Peggy Sue Rare & True

Peggy Sue Deaven-Smiltnieks may change the way we buy clothes.

By Kevin Solez

Photos By Joseph Marranca

Peggy-Sue’s  farm-to-fashion clothing collection combines elegant and practical clothing for women with an unheard of commitment to North American raw materials, labour, and traditional crafts. I reached her in her Toronto studio to discuss her inspirations and process.

KS: I’ll start with an aesthetic question. The patterns of the runway collection are striking. What traditional or historical patterns have inspired you?

PS: I have this remarkable weaver that I work with—Deborah Livingston-Lowe of Upper Canada Weaving—and she’s similarly passionate, as I am, about historical textiles and understanding the rich heritage and traditions behind them and how they have come into being. When I am setting up for a season, I come to her with the feel and the aesthetic were going for, and she shows me her portfolio of historical textiles. In our runway collection there were three distinct motifs in the weaving: a plain weave band, a floral tapestry, and a chevron. In the machine knitting pieces, I picked a few other patterns that complemented the scale of the three traditional patterns and were more flattering on the body. So every pattern story starts with the weaving, and it spins off from there.

KS: The collection is characterized by natural colours, elegant styling, and practicality. Is there a particular idea of femininity or womanhood that underpins the collection?

PS: At the core of our collection is the idea that sex appeal is in the mind. Our intention is to clothe an intellectually stunning woman who isn’t afraid to ask those hard questions about her wardrobe and her lifestyle choices: Who am I supporting by purchasing this clothing? Is the environment being respected? Are these animals being respected? What artisanal communities are being upheld with my purchasing?

There is practicality in the sense that we try very hard to get pockets on things and we try to make fits that make sense. So, when you buy a jacket from our collection, it will fit over your sweater or your long-sleeve shirt. It’s traditional in the sense that the garments function as they are intended to. Women’s wear often gets faux pockets because the stereotype is that women don’t want to affect the line of the garment. The women I tend to clothe want functionality from their garments as well as aesthetic beauty. It’s a lovely challenge to provide that. The functionality activates our consumer to be more interested in her garment, and be aware of her interaction with the clothes and her everyday needs. This is women’s wear for women.

KS: The use of ethically sourced fibres is vanishingly rare in textile production—is it economically sustainable for you?

PS: We’ve chosen to bet that it is. These days, there are two competing mindsets in the consumer. It’s immediate satisfaction vs. long-term wardrobe planning. They have very different demands on the fibre chain, because fibre is a farmed resource. It’s grown, it has a harvesting cycle, and has a life cycle, just as if you were to buy a hothouse tomato or a field tomato. The field tomato is going to be incredible with its flavour, whereas the hothouse tomato will look and function like a tomato but it doesn’t have any of the flavour indexes that the field tomato has. And so that is what we emphasize with our line. When you purchase clothing within the fibre harvesting cycle, the fibre you get is going to be phenomenally better and it’s going to show the best of what a natural fibre can do in a garment. Our clothes are sustainable for the right customer who has the right mindset. It harkens to that time when women would buy for the year as opposed to buying something at lunch to have for the evening. We’re changing consumption habits. I think people are ready to take their farm-to-table consuming habits and apply it to their wardrobe and other facets of their life.

“ So every pattern story starts with the weaving, and it spins off from there. ” 

KS: The values that guide your production—a preference for traditional fibres, direct connection with the producers, ethical sourcing and socially embedded trade—seem to follow trends in the food world, a connection you made in your previous answer. Tell us about your motivations in adopting these values and standards.

PS: Our project is all about transparency. It’s about honouring the local artisanal community as well as understanding your local environment and what it produces. It’s amazing to think that the local fibre produced in Ontario as well as regionally throughout Canada is actually suitable for the environment and what we as humans need to put on our body for the environmental elements that we have to combat seasonally. The types of wool breeds and the quality of alpaca fibre grown here—it’s like the terroir of a wine. We can talk about the terroir of a wool brand. The land produces those heartier fibres that we need in our outerwear. A lot of wools nowadays just get bleached, and that weakens the fibre. When you don’t do that you’re left with this natural fibre that’s doing what it was actually made by the environment to do.

We’re also trying to integrate the social factor. It’s easy to relegate the misery that is the by-product of the fashion industry to the back of our minds because we’re not sharing these traditions that are being lost. Our environmental protection agencies are strong and our water is drinkable, and we’re pretty well insulated from the environmental hazards that the fast fashion industry is creating. The price points on our garments tend to be rather high, but when you think about it, the question is the same one you face at the farmers’ market. You look the farmer in the eye and think, “Yes, I will purchase this from you.” The accountability factor of saying yes, I will improve the quality of your life and your bottom line by paying a dollar more for that dozen eggs, primes people to not be intimidated or shocked when they ask the same questions about their clothing.

“ We’re changing consumption habits. I think people are ready to take their farm-to-table consuming habits and apply them to their wardrobe and other facets of their life.”

KS: Can we expect a men’s collection in the future?

PS: Absolutely, we’re going to be going into men’s wear. That’s where the heart of my training lies. Women’s wear is where you make changes, but it’s in men’s wear where you know a company has durability. Men ten to be more loyal customers. They find what they like and continue to buy it for the rest of their lives.

KS: You already have some vertical integration in your business, do you hope one day to run your own farm for textile fibres?

PS: This issue has led us to examine what our beliefs are. We want to support the existing producers. There are so many farmers who aren’t maximizing their annual take on their goods, they’re not able to use all the parts of their produce or livestock. It’s important that more companies like mine find ways to support the existing producers by helping them bring new value to their existing products. I don’t want to compete with their value, I want to add value. It’s a wonderful challenge, because it keeps our company always evolving and having to think pointedly about what is being used, and what other farm products could be used in our production.

KS: You say you deal directly with weavers, tanners, and the like—tell me about them. Who are the most interesting people involved in the production of your clothes?

PS: Our artisans are the backbone of our brand. Deborah Livingston-Lowe is my gold standard. She had to relegate her passions to a hobby because there was no market for it. All of a sudden I came to her and said, let’s make this your main livelihood. She said absolutely, and jumped on board. Then there’s Steve Casman of Ascot Uniforms in Pickering, Ontario. His company currently produces very special pieces for our military and uniformed services, because they were the only ones in North America able to offer such incredible quality. What’s so special about Ascot Uniforms and Steve is he’s not afraid of a hand-sewn button. In fact, that was one of the first things about him that I saw and thought he was amazing. I said, will you do hand-sewn buttons? He said, “Absolutely—knot on the end, through the cloth, round six times, shanked twice, tied off twice. That is the military spec for a hand-sewn button. And yes, they check it.” I looked at him and thought, “You’re so special, how do I keep you.”  That’s why our outerwear is so special and that’s why our tailored goods are truly Canadian—tailored here, made here, the whole nine yards. It’s so exciting to be able to offer that kind of heritage and tradition to the customer.