It may seem like another manic Monday, but stepping into Hayley Elsaesser‘s boutique on Queen Street West in Toronto feels like joining a party. The store is vibrant and colourful, and so is everyone who enters it. Elsaesser has made a name for herself in Canada and abroad by creating designs that will not only brighten up your mood, but everything around you. She is also well-known for making clothes that are very inclusive, and for inviting models of all ages, genders and races to participate in her runway shows.
Elsaesser works closely with her brother Connor, who looks after sales and marketing of the brand. They are a dynamic duo, with an upbeat attitude, big smiles and a great sense of humour. Both dressed in Elsaesser’s clothing, and accompanied by designer’s pup, called Misato aka Miso, they sat down with me for a chat and opened up about their lives, work and inspirations. Part of our conversation was about the influence their Mom had on their lives and work, which is why it seems extra appropriate to publish this article on Mother’s Day.
HANNAH YAKOBI: So, Hayley, let’s start with some facts—I’ve been reading a lot about you and many articles claim that you are Australian, but apparently you are Canadian?
HAYLEY ELSAESSER: I’m technically both. I was born and raised here, but I went to school in Australia, our Dad lives there and I started the brand there, so I have an Australian citizenship. I definitely have ties to Australia, but identify as a Canadian. (laughs) I lived in Brisbane and showed my first fashion collection at the L’Oréal Melbourne Fashion Festival. It’s a more consumer-focused event. I started the business in 2013, so it’s been just over 5 years.
I studied fashion design and technology in Brisbane at the Queensland University of Technology, I also studied in Vancouver but found that their fashion was very outdoorsy, very “safe” from what I wanted to do. I wanted to really push myself and get inspired, and that’s why I went to Australia: they are so much more colourful and fun. I think it was a very good decision, because it definitely pushed me towards the full aesthetic that I have now.
HAYLEY: I’m really close to my family and my Mom. My Dad has been remarried a couple of times, so we have younger half-siblings in Australia. But Connor and I are also really close.
And who is older?
CONNOR ELSAESSER: I’m older.
HAYLEY: I know, I know. Nobody ever knows. It’s two years. It’s his beautiful skin! (everyone laughs) And plus my Mom is here. And I think that Australia is amazing, but it’s so isolated that I feel that if I stayed there any longer, I would have to start over elsewhere.
HAYLEY: Both. Everything.
CONNOR: The seasons are flipped, so it’s hard with all the big international fashion weeks. You are going against the tide. Australia is very good at supporting its own brands and celebrities, and their own thriving industry, but it’s contained. If you want to expand further, you kind of have to leave. Whereas in Canada, you can be here but still have a presence in the United States as well.
HAYLEY: Even the brands that were huge in Australia, nobody has ever heard of them here. They would still have to go and show at New York Fashion Week even when they are majorly established in Australia. I really wanted to come back and be established here. Plus, I was very young at the time. I was, I guess, 26 and I have been away from my family for five years.
HAYLEY: We are from Cambridge, Ontario, in Canada. Back in the day, there wasn’t online shopping: it was just the mall with a couple of chain stores, not a lot of options. So it was almost out of necessity. I was always really into music, and really loved Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs when I was a teenager. She is just really girl-power-crazy, punk-rock awesome. And I wanted to dress like these people I idolized, but there wasn’t anywhere to go to get those clothes. So, I started off with going to thrift stores, DIY-ing a bunch of stuff, and then I learnt how to sew in high school in Australia. I just started making my own clothes from there. I was in Australia for just 6 months, and then came back to study psychology at Brock University for a year. But I had a moment when I wasn’t doing any of my psychology work and was just sewing all the time.
So you were psycho-analyzing that this isn’t what you are supposed to be doing in life?
HAYLEY: I kind of thought that I needed to pursue fashion. Psychology was practical, but my heart wasn’t in it. I always liked creating things.
CONNOR: She had been doing it for a little while, and it’s hard to run a business on your own. Then, she was kind of getting to the point where notoriety was exceeding sales, and she needed to grow that side of things. I have a sales and project management background, and a lot of experience managing suppliers.
HAYLEY: He is very organized, business-minded and practical, and I’m very disorganized and creative. We are both creative, actually. He has the experience that I don’t have, so putting the two together is awesome.
How are you growing your brand right now?
CONNOR: We are really focused on e-commerce, although we have been in many department stores, such as Hudson’s Bay and Simons. I’m taking a marketing course now through Cornell University to kind of figure that side of things. Everything has changed so much—Amazon has pretty much taken things over. I think the stores even in the U.S. have really seen a downturn in the brick-and-mortar sales. We have seen that designing more exclusive collections may be a way to go, which means we can cater more to our e-commerce customer. Hayley really flies in the face of the traditional fashion-designer model, where it’s exclusive and very expensive, and hoity toity in a way, but we were raised by a single Mom, so there is more of a blue-collar approach to it. We want to be approachable and affordable by most people.
HAYLEY: We always want our brand to be very accessible. We make the pricing as accessible as we can, but still keep the production ethical. I think that’s part of the reason why many brands love working with us, because we just keep it so approachable for the everyday person.
You also don’t mass-produce, right? Since you do different sizing and make your clothes in small batches?
HAYLEY: A lot of people don’t understand that too and ask why it is so expensive.
CONNOR: It’s literally as cheap as we can sell it because we oftentimes do 50 pieces of a style split between two colours. So, literally, 25 of these items exist in the world, it’s not thousands and thousands of pieces. We kind of have to do that in order to offer a collection. We do extra small to extra large sizing, or sometimes double extra large in women.
So do you do two collections per year like most designers, or do you create more timeless collections that people can wear anytime?
HAYLEY: We still do spring/summer and fall/winter, but we also do several drops throughout the year.
CONNOR: And most of Hayley’s stuff is designed to be sort of trans-seasonal. The colour ways kind of blend themselves for being good for both seasons. And Hayley tries not to follow trends: most of the silhouettes are pretty classic.
In terms of the colour schemes, you do a lot of pastels. How do you delegate that depending on the season?
HAYLEY: Our fall is like everybody else’s summer, to be honest! It’s a little bit more saturated and a little darker, but it’s still vibrant. It’s about primary-level colours. Whereas for the summer, it’s all pastel and always very colourful. In the summer, you feel more relaxed, whereas in the winter you need colour to pump you up, as you get out to face the cold. Just because it’s dark outside, doesn’t mean you need to dress to that mood. You can be wintery and warm, but still colourful at the same time.
Hayley, would you say that your designs are very similar to your personal design aesthetic? Many designers dress and design the same way, whereas others are always dressed in black but design completely differently.
HAYLEY: It’s me, on a good way. (everyone laughs) I’m very overworked and tired all the time, so I don’t always look as put together as I would like to. But it’s definitely my aesthetic. Everything in here I would wear. I think I would wear more of the menswear, because I’m more of a tomboy and I grew up playing sports. But I also love makeup and the feminine side of it. For example, at one point I did a lipstick collection. Everything I design for the most part is unisex, so it often has the feminine and masculine vibe to it at the same time, which is kind of representative of me.
CONNOR: The creativity of it is enjoyable. Hayley, obviously, does the hard work of design, but we conceptualize a lot of things together, and if I have an idea for something, I’m happy to share it with her. Certain pieces have more of my influence than others, but the main collection is normally Hayley’s baby. We’ve also had some really cool experiences and have worked with some great brands too, like Nike, Microsoft and Barbie.
HAYLEY: I agree, we are never limited with what we can come up with. We also print all our own fabrics, which is not something most people do. The fact that we can do a rat on a slice of pizza, surfing, is crazy. The possibilities are endless.
CONNOR: We also do open casting, and always try to have many different kinds of people in our photo content and on our runways. Meeting those people and working with them is always the best part of fashion week for us. And then there are agency models who can showcase their personalities on the runway with us, as opposed to always being told to be rigid. We tell them: “You can smile and be whatever.” And they say, “Whatever?!”
I think even though the clothes are so over the top, you almost have to have a personality to pull it off, even if you are shy about it. A lot of people say that they wear our clothes to express themselves. This is how Hayley started to design. She was very shy, the quietest kid you could ever meet. She, literally, didn’t order a cheeseburger from McDonald’s until she was 20! But then she would just weirdly walk down the mall and high-five an old man, which is very awkward. (everyone laughs) Meanwhile, she couldn’t talk to our aunts and uncles at Thanksgiving.
HAYLEY: I always idolized people who were very different, because I knew I was weird. That was an obvious thing to me: rather than try to fit into something, it was easier to wear a cool outfit to show that I was interesting. It was about embracing my weirdness through fashion. I used to be afraid to wear head-to-toe colour, can you imagine?! I remember one day I was wearing red pants and a blue shirt, and I was like, “This is too crazy.” So I think putting yourself out of your comfort zone is really important too. A lot of musicians wear our stuff, because it gets you noticed and people remember you.
To me, fashion is also about making really cool connections. I’m sure you have experienced this a lot in fashion: people are trying to be someone they are not, or are trying to fit some sort of persona they think that they should be. And we don’t do that—we are just ourselves.
HAYLEY: The mouth is one of the most popular prints that we have. It’s from a collection called Heavenly Bodies, where I wanted to just embrace every kind of body. Every body is heavenly to me, everyone is beautiful. It’s like a miracle that we even exist, so everything about you is awesome. When I was a kid, I used to have a really large space between my teeth. Connor still has a little one that’s really cute. I had a big one that I was really self-conscious about, so I got braces and, now, I wish I hadn’t done that because it was something that made me really special and unique. So, that print is a nod to individuality and being yourself, and my personal experience with that.
CONNOR: If you look at the plaid print closely, you will see that there are words written into it that are basically cosmic dread, which was a convergence of technology and the future, where no matter how technologically advanced we become, you can’t escape existential dread and the fear of being a human. We had an entire collection called Cosmic Dread. The text on the print says something like, “In the deep recesses of the human psyche lies the vastness of time and space.” (everyone laughs) I wrote that. I’m better at the word stuff and Hayley is better at the visuals, so we usually collaborate.
HAYLEY: We understand each other very well. I usually have an overall concept, but sometimes it’s hard for me to put it into concrete terms. We often distill it together into a collection. We have a single Mom, so Connor basically kind of raised me from a very young age. So, we know each other very well, we know how the other person thinks. When I try to explain something, he does what I’m talking about.
You’ve mentioned several times that you grew up with a single Mom. How has that affected you and how has it influenced your work?
HAYLEY: It definitely influenced me in a very positive way, because growing up I saw my Mom who had a lot of energy and was a very strong person. She was my role model. I thought that if she can do this, I can do whatever I want, I never questioned it. She always motivated me and made me have a very wild imagination, and be very confident in myself. She was a teacher and taught design and tech, which was a very hands-on work at the wood shop. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I experienced things like sexism and I was taken aback, but I was already my own person by then. She was always very optimistic.
CONNOR: I think we are both not anti-authority, but we don’t really conform. When you have one parent, it’s kind of easier to team up against the mom (everyone laughs) versus when you have two parents and they present a unified front. Our Mom was amazing. I think she almost overcompensated because she wanted us to have opportunities and do a lot of things. Our dad was in Australia, so it’s not like she had weekends to herself. Her sisters were good at giving her a break occasionally, but she would get up at 6 a.m. to take me to hockey practice and then Hayley would do basketball at say 2 p.m.
What does she think about your business now?
HAYLEY: She likes it; she is very proud!
CONNOR: She is the kind of person who would be head-to-toe in the same colour, but she also wears Hayley’s designs.
HAYLEY: Connor actually got her custom mouth-printed Vans sneakers that she wears.
To wrap up, let’s talk about the letter you wrote and published on the first day of Toronto Fashion Week in February, which discussed why you aren’t doing a runway show there this season. You are a Canadian designer, but you’ve also lived and worked in another country. What do you think are the main issues in our industry? And how do we go about solving them?
HAYLEY: Sydney Fashion Week was cool because they had front cover of the newspaper, and it was all over the news. It was something that was so much more “normal” for them to talk about and cover. The general public was interested in supporting their fashion week and designers. I think in Canada, people don’t really care until someone goes elsewhere and makes it there, which is so sad. I think we need to make an effort. The fashion is an industry that can make our country a lot of money, and we need to support local designers versus huge corporations.
HAYLEY: It should be something using technology. The ability to buy instantly, or even something with virtual reality would be awesome. I think there are endless possibilities, but people are afraid to take the first step.
CONNOR: For example, we worked with Microsoft last year and they filmed a 360-degree view of our runway show. When watching the video on YouTube, you can actually rotate your view and it moves the camera. And we didn’t do a crazy quality video, but it was fun. It would be great to have something like that, or have a live TV show of the runways. Let’s think of it this way – Toronto Fashion Week is like a little brother of New York or London Fashion Weeks. Cool. Well, the CFL is like the little brother of NFL, but every single CFL game is televised in Canada and The Grey Cup is huge. I don’t watch it, Hayley probably doesn’t know who the teams are, but it’s on TV, so why not do the same for the fashion industry? Get people more involved, reach out and have it be a larger event, even if it’s online.
HAYLEY: And it can’t just be a “now” thing and that’s it. It has to be ongoing. It has to be about supporting the fashion industry in Canada. We are always looking outside of our own country for talent, but we should be looking inside. I feel like I don’t know who it would be, but can we just take them and tell them: “Do it, man!”