Toronto Labels – OK-47
Downtown Toronto’s garment district is located at the Queen Street West and Spadina Avenue areas. It’s an area in constant flux. The storefronts come and go, the rents rise, fashions change.
Speaking of changing fashions, when I began my quest to find who’s worth mentioning in the Toronto fashion scene, one of my readers mentioned Geek Boutique. What ever happened to them? I snooped around the internet to check it out and came across some archival material.
Oh yeah, the rave days! It’s just not that often that Toronto is at the center of a cultural zeitgeist – but back in the nineties Toronto was a hub of youth culture. All night parties, electronic music, and of course, the drugs, set the stage for exciting things happening in Toronto. Youth asserted its right to party – and the right to wear expressive clothes – and thus a cluster of local fashion companies developed from within the scene to respond to the trend. It was explosive, it ended quickly, but it was one of those times where fashion from Toronto was recognized and relevant. Geek Boutique was one of those labels that still lingers in the memory.
Its designers have since gone on to other things. One of them, Jen Lindup joined forces with Helios, a graphic design company, to collaborate on the t-shirt line OK-47, a label that piqued my interest. I had the pleasure of visiting OK-47’s studio in the heart of the downtown garment district and was warmly welcomed by Jen Lindup, fashion designer, and Felix Wittholz, graphic artist, the creative forces behind OK-47’s cutely subversive creations.
OK, their studio is freaking awesome! It totally seems like a great place to work. The open space lets the different disciplines collaborate while still giving everyone lots of space. It’s a professional, clean and relaxed atmosphere. They do all of the artwork and a lot of the design development and most of the initial patterns on site. As soon as I walked in I knew that OK-47 had their act together. I had sensed that before, when they promptly and graciously responded to my calls and emails – they have that wonderful quality that is too rare in this industry; being organized and conscientious.
Four flights down is the block of fabric stores, closing sales and renovations, as the constant renewal of fresh storefronts marches westward along Queen Street West. OK-47 has been kicking since 1999 – no mean feat on Toronto’s most fashionable street. Every year they grow a little, my hosts told me with charming modesty. When I ask about Canadian fashion identity, we all shrugged. It’s not something that you can put your finger on. Felix said that national identities are subtle and blurred now – in Europe, America, and Canada the crowds look practically the same. Whatever Canadian fashion identity is about, it’s not about a certain look.
Is there advantages to being located in Toronto, I wondered? Felix and Jen thought not really, that access to manufacturing and vendors seemed easier in the United States. Although they make a concentrated effort to manufacture in Canada – perhaps 70 percent of their production, they have started to produce overseas. The quality for the price is difficult to match in Canada. As OK-47 outgrows their Canadian production capacity and sources overseas more, significant changes have to be made to the way their business operates.
The name OK-47, a clever play on the AK-47 rifle (which is illegal in Canada, by the way), seems like it could be my kind of firearm. The graphics are tongue-in-cheek, colourful and quirky.
OK-47 is known for their unique all-over prints, cut into sweet little t-shirts and dresses. I’d really like to think that OK-47 has that Canadian identity I’m searching for. But I think honestly that they are simply international in their outlook – after all they sell all over North America and Europe – though their greatest brand recognition and sales are in Canada. They’ve experimented with “made in Canada” as a selling point, it seems it’s not a pitch that makes much of a difference on either side of the border – though it’s certain that some of their Canadian customers do purchase OK-47 knowing and appreciating that they are supporting their local economy.
When OK-47 started, they were at the forefront of the graphics-on-a-t-shirt trend that is so completely saturated now. As they grow and develop, they slowly introduce new looks to their line, transitioning smoothly from graphics to fashion. From their initial forays into unique jersey tops and dresses for women, they are now beginning to create woven pants and jackets with printed linings. Rather than a battle plan, it’s an organic growth. The pieces that their customers respond to and buy slowly shape the development of OK47. It’s obvious that they respect their customers, and approach the building of their brand in a logical way.
I was so pleased to discover OK-47. They’re exactly the kind of individuals that give me hope for Canadian fashion. Soft-spoken, thoughtful yet slightly subversive, plus they’ve got that thing I can’t quite put my finger on… so Canadian.