A few years ago, Stephanie Ostler agreed to make velvet curtains for a Gastown bar. The fabric was a rayon blend, and the young designer spent days hemming the curtains, which were to hang throughout the bar.
“By the end of it,” she recalled for the Straight by phone, “I was coughing up curtains. My hands were red. I had actually developed allergies towards the fabric, and I thought, ”˜Never again!’ ”
That’s how Ostler’s obsession with sustainable fabric began. It’s now an integral part of her business model: not only does she want her clothing to keep wearers healthy, she wants to keep our planet happy too. To that end, the 22-year-old owner of Devil May Wear (198 East 21st Avenue, at Main Street) has just released a line of organic bamboo-cotton panties that are spandex-free. She still sews each garment herself. (Her fast fingers complete about 2,000 items a month, she said.) They come in striped and plain hues, and they’re soft, stretchy, and retail for between $16 and $25 a pair. Why spandex-free?
“Spandex is a petroleum,” Ostler explained. “I don’t understand the logic behind having a sustainable fabric with spandex. If you’re wearing petroleum, you’re just adding fuel to your clothing.”¦I know I’m a little over the top with sustainability. Sometimes I drive myself nuts. But I can’t stand what I’m doing to the planet myself. You can’t tell yourself to leave the comforts of the world and live in the forest. That’s not achievable on a large scale. But if I can’t be perfect, I’m going to work my butt off to make sure my company is as close as possible.”
Ostler is fuelled by her own energy and little else. After graduating from West Vancouver secondary school, she started Devil May Wear because she couldn’t stand working in retail. For the first four years, she designed and sewed all her own items and sold them to stores around the city. In February 2007, she opened a storefront at 21st and Main and hired a staff.
She studied patternmaking in high school and took a summer course in it at Vancouver Community College, but has no other postsecondary training. Through sheer talent and drive, she’s become one of the most successful designers under 30 in the city. Her bamboo tights ($35) are sold as far away as Hong Kong, and her screened T-shirts, tube tops, bandeaux, and bloomers can be found from Vancouver Island to Toronto. (See www.devil-may-wear.com/ for a full list of stores.)
Sourcing plant-based fabrics locally is Ostler’s next challenge. Currently, the available organic bamboo and cotton are mostly grown in China, she said, but she has them milled here.
Canadian companies that plan to grow and mill hemp keep promising to produce, Ostler said, but so far she’s seen no actual product, which she finds frustrating. In addition, she said, some shoppers demand locally produced clothes, but are not yet willing to pay for them. Ostler believes it’s a habit that ultimately costs consumers, as more and more retailers resort to cheaper fabrics.
“Sweater wool used to be spun many times, so the wool barbs would lie flat and last. Now everything pills like crazy, even things that are not 10-percent acrylic pill. I encourage shoppers to spend twice the money on what they buy so they’ll get 10 times the wear out of it, and it’ll make you feel prouder.” Ostler paused. “I had to stop working in the store because I’m so over the top about it.”
Until fuel costs rise and push imports beyond local reach, she’s working on dressing Vancouverites sustainably, one pair of panties at a time.