A New Brunswick fashion designer who recently moved to Toronto says she hopes to help create more opportunities for those in creative industries back home as her business grows.
Dee Wilkie is the founder of the Dee Silkie brand. She was born and raised in Fredericton and graduated in 2012 from the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design with a focus on surface design and textiles. She specializes in silk, hence her brand’s name.
Wilkie says being based in Atlantic Canada played a huge role in building her portfolio, but the lack of nearby resources to build out her business forced her to relocate to a bigger city centre.
“After school, I spent the next few years just building up my portfolio and working with other East Coast brand and creatives like Wear Your Label and Jeff Alpaugh,” says Wilkie. “After really building up my portfolio and deciding that I wanted to do this full-time, I discovered there was a hole in the market in the East Coast in terms of finding sewers.”
She says this is a huge gap for aspiring fashion designers in the region because though they can study fashion design in Atlantic Canada, there are no resources to make fashion design a living in here.
“Schools like The New Brunswick Craft and Design, for example, they’re teaching people the art of the fashion design, which is amazing,” says Wilikie. “People graduate from these programs and they’re so creative. They know how to make these beautiful garments but they don’t have the resources to go into production mode, and that is the gap.”
Like many big and small clothing brands worldwide, New Brunswick designers do have the option to outsource their clothing manufacturing to sewers overseas or in other provinces. But Wilikie says doing so brings a lot of hurdles and expenses to designers many don’t expect.
“It is really hard to oversee a production line when you are not close enough to drop in on a regular basis,” says Wilkie. “I absolutely encourage people to try, but only if this is what you want to do with every fiber of your being as there are constant hurdles you have to overcome and nothing is as easy or cheap as you think it will be.”
This was something she learned first-hand. Wilkie used a manufacturer in China to design her line of “Kindness Boxers” last year.
“I was very lucky that my product turned out well however when I worked with them again to develop another product the quality was not the same and so I ended up not working with them again,” she says.
“Not only was the quality inconsistent but their minimum order quantities are a lot larger than working with someone in Canada. Working with a company overseas also means late-night phone calls and emails due to the time difference and often times also dealing with a language barrier.
So then there’s the option of finding a sewing manufacturer in another province. Wilkie says this hard to do in general, but most can be found in bigger cities like Toronto. Even if you do find one, though, there’s a whole other set of challenges with working with one from several provinces away. It’s these challenges that ultimately led her decision to move five months ago.
“I have to go visit my sewers multiple times throughout a production run. This would be really expensive and time-consuming if you were traveling from out of province,” she says. “I think that the more that I work with my sewer and nail down patterns and designs I will need to visit them less, but starting out has resulted in many phone calls, visits, and trips around the city to source materials such as zippers, lining, and fabrics which are all cheaper here than back home.
“These small things don’t seem like much but these costs add up quickly and you also need to buy extra supplies in case a zipper or two breaks in production.”
Though she’s moved to Toronto to make her clothing business feasible, Wilkie says her heart and focus is still very much in the Maritimes, for she wouldn’t be able to be doing what she is doing in Toronto now if it wasn’t for the people she worked with back home.
“I still have a very dominant East Coast theme in my work. When I moved here, I was very worried that my portfolio wasn’t going to be up to snuff with other Toronto people. But I was really pleasantly surprised,” she says.
“But what really frustrated me is that the creatives here, although they are also amazing, the people on the east coast are just as good if not better, but they’re not recognized.”
Wilkie says this is why it’s important for her to partner with other East Coast creatives and businesses whenever she can to help elevate their brands.
“For example, I worked with a soaper from Fredericton. She made a custom signature scent for the Dee Silkie brand,” she says. “I placed an order with her and we did a custom soap. Now she’s getting exposure that way. Everyone in Toronto who is buying it is getting this soap that is handcrafted in New Brunswick.”
She’s also incorporating her home province in other little ways.
“For my spring/summer line, some of the dyes that I’m using, I’m picking codes for the numbers that represent New Brunswick,” she says. “I picked a blue that’s called ‘506 Blue’ so keeping those ties to home.”
As her business starts to grow, Wilkie says she wants to do more, including hiring photographers and other creatives that helped get her to where she is now.
“I’m getting opportunities here and I’m booking jobs here because I have such a strong portfolio. I have such a strong portfolio because of my East Coast crew,” she says. “I’m still a little baby startup, but I’m growing slowly and the more and more I grow, I want to bring these guys with me. I’m not saying move to Toronto, because there’s such an amazing lifestyle in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and in the East Coast.
“My long-term goal for my business is to be able to bring business to these guys. So many creatives are leaving the East Coast because there’s no money in the industry there. So if I could build my business up enough so that I could pay these people and they can work from home and not have to move, that is my goal.”
She plans to start doing that this summer. Wilkie says she is paying for the plane ticket for photographer Halifax-based photographer Stephanie Lane to come to Toronto to shoot her spring/summer line.
“Although I’m not able to pay her salary yet, I’m only able to pay for her plane ticket, it’s something. When I first started working with her, I couldn’t pay her anything,” says Wilkie. “My goal eventually is to pay her a salary and pay the people from New Brunswick who I worked with a salary who helped me when I had nothing.”
The Dee Silkie spring/summer collection includes two pairs of silk shorts, a slip dress, a crop top, and a skirt. Like any fashion designer, Wilkie would love her brand to become a household name, but in the meantime, she’s just working towards building her brand enough to be able to hire more Atlantic Canadian talent.”
Another long-term goal she has is to establish some sort of manufacturing sewing program in Canada. She says such a program would not only help teach people a very lucrative skill, but in-turn would help more Canadian fashion designers their their products at home.
“A long-term goal for me again would be somehow to create a program that teaches sewing like a trade,” says Wilkie.
“I think if this country can make talented, skilled, quick sewers, there’s going to be so many people that are going to have good jobs from this, jobs that they’re going to love and jobs that are going to help so many other entrepreneurs in this country.”
Until the East Coast establishes this kind of industry, Wilkie says she, unfortunately, won’t be moving home anytime soon. What she will do is continue to elevate creative people from the region in the “Big Smoke.”
“I don’t feel like there is the support there. People say all the time that there’s no money for it when there is. They just don’t want to invest in it. I can’t imagine moving back anytime soon, which is awful because I’m preaching about the East Coast,” she says.
“But there’s not a culture for people like me, which why it’s so important to me to create opportunities for people like me who are still there. My goal is not to move them out of there, because it’s such an amazing place. I wish could I could be doing what I’m doing here, there.”