In Gastown’s thriving fashion district, upstart boutiques and ateliers are offering something different by design.
Indie fashion is happening, right this very minute, in Gastown. In the window of the new Dickensian-chic boutique Gentille Alouette at 227 Carrall Street, Vancouver Community College fashion grad Ben Newcombe is constructing a dress on the retro-green sewing machine. “When there’s nobody else here, I pop this up onto the table,” says owner, textile artist, and designer Eliza Lau, pointing to a kick-ass–looking hand loom tucked under it.
“Hell or high water, I was going to open my own place,” Lau tells the Straight in her atelier. Lau was a stylist and special-effects costumer in her former life. She once wove “alien animal pelts” for Stargate: Atlantis. But her textile-arts roots were nudging her. “I envisioned representing local designers, providing a workspace. I wanted people to see the art and incredible skill of dressmaking,” she says. The Gastown scene is decidedly all about that DIY ethic.
“To me, Gastown represents returning to grassroots. There’s that lovely historic feeling,” says Lau. “The shop owners are a community, everybody wants everybody to succeed.” She adds, “And I think that fashionistas are discovering Gastown is a real fashion nook.”
Anyone following the bloody quill on Gentille Alouette’s sign—homage to both that nasty children’s song and nearby Blood Alley—into the boutique can nab stunning dresses ($270 to $489) and floaty felt and silk collars ($140 to $260) by Genevieve Graham, former Obakki designer and Project Runway Canada runner-up. Also on the racks are Lau’s own repurposed-leather dresses ($148 to $375) and cavegirl-sexy lei scarves ($148 to $229), woven from recycled fur, alpaca, and other exotic scraps. “My aesthetic is very deconstructed,” she says. She brandishes a work-in-progress wenchy bustled skirt, “a Vivienne Westwood ragamuffin thing”.
It’s another planet on Water Street. Moose and beavers abound in disturbing plush. Furniture emporiums and currency exchanges have accelerated breeding programs. There’s maple syrup on tap. No, wait—that’s beer. Here, T-shirts ask questions: “Does this shirt make me look Canadian?” Eh? But there is the Water Street style vanguard: Obakki (44 Water Street), Fluevog (65 Water), Alife (350 Water), One of a Few (354 Water), and Two of a Few (356 Water).
On Abbott Street, there really is another planet. It’s 10-month-old Planet Claire (212 Abbott), a beguiling hideaway, part bordello, part Tim Burton film set. This means claret walls, smoke-striped wallpaper, chandeliers, and racks bursting with global rarities.
Owner Claire Lindsay Burke, who looks like an urban Snow White if Snow had wicked tats, has made sustainability her mandate. “Everything I buy is 100 percent ethically produced. And more of my designers are going eco.” She’s unsure where the neighbourhood is going, though.
The working hand loom at the new Gentille Alouette (left); and an Ora bag from Nouvelle Nouvelle.
“Gastown is raw, gritty, and real,” she says, “which might not mean the best business decision. The government bought 14 low-income Gastown hotels since February and my building is one. So I have super-big issues with this Gastown ghettoization.”
Still, she adds: “The people who live and work in Gastown are artistic, edgy, and unique. The shop owners are really passionate, and cool boutiques are popping up everywhere.”
Inside Planet Claire, Burke shows fall “stuff” she loves, meaning new body-skimming local line Hawks Ave. and pinup-inspired Sweet Soul. “Good for curvy bodies,” she notes.
Burke also loves Dahlia Drive’s printed vintage slips ($100 to $150), Chicago’s Noon ultra-rad solar-panelled bags ($362 to $482), and, yes, her own edgy-pretty Queen of Hearts jewellery. Amazingly, on this crowded planet, there’s even room for menswear.
Across the street, alongside Gastown fashioneers Livestock (239 Abbott Street), Bruce Eyewear (219 Abbott), and Urbanity (207 Abbott), is airy Nouvelle Nouvelle. The Soho-fabulous two-year-old space at 209 Abbott boasts cutting-edge clothing from Vancouver to L.A. to Paris, a bulldog named Lily, and owner Amy York, who recalls Nouvelle Nouvelle’s previous incarnation. “It was the creepiest convenience store ever,” she says. “You’d come in after the bars and the lady would sell single cigarettes.”
York has a Gastown thing. “It’s always been my favourite because it’s one area that has beautiful 100-year-old buildings that haven’t been replaced by weird, ’90s-style condos,” she says. “In Gastown, it seems every person you pass is a graphic designer or a clothing designer or a musician. It’s its own little creative spot. Chances are if you ride your bike more than you drive and you eat at Jules or Six Acres, then you’re going to shop independent and you’re going to the smaller bars and supporting the East Van DJs—it’s a whole thing.”
The pony-tailed York, who owns Commercial Drive’s Prado Café and exudes a girl-artist-in-Paris vibe, except with way more savvy, wears Nouvelle Nouvelle’s wares, from Paris’s Rabbit on the Run to Australia’s Something Else to Sweden’s Cheap Monday. “I’ve always aimed to bring in lines you can’t find in Vancouver,” she says. She’s “stoked on” Vancouver’s Hidden Spectrum and Ora. She’s “crazy” for France’s April 77 and Sweden’s Jason Nevikov and Permanent Vacation. For fall, “we went crazy buying anything with studs and fringe.”
On West Cordova Street, construction workers hammer at the Woodward’s complex, set to open any second. Farther west, Mooncruise Gallery and Roden Gray on Cambie Street (235 and 231, respectively) and Cordova style pioneers the Block (350 West Cordova Street) and Dream Apparel (311 West Cordova) aren’t just holding down the Gastown fashion fort, they’re drawing new stylista recruits stalking those won’t-find-them-anyplace-else indie-cool lines. “I expect this neighbourhood to stay really legit and a bit gritty,” says Amy York. “If it keeps the rents down and allows more creative people in, then keep it gritty, please!”