By Katia Ostapets
Photography by Kareen Mallon
Sitting in their warm and colourful Queen West apartment and studio, Chris Tyrell and Jim Searle of Hoax Couture chat with FAJO about their incredible decades-long journey in the fashion world.
As founders of the popular charity fashion show Dare to Wear Love Gala, they strive for social justice by helping those in need. Simultaneously, they help revive the Canadian fashion industry, which has a very special place in their hearts. The show takes place every year as part of the World MasterCard Fashion Week in Toronto, with many celebrities and some of the country’s top designers among its participants.
We catch up with Tyrell and Searle in the midst of a busy period, as they prepare for the 2013 gala.
KATIA OSTAPETS: Let’s start at the beginning — how did you meet?
JIM SEARLE: We had just gotten out of university. Chris had taken law and I had taken architecture.
CHRIS TYRELL: I didn’t want to be a lawyer, so I went away to Central America and travelled. People always say to think of your childhood and think of the things you really liked to do as a child. My mother was a seamstress, so as a kid I knew all about fashion. I used to help her pick up pins and she taught me how to make myself what I used to call ‘the famous pair of pants’. At one point, I would make a new pair of pants every evening to wear to school the next day. Coincidentally, during my travels I spent some time in a community where they dyed a lot of fabric and that’s where my mind started to wander. We had just met before that and when I came back we started to talk about it…
How did you start your business?
SEARLE: We used to drive to Salvation Army stores, buy old curtains with big flower prints, and wash and re-dye them. There was this one dress called ‘the 2½-hour dress’, because that’s how long it took us to make it. All our girlfriends bought them. There was a waiting list for them! We thought that was cool. Then we started painting T-shirts and selling them on Queen and Soho [streets]. We would sell out every Saturday. We were just blown away.
TYRELL: In mid-80s, we entered a design competition to get into a show at the Convention Centre. It was quite a big deal, but we didn’t realize that until we got there. The runway was 80 feet wide and they would send out 20 models at a time. Toronto had never seen anything like that — it was super glamourous. It was the biggest runway I’ve ever seen in my life, to this day. It was wild!
SEARLE: The first year we partnered with some friends of mine from design school, and we had a booth there. We had four architects that did this, so it was fabulous. And Holt Renfrew bought the whole collection! They just took the whole thing, booth and everything, and put it in a pop-up shop right in the middle of Holt’s, by the escalator. So we were in business!
TYRELL: That collection was kind of cool because it was all made out of upholstery fabric, like you would see on your grandmother’s sofa.
SEARLE: We had to figure everything out because we didn’t know how to sew or do sizes, not even where to buy a zipper. We didn’t know anything! We knew the girls from Comrags and called them daily asking, ‘How do you do this and how do you do that?’ After a while we started to figure things out.
How has your business grown since then?
SEARLE: We did different things; we had a store on Queen Street, wholesaled for a few years and gradually settled into what we do now, which is custom design. It works really well for us. We tried to get really big and become the next Calvin Klein, but that really drove us crazy.
TYRELL: In Canada, fashion is not part of the cultural fabric; the government and banks do not support it. But we chose to stay here because we like it, for better or for worse.
SEARLE: We like doing what we are doing because of the lifestyle it affords us. It’s pretty hectic when you’re on the fashion treadmill. We would have been doing spring 2014 right now and freaking out. We wouldn’t have time for anything else.
TYRELL: [We had to decide] — do we want to be famous or have quality of life? We decided to stay here. We love Canada!
What advice would you give to aspiring designers?
TYRELL: If you really want to make it big, you should leave Canada. It’s not for nothing that the big designers are in Milan and Paris. They have a lot of support. It’s hard, and I think a lot of people need to know that.
A lot of people think the designers in those cities are very talented and that’s why you hear about them all the time. That’s not why. There are several reasons: one of them is that every year the international fashion press goes to Paris, London, Milan and New York, looking for new designers. Canada is not part of the international fashion circuit. The other reason is that the government, banks, venture capitalists and even consumers support them. It’s not the same here.
What is your favourite thing to design?
TYRELL: We don’t have a favourite. We love helping people get exactly what they want. Some of the clients we have are wonderful to make clothing for because they really have so much faith in us. Sometimes they just say, ‘I need three new suits. When can I come for a fitting?’ They don’t even want to talk about what it will look like. Some of them have been our clients for 20 years, so we have to think about what they already have.
How do you find working together for so long?
TYRELL: It’s always been easy to work together. And it’s easier for us to work together than separately — we tried that at the beginning and we realized that it was really boring!
How did you become involved with the Dare to Wear Love Gala?
SEARLE: We wanted to give back in some way. If we’re going to spend the money to go somewhere on vacation, why don’t we go somewhere where we can actually benefit the place we are going to? One night, we were sitting at a dinner table at a gala. Chris started talking to the woman beside him and telling her this idea of going to Africa, getting off a plane and telling them to just put us to work.
TYRELL: And she looks at me and just says, sarcastically, ‘Good luck with that!’ Turned out this was Stephen Lewis’s daughter. She called us the following week and said, ‘You guys have been on my mind, so I thought I would have you come in and see what we do at the [Stephen Lewis] Foundation.’
SEARLE: We were impressed and thought maybe we can help these people do what they do, which is help children who are orphaned because of AIDS, and [help] the grandmothers who are left to care for them.
TYRELL: I was an orphan and was raised by my grandmother, so I felt I really have to do this. So, Jim and I thought maybe we would do a fashion show. We could do it at a restaurant, invite our friends and maybe raise $2,000. Then, we realized it would be a lot of work [and expenses], especially since we didn’t have a collection. Because we were involved with Fashion Cares [and Toronto Fashion Week], we knew how to build a fashion-related event from the ground up. So we thought, ‘Let’s call some of the designers who are really good friends and see if they want to participate.’ We called them and they said ‘Yeah, are you kidding? What a great idea! Let’s do it!’ Then, we spoke to Robin Kay and she said, ‘That’s brilliant!’
We did it all in 2½ months. Now, we are in year four and we’ve raised over $150,000.
Has it always been important for you to work with charities?
SEARLE: It’s necessary.
TYRELL: Especially when you live in a country like Canada and see what is going on in other parts of the world. We’ve been to Africa four times and we know what it’s like for people there. [It’s important to] help others who are not lucky enough to live in Canada, just because of the accident of their birth. We see it as social justice.
How do you choose the designers for Dare to Wear Love?
TYRELL: Most of the designers are friends and established designers. We know we can trust them. We know they will get it all done [by the deadline]. We started with 25 designers, but now all designers want to participate. It’s really hard to bump somebody, but every year we introduce about five new designers and we always try to introduce one who is a student or just starting out.
SEARLE: We want people who will make something fabulous, something that will make a statement on the runway.
For the show, you use authentic African fabric. Where do you get it from?
SEARLE: We get it through people who go to Africa. The Foundation always has people there.
TYRELL: In the past, we’ve also gone and bought the fabric ourselves. The fabrics are really inexpensive ones that you can buy in the markets in Africa. It’s what women wear on a daily basis. We wanted to show that fashion is not all about lace and organza, that you can create something beautiful with the most basic and inexpensive fabrics.
We’ve been doing it for four years, and we can do it for 40 more, because the prints that we get every time are different. It’s hilarious to watch designers pick fabrics. You’ll hear some of them say, ‘God, that’s really awful!’ while others come in, look at the same fabric and say: ‘Oh my God, that’s beautiful! I love it!’ Very rarely do designers go after the same fabric.
How do you feel the fashion industry has changed over the years?
SEARLE: It’s much more competitive now. There are way more designers than there used to be, so starting out now would be much harder, I think.
TYRELL: Starting out and getting noticed would be lot harder. Then, there’s social media. And it’s a lot of work too! E-mailing, Facebooking, Tweeting… That side of the industry has changed a lot. Another thing that’s changed is that Canadians are becoming more aware of fashion.
SEARLE: In the ‘80s, there used to be such a buzz around Canadian designers. Now, everything is more global. We are trying to cultivate that with the Dare to Wear Love Challenge.
TYRELL: The mandate for the Challenge is not to just raise funds for Africa but also create something around Canadian fashion designers — to not only show what they do but also that they participate in social justice causes.
Want to attend the charity Gala this year? You can purchase the tickets here.