Joseph Tassoni wants you to know the impact of shopping Made in Canada. The Canadian designer stays committed to producing his luxury outerwear with his own team in downtown Burlington, Ontario.
Ever since his childhood foray into fashion design, the Ryerson University alumni has always brought warmth, joy and his sense of philanthropy to his work, from his first runway show as a teen, through to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tassoni, who produces his garments with an emphasis on sustainability and renewable materials, joined us virtually from his factory space, proudly placing the quality manufacturing of his eponymous label on display.
Victoria Nergaard: What initially inspired you to begin fashion design?
Joseph Tassoni: I started making clothes when I was about 5 years old. I could sew before I could read. There’s a photo where I’m on the stairs with my three sisters, I’m about 5 years old, I’ve cut up all of my mom’s drapes and my sisters are wearing my dresses. Making clothes and creating garments has been something that’s always been a part of my life.
Growing up in a house full of women with my three sisters, my mom and my grandma, I always saw fit issues. [I saw] them go through these troubles: they’d be trying to find dresses to wear to semi-formals and formals, and nothing worked. I was really humbled to always be able to create designs for them.
Can you share some of your career journey as a Canadian designer with us?
After I studied at Ryerson, I started an internship position at Pink Tartan and I basically got coffee, did cutting, did shipping—I did everything. Joe Mimran was my mentor for about four years, so he moved me from Pink Tartan to Tevrow + Chase and Holt Renfrew Private Label as pattern maker. Then, I began Joe Fresh as the junior menswear designer. Being at Joe was my first experience of dealing with outerwear. From there, I went to South America and did a jewelry line which sold in The Bay across 25 stores. When I came back, I was your ghost designer, your brand manager and your sales manager, for about 10 different brands, all under one group. Nobody knew who I was. If you worked in the industry, you knew exactly what I did, but the public had no idea. I’ve done outerwear, swimwear, pants, dresses, red carpet dresses, movie pieces, everything really.
What encouraged you to begin designing outerwear specifically?
Outerwear was always an element of what I’ve done. About four years ago, before I launched my line, I became the head designer and was in charge of sales, branding and production, for a former heritage company LaParka, which was Linda Lundstrom’s former line. It was a huge undertaking and what was really important for me was that when you’re doing Made in Canada and investing in your people, you have to own your own company. If you don’t own your own company, you can’t call those shots! You’re building a team and people are proud to be producing in Canada, but if you don’t own the company and the owners want to change things, it’s a different situation.
Where do you source your materials from to stay Made in Canada and sustainable?
I launched my line with one parka and three coats in 2017. From there, it’s grown into a full outerwear line for men and women and all of the materials are locally sourced. The down that I use is a by-product of ducks raised by the Hutterite community in Alberta. The outer shells are milled in Quebec. All of the fur that I use is upcycled, I either don’t use fur, or if I do it’s recycled from existing pieces. We also offer prima-loft as a down-alternative made of recycled plastic fibres. Everything that I do has to have the ability to renew itself back into the environment and I don’t create in excess or mass. I’m sold in about 28 independent retailers, but now with the pandemic, everything has changed, so I’m primarily online. And we’ve been doing a lot of custom orders.
Can you tell us a bit about your COVID-19 relief efforts?
When the pandemic hit, I was the first fashion brand in Canada to begin creating reusable face and hand coverings. Because we do luxury outerwear apparel, as simple as an item as it is, I decided we were going to invest in a fabric designed to go around your nose and mouth, so it brings any chance of rash or reaction to a zero. Purchasing from us also covers the wage of Ontario workers to keep our economy going and the remaining $5 goes to the Joseph Brant Hospital. We’ve been doing that since the beginning of March, and it’s been a journey of ups and downs.
How are you growing as a brand during the pandemic?
We’ve just launched a line of bamboo terry bathrobes and towels, and the fabric is incredible, it’s all locally sourced. You want to stay chic and comfy at home and, often, when you’re looking at bathrobes, you’re usually looking at more synthetic fibres that don’t absorb water, or don’t have that luxe feel. I wanted to bring it back to the supermodel era, so it’s very luxe and I wanted the price points to be real! So many people have lost their jobs, so many people don’t know where the next paycheque is coming in from, but you still want to feel inspired and warm at home.
What has been your biggest challenge during the pandemic?
When you’re dealing with a luxury item, investment items, you’re trying to take a tactile experience, the experience of walking in and touching, and shift it online. How do you make luxuries a click away on the computer where you can’t touch or feel? That’s the biggest challenge I’ve had right now, apart from hitting sales, keeping people employed and being able to pay them. Things are very different, but I think everyone in the community is supporting us and without their support I wouldn’t be here.
What do you feel that Canadian designers bring to the industry that’s different?
I can speak for myself because I think that every Canadian designer is unique but, for me, it’s that I’m able to put our craftsmanship on a global platform. I believe that when you go around the world and ask what Canada brings to fashion, everybody should refer to us as great fit and quality, which is often the case! Every designer is different but, in my case, I like to create silhouettes for how your body is now. They’re investment pieces, so these are pieces that are going to last with you. It’s not about clients having to change their body to wear Joseph Tassoni, it’s about looking great as they are in any piece of mine. We go up to 4X and I specialize in plus sizes too.
Sometimes, you can’t find anything that fits quite right, so when you try on one of my pieces, specifically womenswear, I do a lot of seams that are inspired by tulips. Everything is designed to wrap around the body. No matter what the shape is, it’s designed to highlight your features. If you’re slightly fuller in the chest or fuller in the sides, it will work with you and act like a smaller waist. And for guys, I love great shoulders. When it comes to menswear, shoulders are so important because it means power. You should always feel empowered, so for guys, it’s my T-fit.
What has been your biggest challenge being a Canadian designer?
The challenge that I’ve seen is keeping production going and keeping workers here. The hardest thing is keeping things made in Canada. When people invest in Made in Canada—not made oversees, brought here, flipped and labelled “Made in Canada” —there’s a mass domino effect from the shipper to the person who sells the fabric to the buyer. It’s a whole process that goes back to the end consumer. The challenge is having the end consumer understand the impact that they have when they buy Made in Canada.
What has been your biggest reward as a Canadian designer?
My biggest reward is seeing the community happy and giving back with everything I do. Since my first runway show when I was 16, I donated all of the ticket sales to a girl in my high school who had a disease called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, which was a brittleness of the bones, so if you touched her, she would break. Her mother wanted to raise funds to send videos to hospitals across Canada to educate doctors on how to treat someone with OI, so as a thank you, the mom had Jeanne Beker come to open up my show when I was 16.
Since then, I do as much work as I can with the Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation and now with the Hamilton Health Sciences Foundation, which treats a lot of cancer patients in about 7 hospitals. For me, the biggest reward is when the community is proud to embrace Made in Canada, but I’m also able, as small of a company as I am right now, to give back to them. It’s a two-way street! When people are investing in Made in Canada and investing in your pieces, you have to keep giving back. You’re keeping the economy going, but giving back always is a part of who I am.
What kind of future do you envision for Canadian fashion?
I would love for us as Canadian designers, to be recognized more for what we do. I think we have such creative geniuses here; I think we’re so talented and we all speak to different places. If you look at designers from B.C. to the Maritimes, every single designer is different and every single designer is reflective of the environment that they’re in. I think that the more that we stick together and stick to our guns that we’re made here in Canada, we’re going to remain strong. It’s so easy to take things overseas, but if we want to be recognized globally, we have to bring it home and keep it home. You have to invest in sustainability if you want longevity. This is my life, this is all I’ve known since before I could read, so I’m in this for the long run. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right. You have to set the proper foundation and stick to it as tough as it is. My philosophy, the pillars of my brand and who I am don’t change.
All images are courtesy of Joseph Tassoni.