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Interview with Hayley Gibson, Designer of Birds of North America!

We've been wanting to do a little segment of designer interviews for a while now, so you can get an idea of who is behind making your favourite lines of clothing! There can be a real disconnect in the fashion industry where you know a brand or a label, but have no idea what they are all about or who is even designing the clothes (especially in the fast fashion world!). We feel very lucky to have a unique and much more personal relationship with each and every one of our designers. We know their names, their faces, and we know how much work they put into churning out beautiful things for us each season. We want to share with you a side of the designers that goes a bit beyond the surface. 

For our first interview, we are so happy it's with none other than Hayley Gibson, designer behind Birds of North America. Read on to learn about her fave studio snacks, to her take on sustainability in the fashion industry!

Tell us about yourself!

I was born and raised in Victoria, BC, studied Fashion Design at Ryerson University, and I am the owner and designer of Birds of North America. I started Birds of North America in 2007 and we have been working with the same cutters and production team in Montreal since 2009, and we couldn't do this without them. I live and work with my partner, Neil, and we have one current pet (Tony - black cat) and one pet that lives in our hearts (Dora - Cairn Terrier - passed in 2014). At Birds we have two full time employees (Amy and Eleanor) and one part time (Ainslie) who do all of our quality control, packing and shipping of orders, sample sewing, repairs, and anything else we need done day-to-day at the studio. They are all lovely people and hard workers and I enjoy being around them a lot. Neil officially works full time as an artist, but is also involved in just about everything Birds-related. We all share the same studio space, and he does all of our photography, makes all the props we use in our collection shoots, and does all the heavy lifting to do with our shipping and deliveries. He is also a vital part of my process as a sounding board for design directions and business ideas. He has always been very respectful of my creative vision and supportive of whatever I think is the right thing to do, but it has been huge help to me to have him available to go over things with, as I am sometimes so close to the process that I lose sight of the big picture. 

Were there games you played as a kid that pointed to a future as a fashion designer/entrepreneur? 

That's an interesting question. I'm not sure if there were games, per se, but I feel like I have always been someone who enjoys working on my own and having control over my own life, so entrepreneurship was appealing to me in that way. I started sewing at a very young age as well (8 years old) and just wanted to do more and more of it as time went on. I spent the majority of my spare time as a teen making things out of fabric, redesigning second-hand clothing, and making things from scratch. By the time I actually went to fashion school I was very fast and good at sewing, and I think that was probably the single most valuable asset that helped me transition into having my own line of clothing - being able to develop styles and patterns quickly and having a solid understanding of garment construction.

How did you first get introduced to the Canadian fashion circuit? When did it click that this was how you wanted, and were going to, make a living?  How did you get started? 

Strangely, I don't feel like we were made aware at all of the smaller independent designer world when I was at school. It seemed to me that if you wanted to be a designer of your own things, you either had to go whole-hog and try to make an impression at fashion week and hope someone would scoop you into an established company in a design role, or you had to work your way up in a large company and hope someone would give you the design reins one day. I became aware of the community of smaller independent designers in Canada through a friend in Victoria, and the more I looked into how it all worked, the more it seemed like the perfect way to direct my skills and passion and to be in control of my own creative output. I started by creating a small collection of 8 styles and cold calling stores in Vancouver and Victoria to see if I could show them the samples. The first three years were excruciating as I learned how to make a business like this work, but it has gotten easier over the years. 

What does a typical day look like for you? 

Neil and I are basically attached at the hip. We leave home at 8am most days, walk to work together, arrive at 9am and get organized before the staff arrive at 9:30. Everyone works until 5pm then we spend about an hour winding down in the studio before walking home. I prepare work for the next day during that period, and we re-hash the events of the day. As far as actual work goes, it varies day to day and week to week. I'm spending a lot of time on our digital pattern making and grading system these days because it's a new addition to our process and it's taking me a while to figure it out. I feel like I'm having to constantly change how I do things to accommodate the business growing and changing, but I am learning to let go more and more and I sometimes surprise myself with how accepting I can be of my process changing! 

What's on your playlist in the studio? Do you have a favourite go-to band or artist that helps you focus? 

We listen to a lot of CBC, which is kind of awful, but it's also really good background noise when you are working on something you have to concentrate on. When I work alone, I always work in total silence, because that's how I'm best able to concentrate. It's a challenge to find a sound-scape that suits everyone, and I know many people find that music or audio entertainment of some kind helps them work, so we try to do a bit of everything. When you work with others you can't really demand your own perfect environment - everyone has to be willing to accept a bit of dissatisfaction in order for it to be tolerable for everyone else!

What are some of your favourite podcasts? 

I don't really have a favourite. When we do play them at the studio, I usually have trouble following the stories because I'm trying to concentrate on work, so I haven't been able to really bond with any too well! I do enjoy the New Yorker podcast whenever we put it on, and we were listening to the Someone Knows Something podcast when it came out, but I started feeling a bit overloaded a few years ago on stories of murdered and abused women being presented as entertainment, so I feel weird about a lot of that kind of stuff now. It's overwhelming how much of that kind of content there is out there. 

Of course we have to ask this: Favourite studio snack? 

I have a pretty out of control sweet tooth, so I really appreciate something sweet in the afternoon.  We all take a 'snack break' every day from 3:00 to 3:30 where we can chat and connect. It's a nice time of day for a break so we can be productive for the last hour or so of the day. I do a lot of baking in the evenings, so I bring a lot of vegan baked goods into the studio to share. I have a killer vegan chocolate cake recipe as well as an amazing vegan cranberry orange muffin recipe. If anyone wants them, send me an e-mail and I'll forward them!

Do you find sustainability factors more and more into each collection? 

'Sustainability' is one of those words that people use in a lot of different ways these days when it comes to clothing. For me, it manifests in an obsession with our clothing being of good quality. The construction is durable and we use resilient, reliable fabrics. Everything can be worn and washed over and over and kept for years. Any 'sustainable' product relies heavily on the buyer being willing to use it sustainably as well. I find I'm doing that a lot more in my own life with all sorts of products - being more aware of waste, trying to avoid mindless consumption as an opiate, and trying to be aware of not directing my life dissatisfaction at my belongings and replacing things that don't need to be replaced. 

What inspires you to keep manufacturing in Canada?

For me, it's a combination of being able to be closely involved with the production process, which I enjoy very much, as well as the very personal relationships we have developed with our contractors. There are faces to every job we hire people to do, and Birds is an important part of a system that employs many skilled, hard working people. I've never really had a desire to take our production anywhere else. I am very proud of what we have going on here, and want to keep it going!

What piece from your current collection will you be giving to your mom (or best friend or sister)? - could be a piece from your fall collection! 

Whatever piece they choose! I feel very strongly about the individual's right to choose their identity, and it makes me uncomfortable to influence others too heavily in terms of how they present themselves. Having said that, I might be inclined to push someone towards the Intergalactic print Gyrfalcon Jumpsuit, but only if they were already leaning that way, of course!

Do you have a piece of clothing that you could never part with, even if it doesn't fit or has holes or is totally unwearable, yet you just can't bring yourself to toss it? What's the story behind it?

I used to have a lot more of that kind of thing, but I have been trying to confront that kind of nostalgic fear-based hoarding impulse directly, and letting go. I feel like I used to keep everything when I felt like I didn't have what I needed emotionally in my life in my 20's. My sense of identity has grown stronger the last 10 years, and I feel more and more like I'm ok with less. Those kinds of things that you feel like you just can't let go of can be such an enormous burden. There are exceptions, of course, that come up in life, but for me at this moment in time, I don't have any of that type of clothing item in my possession. I also find that I have to nurture a bit of an irreverent attitude to be able to move forward with fashion.

If you could host a dinner party with any three people, living or dead, who would they be and why? 

I would invite Neil, because he's my favourite person in the world, and both my grandmothers. I wish my mum's mum, Molly, had been able to meet Neil before she died because they would have gotten along like a house on fire, and I would love to see her again and let her know I was ok because I was at a very low point in my life around the time she passed. I would also love to meet my dad's mum, Dorothy, because she died when I was very young and I can barely remember her. She was a strong minded, fiercely independent, intelligent woman who didn't take shit from anybody, and I would love to soak some of that up.

Were you a YM, Sassy, Cosmo, or Spin reader as a teen?

My mum would buy me Seventeen occasionally, but I didn't really have access to much in the way of fashion and magazine culture. I remember being tormented by the 'trim your thighs' workouts and diet advice in magazines at a way-too-young age, so I'm glad I wasn't exposed to any more of that than I was. In retrospect, it has been a great asset being an outsider to fashion culture because it helped me develop the confidence to find my own direction, so I wouldn't change that!

In what way do you hope to influence your clients ideas of dressing?

I really love how excited people get when they put one of our pieces on and it fits them in a way they haven't experienced before. We cut clothing in a very tailored way, and I feel like there isn't a ton of that kind of thing in the fast-fashion market these days. I just want people to feel the difference between clothing that fits and clothing that doesn't and to know they have a choice. 

What do you have on your mood board (whether physical or imaginary) for your fall collection?

Lots of psychedelic 60's and 70's prints in acid colours, jumpsuits, drop waist dresses, maxi dresses and graphic colour blocking. I was also experimenting with quite few new silhouettes this season - shift cuts, fuller styles, and varying hem lengths. I tried to let go of the restrictive feeling that everything for a fall collection has to have long sleeves and be 'warm', and I feel like it brought a vitality to the collection that has sometimes been missing for the fall.  I'm excited to see how the season will be received!
We're always curious about what goes on in the minds of our favourite creatives and we hope you've enjoyed this first interview of our ongoing segment! Stay tuned to find out more about Valerie Dumaine, Amanda Moss, Eve Gravel, and many more of our beloved Canadian makers! 
Pictured from top:
Hayley wearing the Diver Tunic from her SS17 collection

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