Traceable, ethical and luxurious—Peggy Sue Collection is a sustainable womenswear line that doesn’t lack integrity.
Born and raised in Venice Beach, California, Peggy Sue Deaven-Smiltnieks officially launched her brand in 2015, after moving to Toronto, Canada. A year later, she won Toronto Fashion Incubator’s New Labels Fashion Design Competition.
We met Deaven-Smiltnieks in downtown Toronto at the Centre for Social Innovation. Sitting beside a rolling rack of her latest collection, she starts pointing out different pieces and telling the story behind the materials and craftsmanship. Our interview sort of naturally kicks off as she tells me about a denim jacket.
PEGGY SUE DEAVEN-SMILTNIEKS: Our denims are really exciting. Deborah, from Upper Canada Weaving, really pioneered this incredible fabric. So, this jacket is from, I think, four pairs of recycled pants as well as yarns. For the current collection, the story is about upcycling and how we can use textile waste to create new pieces.
VIOLET MACLEOD: I see the sashiko stitching on the denim pants, can you tell me about it?
PEGGY SUE DEAVEN-SMILTNIEKS: There’s an artist who I’ve always had a deep friendship with: Bree Zorel. She did all of this sashiko mending, which is a Japanese tradition, but applied it to some of our pieces. All of the embroidered animals and botanicals are local Ontario species. It was really special to involve a fine artist and I’m hoping with every line hereafter we’ll be able to continue to work with artists.
We’re talking about upcycling and sustainable fabrics, so how does someone with a closet of fast fashion start to build a sustainable wardrobe?
You start building it slowly, by actually falling in love with every piece and not compromising. I remember the first investment piece I bought, it was a $300 Merino wool sweater and it was terrifying. I never thought I could afford it and now I’ve had it for seven years! So, you start slow and then start adding.
What got you interested in sustainability and fashion?
I went to school at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] for fine arts. In my mind, I was going to become a painter or a sculpture. But I took an apparel class and really fell in love with making clothing, and the idea that clothing could be a means to unlocking a person, or enabling them to express themselves. I liked the idea of worn art.
When I graduated, it was in the middle of the Recession. My upper classmen had been laid off and there was no hope of me getting the job I wanted. So, instead, I worked for a company that did huge mass-market fashion lines for Walmart, The Home Shopping Network, Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. It was a neat experience, we launched Miss Tina, Beyoncé Knowles’ mom’s, line, for Walmart. So I was doing stretchy synthetic leggings in the craziest animal print colours you’ve ever seen.
What was it like working with synthetics and in mass market fashion?
I hated it, I really felt like I was giving up my soul. I wanted to make art, and here I was, making leggings. At the same time, a lot of my friends had decided to become small farmers in upstate New York. On weekends, I’d go up north and help them on their farms. They started asking me: ‘You work with farmers’ fibers like cotton and wool, how does that work?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh no, we work with synthetics and I’m pretty sure if there was cotton in there we wouldn’t know the farm it came from.’ So, I started looking into our supply chain and labour rights, and it was super dirty, and pretty eye-opening.
Finally, it came to the point where I decided to try something else. In 2012, I started a small accessories company in New York. It was very successful, we sold size-less accessories all along the Eastern Seaboard. They were all natural fibers, like Alpaca and wools. It was a great way to get my feet wet and see how to sell natural products.
At this point, you’re selling natural accessories in the United States, what happened next?
I had partners and they wanted to focus on other portions of the business, so we split.
My husband is Canadian, so he was in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area]. I was spending as much time in Canada as I was the States, he was doing the vice versa. We really fell in love with the Toronto area, the agricultural community, the food movement,and the fiber communities. In 2015, I came to Canada and launched Peggy Sue Collection.
How did you make those local connections and gain the trust of farmers and millers?
It was the New Labels collection that was the most pivotal. The farmers and millers got to see every stage of the collection. When the yarns were milled, they got to see the yarns; when the swatches were made, they got to see the swatches. And what was really, really special was that at the runway show a lot of the very key players within the supply chain were in the audience.
What was it like the moment you were announced the winner?
It was the coolest, because everyone there got to feel like, ‘Okay, come to the table, let’s talk. Let’s have everyone see that this is something that we, as farmers, millers and makers, could do.’ And it was still pretty surreal.
It’s been three years since you launched Peggy Sue Collection. How did you find success in such a short amount of time?
We’ve had a lot of people take time within the industry. People who are actually interested in the story. We’ve had that consideration from a lot of big people who absolutely owe me nothing and don’t have to give me the time of day, but they have. For example, David Dixon was like, ‘This line needs some accessories.’ I was like, ‘I will make you accessories, David Dixon, whatever you want.’
Speaking of your accessories, why did you decide to use fallen antlers?
(laughs) Well, we needed buttons. So, I had to find natural buttons and I found this individual who makes them in Rockwood, Ontario. John is amazing! He’s retired with his wife, and she’s a hand knitter, so he started making her buttons. When I was in the New Labels incubator, Suzanne Timmins was like, ‘I love these little buttons, they’re very special, but for the runway, I want something big and crazy, like a piece of antler!’ I called John. Everyone knows he makes buttons, but he had a garage full of natural shed [antlers that people gave him]. So, I sat at this kitchen table tapping off portions of antler and being like, ‘this piece, with two holes!’ And he was like, ‘Okay, let’s try it.’
So each cut is unique?
Well, what’s fun is you can actually line up the cuts and see the progression. They’re hard to cut. He cuts everything by hand and free-form. They’re pretty precious pieces.
What can we expect next from Peggy Sue Collection?
The most recent collection was all about being made in Canada. Fifty-one per cent is the legal requirement for a brand to be labeled as ‘Made in Canada’. For our next collection, we are focusing on making as much of a product in Canada as possible, so 98 per cent Canadian fiber, Canadian milling and Canadian making—all as close to Toronto as possible.
There are a few outliers. For example, we don’t have any vegetable tanneries for our leather in Canada, so that’s something I will always get from New York until that happens. It will be a very Canadian collection.