One of the straightest paths to profitability? The jagged line of a dramatic arc. The twists and turns of boutique fashion label, Horses Atelier.
Edit: Sopinka and Dey edited their entire line down to 5 iconic looks, resulting a product story that was simple, clear and easy to understand.
Curate: Influences for Horses Atelier are mined from literature, music, art, journalism, pop culture then forged into an original brand. True curation is channeling what you love into something singular and new.
Ignore Rejection: Rebuffed by major players in the Canadian fashion industry, the women behind Horses Atelier kept telling their story - and it eventually clicked with a top retailer (The Bay), international media (Vogue) and, most crucially, sales.
Knowing how to tell your story is knowing how to sell your business.
So when best friends Heidi Sopinka and Claudia Dey decided to set aside their writerly ambitions in the spring of 2012 to start Horses Atelier, a boutique dress line, they'd already refined the art that would prove key to their company's early success.
"We couldn't believe how narrative the process is," says Dey of the brand- and company-building process. "It's completely about story. Heidi and I sort of comb the world, find our obsessions, go into our cave, refine them with this tiny posse of patternmakers, sample seamstresses, then we edit, edit, edit mercilessly. And then we become outward-facing and, you know... sell it."
In the spring of 2012, the duo, best friends since their university days at McGill, were pushing their baby strollers under a grimy bridge in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood discussing their extensive vintage collections when an idea was floated: What if we made something of our own? Within a half-block, they'd come up with their Patti Smith-inspired label name and a plan for what their first season would be.
Their ambitions would come at a cost. Dey, a Governor-General-nominated playwright and novelist, and Sopinka, a working editor and former Globe and Mail columnist, would have to put their literary careers on hold, indefinitely. They'd also have to work around raising a brood of kids - Sopinka, 41, is a mother of three; Dey, 40, has a pair of her own.
"We jumped in fully, having no idea what we were getting into," says Sopinka. "Just an idea of what we were going to make. Coming at it as writers, obviously there was a huge learning curve."
Working out of Dey's third-floor attic, the pair crafted drawings by deconstructing their favourite vintage finds. Originality, workmanship and an Old-World attention to detail would guide the process, resulting in a lineup of five iconic silhouettes: a slip dress, caftan, blouson, tunic and sundress. A pattern maker was brought into the fold. They found a production person - an Argentinean salsa dancer within walking distance of their fashion lab. And they sketched out a character who'd want to wear their first line: "she was dynamic and singular, interested in collecting heirlooms and not interested in trends," says Dey. "sort of Parisian chic meets 1970s jet-set. We knew what kind of music she listened to and how she liked to eat, and that she'd have a Gitane [to ride] at midnight if she felt like it. You know, she was free."
By early fall, they were ready to start pitching the collection.
Their first presentation, to a Canadian fashion powerhouse, was received, well, with some indifference. Deflated but undaunted, Dey and Sopinka hopped a plane to L.A., where TENOVERSIX, a stockist with Hollywood pedigree, picked up the label. Inevitably, Canadian success followed: Horses Atelier essentially sold out its first collection (almost 200 pieces in total, ranging from $300-$600 a pop), and found hanging space beside well-established designers in The Hudson Bay Company's White Space and Jonathan + Olivia, a beautifully curated boutique on Toronto's Ossington Avenue. Their dresses were slipped over the heads of celebrities such as Feist and Jessica Paré. By their first anniversary, they'd landed in the pages of Vogue.
None of their early success happened by chance. From day one, they'd integrated a webshop into the business plan and began crafting a strong social media presence that defines the visual aesthetic of the brand with carefully curated images and messages distributed via Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook. "We've got our spiel down," says Sopinka with a laugh. "We call it speed-dating, just trying to sell who we are and what we're making in, like, two seconds."
With a second collection (fall-winter) coming into stores at the end of August, and their third (spring/summer) currently being finalized for early September's New York Fashion Week, Sopinka and Dey's make-it-locally, blow-it-up internationally ethos promises to continue building the atelier's narrative arc.
They're not asking much.
"Just world domination," says Dey, deadpan. "But keeping it personal: Make everything in Toronto. The fabrics we source are the finest fabrics. The prints are custom prints. The colours are signature colours that we literally made in our basement. [Take all that] and repeat on a larger scale. We want to have a robust business."