Will Vancouver continue to grow as a Yoga hub?
The answer when put to Aleksa Havelar of Tonic clothing is a resounding yes. I caught up Aleksa last week and got the inside scoop on a local company that still designs and manufactures their yoga-lifestyle apparel in Vancouver, Canada. And yes, though they are compared to that “other” yoga company, the one that put Vancouver on the yoga apparel map, Tonic’s clothing does look different, not a spin-off to lululemon.
I also like Tonic’s continued focus on eco-fabrics – something I consider quintessential to a yoga brand – after all shouldn’t Yoga be synonymous with Sustainability? Sustainability to me = the interconnection we often give lip service to in yoga practice and philosophy, while forgetting how it relates to “real life” or as US based yogini Seane Corne often refers to, the now cliched statement, “our yoga practice off the mat.”
While still a small company, Tonic’s reputation is on the up and up. Tennis star Martina Hingis recently wore Tonic at the US Open this past summer, leading to some high profile and free advertising for Tonic on the world stage. Said Havelar smiling, “we didn’t have to pay to be there. As for our future plans, maybe we’ll be designing more tennis gear…”
Here’s some Q + A with Aleksa and Carol, Tonic’s lead designer:
What sets Tonic apart from other yoga clothing/ apparel lines?
Our look is clean and simple, but it’s not boring. If you’re thinking, “pffft, clean and simple, I can do that” just try cranking out 6 collections per year, with entirely brand new styles every season. Clean and simple starts to get a bit more challenging. What I hear other people say about Tonic the most is that the designs are sophisticated and elegant. For activewear, I think that’s a huge achievement. Whenever we design, we try to think in terms of building or adding on to a wardrobe, instead of designing for trends. We also think more along the lines of how the collections will complement what we’ve done in the past… It’s about creating “modern classics” (I borrowed this term from a designer friend who used it to describe her collection and think it’s so appropriate for Tonic)..
Why eco? What have been some of the challenges working with eco fabrics?
It’s something that’s always been in the back of our minds but we didn’t really know where to fit it in. We were this fledgling company trying to make really high quality activewear that wouldn’t pill and wear out or smell like a hockey bag after a few hot, sweaty Bikram classes. First and foremost, we wanted to make garments that lasted and it was important for us to be working with Canadian fabrics. So we started our brand with the supplex that will still use today, which we’ve dubbed Libra. As we started to grow we began to talk about what it means for us to use this fabric and in what direction we wanted the company to go.
Everyone at Tonic was aware of the garment industry’s impact on the environment and we thought about how there is this huge gap in the activewear market where sustainability is concerned. We wanted to start a collection that people could get more mileage out of. Instead of having one outfit to wear to the the studio, one outfit for practice and one outfit to wear when you’re going out for drinks with your friends, we wanted to combine all aspects of daily life. In Spring 2009, we launched our first Eco collection, using a bamboo and organic cotton blend that had more of a street wear feel to it, but was still ideal for practice. The bamboo blend had better technical properties than organic cotton on its own and it had a really luxurious hand.
That first collection was 6 pieces and less than 5% of our overall sales but we felt it was worth hanging onto. By the time we shipped our second eco collection, sales had grown by 25%. We’re now five collections in and have added new fabrications, like TENCEL to the mix and we started a men’s line of tees and hoodies.
I’d have to say that the biggest challenge is that we’re used to working with this fabric that does it all: breathes, dries quickly, doesn’t pill, keeps its shape, doesn’t fade, Canadian made and we keep on trying to find that perfect sustainable alternative.
What exactly is Eco? How do you define it?
I find it challenging to determine what eco is exactly. With so many varying perspectives and agendas, there’s a lot of conflicting information out there. You have to weigh the pros and the cons every step of the way from raw material to final product.
On a high note, the coolest thing about our collections is being part of this larger movement towards ‘slow fashion.’ People are starting to look more at where their clothing comes from, how it got here and how long it’s going to be around.
What’s the Tonic Collective and who makes it up?
By collective, I mean how everyone in the company collectively drives the vision and makes things happen on every level. We’re all involved in the design process and in the branding; so the vision doesn’t come from one person in particular. The Tonic collective is made up of all of the Tonic employees and the brand representatives we call Spirits. The feedback that we get from our Spirits is vital to our R&D and I don’t think our brand would be as strong without them. As far as the workplace goes, there are no complicated hierarchies and our roles are fluid. We always joke about how the owner of Tonic signs our checks and sweeps our floors. We really all take turns at jobs and pitch in to help wherever it’s needed. It makes us a strong team and we’re able to understand each other’s perspectives better. Everyone from sales to accounting to shipping to production sits in on design meetings and gives their input. It sounds like a logistical nightmare, but we have a clear vision so it’s relatively easy to stay focused.
How does being a Vancouver based company impact your work?
Vancouver is such a vibrant city with so many cultural and environmental inspirations to draw from. I think, because we’re primarily an active wear company, we work a lot with that west coast sensibility. It’s that need for our clothes to be comfortable and doing double duty, but we always add a little hint of European style, paying attention to fine details and fit, sculpting garments to hug the body just right. We’ve been really lucky to have the opportunity to be involved in the yoga community here for the last 6 years and we’re always so honoured to participate in local events like the annual Camp Moomba Yogathon, which raises money to send kids who have been impacted by HIV/AIDS to camp. Of course, we’ve also gotten used to being compared to that other Vancouver based-yoga company. All joking aside, they’ve done a really good job of putting Vancouver on the map in terms of activewear and I think it helps to add credibility to the city’s fashion industry when there are so many strong brands coming out of the city.
What are some of the ideas inspiring you / informing your next collection. (From Carol, Tonic designer)
I just finished Spring/Summer 2011 and I was inspired by heritage, lace, ruffles, shirring and peacocks, juxtaposed with clear, bright, intense, happy colours.
How do you reconcile working in the fashion industry with your eco- sensibilities? Are you involved in any eco-initiatives in the fashion industry? If so, what?
I haven’t reconciled working in the fashion industry with my eco-sensibilities. In fact I have considered leaving the industry on a number of occasions, but running away will not change anything. I work with companies who are eco conscious and work with them to improve their footprint.
Thanks Aleksa + Carol.
Look for Tonic retailers at www.mytonic.ca
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