesterday quietly, before their SS15 show this evening at J+O.
I wanted to know what was the seed that started Horses?
Heidi: It’s funny cause Claudia and I are both writers and we were walking along in Parkdale one day under a bridge and pushing our babies in strollers. We just started talking about our love of design and we just sort of floated the question ‘what if we made something ourselves?’ And then really within a few blocks we had our name and our full first collection planned out. It was really just a coup de foudre. Also we found that Venus was transiting the sun at that time. It felt like a real inspired change for us. We just didn’t look back after that.
That’s incredible! I know your travels are a huge inspiration behind the pieces and that there’s a basic fundamentalness about all of the looks. When you sit down to design what happens first?
Claudia: You articulated it really well because it feels like an accumulation of all our lived experience in a way. Like that everything was an active accretion of this moment. So like Heidi’s been a helicopter pilot and travelled through Singapore and lived on a Scottish island that didn’t have a name. (all laugh)
Heidi: And Claudia’s been a playwrite who’s play was produced in the communist head quarters in New York, and has written a novel and is writing her second and travelled a lot. It’s just like all of these experiences, we always talk of clothing as an autobiography. I think first we set out images and then it’s amazingly intuitive.
Claudia: It starts with the intuitive with the combination of your exterior world, your observations, what you find beautiful and then your inner world, and your preoccupations and where those two come together. We work in a cave and really protect the process of design and it really is just the two of us. It’s really this intuitive thing and over the process becomes much more mechanical in terms of fit and feel. What’s the best fabric choice and colour way for this body and, ‘this sleeve needs to come up a ¼ of an inch, this hem needs to come down ¼ of an inch.’ All of the mechanics come into it.
Heidi: It’s like most creative processes it starts with a real kind of push of creativity that is unguarded and holistic and then we start to collaborate and it starts to become really specific and it’s edited and it becomes the thing we make in the end. I feel like it always encapsulates that thing that we start with.
Would you say it’s a mood. I mean obviously as women you want to dress yourself?
Claudia: Yeah, and we do make what we want to wear. I mean it’s a mood but it’s a mood of tangibles we find that when we emerge from each season there are three points of inspiration that we can name. Like sail fabric, or the palette of Blinky Palermo, or Japanese classicism for instance.
Heidi: Or islands or origins, really big broad imaginative things.
When you were starting clearly, this didn’t exist, nothing like this was out there. Was that why it was borne, you couldn’t find what you wanted?
Heidi: That’s an interesting question, things are borne out of need. We have lived our life as like real thrifters we learned design by taking apart our vintage finds. We are still so in love with that, those treasures from the past and that will never go away but we also like to look forward to the future and the notion of making something that also will last. But also, paired down, so often youfind something and it’s got coloured buttons or a ruffle, or something…
Claudia: Some embellishment that ruins it.
Heidi: Yeah, that feels unnecessary. It also comes out of that too again like Claudia said we design what we want and what we want are really unfussy but artful things that are easy to wear and actually that are flattering. That’s essentially what everything boils down to.
Claudia: And natural fibers too that feel good against your skin.
Where do most of the fabrics come from?
Claudia: A lot of them are from Italy.
Heidi: Mostly, from family run mills in Italy and we develop all our own prints because we feel prints are so personal. We started working with some Japanese mills so unfortunately the price point is high but we find it hard to compromise on that because it’s so special to us. That’s the thing even our pattern makers noted with things from the past there’s beautiful craftsmanship but there’s also this incredible beauty and integrity to the textiles of other eras. Which I feel is slightly being lost in our mass produced culture.
Absolutely, I don’t think that luxury means luxury anymore.
Heidi: Luxury is made offshore anyway.
It’s also fundamentally not luxury anymore because it’s mass produced and it’s available to a lot of people and with that you loose a lot.
Heidi: The Quality.
And the longevity of something.
Heidi: Yeah, we love that old world attention to detail, the way fabrics are made, the way they feel. We both have felt like in a way like you were saying it’s an antidote to the fast fashion that we’re making.
Claudia: Everything is made here and the proceeds from every sale that we make online goes to the Clean Clothes Campaign.
Heidi: We really feel like it feels classist in a way to have prices at a higher price point, but our prices reflect being made in Canada by sewers who we know well, and fabrics that are being made by mills that have been around for a while and everyone is being compensated fairly. It’s a reflection of all those things. Then they are going to last also because it’s a combination of being sewn beautifully and made out of fabrics that we can stand behind.
If you had to pick an era in history what would it be?
Claudia: We sort of talked about like Bohemia in the 1800s and then like the 70s. (all laughs).
Heidi: We like the 1970s and the 1870s basically.
Claudia: We’re spinning wool and catching our own babies. And living in a room with twelve other people, and belting a man’s shirt that’s your outfit.
Heidi: No pants, people think no pants started now. (laughs) Yeah, Studio 54… We are so attracted to the two streams that we’ve gotten ourselves into; we started with slip dressing and then work wear, the feminized work wear. We love jumpsuits and work suits. Those are two disparate but also have lots of similarities too crossovers.
The sense of the uniform…
Heidi: Exactly, we’re very into the sense of the uniform. And Patti Smith who was a big signifier with us, with our name, she’s like the queen of the uniform and how to be minimal but so individualist.
Do you think there’s a uniform in Toronto?
Claudia: There are definitely tropes, there are like all those bearded men.
Heidi: I feel like when I first started noticing in New York that everyone looked really plain, like skinny jeans and a grey sweatshirt, but the grey sweatshirt is like $500. I feel we have a bit here. A friend of ours from Montréal who always has like 70 different patterns on is always like, ‘Wow, people are so conservative here.’ Or like more trend oriented or something.
It’s not a colourful palette. I can’t speak to before my lifetime, but I’ve never noticed much other than singular people.
Claudia: There are so many people that blow me away. Like when we have a sample sale and I see all these women coming through the door, parking their bicycles and they’re wearing ancient textiles from Peru and hip hop high tops.
Heidi: Yeah, it’s so good.
Claudia: I think that there are some really interesting dressers.
Heidi: but on a whole, I remember when I first landed in Europe and I was backpacking at 18 and I remember being horrified because I was wearing tapered jeans and everyone was wearing bell-bottoms. You don’t have that anymore because there is more homogeneity because of the internet.
We have so much talent and so much creativity and so many singular people who are astounding, but I feel like if you landed here sight unseen you’d be like “WTF?’
Heidi: It’s not like walking in Rome.
Claudia: Even in Montréal, I did theatre school there and it was half French half English. And the difference between the way we all dressed. The English girls we all looked like we’d slept under a bridge and like show up in our boyfriend’s pants and the women would come from the French side and it was like so French.
What are the pros and cons to having a business in Toronto?
Heidi: It’s tricky because resources are a real challenge for us. We once had a thriving and healthy industry in terms of textiles and production here and that’s almost all dug up. Geographically it’s difficult the majority of our sales occur in New York and for us that means we need to be there. People wont walk through our door here.
Claudia: There’s at least twice a year where we take garment bags on our back and are hailing a cab in New York.
Heidi: On a plus side, Claudia and I were really surprised by the romanticism that people have for Canada. Like our very first sale we made, our first account, was this beautifully curated shop in LA by this women’s who’s style we really admired. It truly felt like she saw an exoticism in us being Canadian, and our first look book had been shot by this incredible photographer (Mark Peckmezian) in the woods by a waterfall. We didn’t even realize what we represented to her until we were in front of her.
The wild, untouched north.
Heidi: Yeah, we seem kind of exotic to them.
Claudia: I think the other pro of being here is the huge support from the stores that we work with and our designer friends.
Heidi: It’s a small community and really lots of amazing supportive people.
Claudia: It’s essential to feel like you are part of something.
From the first sale to the Vogue nod, how much does that change what you’re doing?
Claudia: It sort of changed everything in a way.
Heidi: Like Claudia said we were operating in a cave…
Claudia: It was so romantic and secret and all the sudden there’s this Vogue story and then it just helps you speak the line. It helped to identify what people are finding.
Heidi: And having a nod from such an iconic…
They used it two or three times, because they used it in a video and the market page.
Heidi: It was interesting for us because it was our very first design and it was the one that caused us the most trouble. It was seemingly simple but the construction was complex.
Claudia: The top was cut on the bias; the bottom was cut on the grain.
Heidi: And it was really hard to figure out. We did it because we wanted to flatter the body, because everything cut bias is meant for like a Kate Moss body. It’s not made for most women and we really wanted a democratic design that felt good on a lot of different body types. And we’re always amazed at the span of women that do wear that dress alone. That to us is way thrilling. It was really amazing that they lighted on that design because it felt like they understood what we were working at.
Claudia: Like French seams and blind hems; that a dress has to be as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside; and working with iconic shapes but modernizing them.
Heidi: And making essentially an heirloom that will last a really long time that’s made well and wont really go out of style; which we sort of love not dressing for trends. Even though slip dressing became this trend.
It did become a huge thing.
Claudia: It was funny when we were under that bridge and talking about what we were making we were like our whole first line will be black and white slip dresses and we’re going to be called Horses. Those were the fundamentals things that we knew immediately. In a way Vogue read our minds.
Heidi: That story was published on our very first anniversary our first year. Everything has felt that way, like aligned in a way that feels undeniable. There’s a velocity around it. It’s fascinating to us because it’s sort of out of our hands that way.
Claudia: Which is want you want, you want it living in other people’s lives. But we’ll never get used to it. We’ll never get used to seeing a woman in something that we’ve designed it’s like theatre. It’s thrills us to pieces.
Heidi: I remember seeing a woman riding a bicycle in a beautiful dress and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that looks so Parisian.’ And then I realized, ‘Wow, that’s our dress!’
That’s something that I always wonder with artists, how is it to feel when you walk into someone’s home and there’s your piece.
Claudia: It’s fascinating to see the decisions that they’ve made, how they’ve placed it, the space and the light.
And wearing something is that same thing, but someone has breathed new life in it.
Claudia: Who is the person, what is their story and why have they chosen to make you part of it.
Yeah, because when you wake up in the morning and you get dressed what do you think about? It can be a million different thing. And sometime it comes to you immediately you pick up what’s on the floor and you feel so perfect and other time’s it takes forever.
Heidi: It is a collage. We love this quote from Miuccia Prada that’s, “It’s a collage of intuitions.” I thought that that was such a beautiful way of putting it. It is a decision and it’s funny cause when you haven’t really distilled it you sometimes feel awkward in what you’re wearing. Like those days that you change three times.
Oh my god, it’s horrific!
Heidi: Like, ‘Who am I today?’
Claudia: We have a friend who taped this note to her mirror that said, ‘Take off that weird outfit.’ She’d always put on the good outfit and then reconsider it and then it would get stranger and stranger and she’d leave the house and within a block be filled with regret. In a way it’s the confrontation of something very very personal.
Claudia: I think that’s why we’re moved seeing someone wearing something we’ve made.
I think especially any art that is involved with commerce someone has had to pay for it. There’s a transaction that’s been made and someone had to calculate the benefits to them.
Heidi: I know! Just like Claudia said every time it’s like, ‘wow someone chose that!’
When you guys are dressing in the morning and you’re thinking of this uniform what do you want to feel when you wear the pieces?
Heidi: And like yourself. I mean that in the sense that you have many facets in yourself. Sometimes you want to dress like a man and sometimes in a long dress. It changes constantly which is the thrilling thing. It’s gotten a lot easier since we made our own clothes. I mean our work suit has been our uniform.
Claudia: Oh gosh, we have worn those into the ground.
Heidi: I don’t know what’s going to happen, as we get older, we’ll be in the same outfit for twenty years. (Laughs) Which I kind of love.
Claudia: It used to be that you had three shirts and three skirts and that’s it.
Yeah, you had seven bobby pins. I’ve read stories of a woman who went through the war with the same seven bobby pins and I’m baffled ‘how can you do that and not loose them?!’
Heidi: I know we have too many things and we don’t need them.
Darning and fixing and mending.
Heidi: My mom has a pair of socks from some relative and they’re from World War I.
No they’re not!
Heidi: And they’re amazing, they’re thigh high hand-knitted very fine and she’s darned them a couple of times and they’re a hundred years old. I buy socks for my kids and they last two months. We are just in a different place and it makes you lament.
Claudia: It makes you think a sock is no longer a sock.
Heidi: It’s tissue paper.
Claudia: It really is there’s basically no function to it.
If there could only be ten things in your closet what would they be?
Claudia: The work suit in a way that’s why we’ve been busy for two years making those kinds of things. The track trouser, the peasant blouse, a sack dress, the slip dress…
Heidi: And then a jacket, a slouchy jacket.
Claudia: Jacket coming up… Well our kicks, we wear our high tops every day, we walk a lot. We never wear shoes we can’t run in. I like to have a hat in my closet.
Heidi: And a giant sweater. And man pants.
Claudia: Yeah, but now that’s eleven things now we’ve gone over. (laughs)
Heidi: We did make a pair of man pants, and we both kind of love baggy (dressing). We love things that you can live in and eat a big bowl of pasta and have a big glass of wine and not feel restricted.
Claudia: Just feel free.
Heidi: We are building on the things we really love.
Claudia: Keeping it pure while we’re growing it.
Heidi: We have a collaboration and another category coming up.
Claudia: But we’re taking our time with it.
Heidi: We are just really carful about our approach and like Claudia said keeping it pure and true to where we started.
Claudia: Like to that moment under the bridge.
I love it, thank you!
Heidi & Claudia: Thank you!
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