Indie style finds home in Gastown’s fashion district

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      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!”



      Planet Claire: Get Facts Straight

      Sep 3, 2009 at 1:43pm

      In the article it states that 14 hotels in Gastown were purchased to convert to social housing. That is not true. There were only 2 hotels purchased in Gastown Proper. One was the Dominion Hotel in which Planet Claire is located and the Gastown Hotel on Water Street. Gastown Hotel was always social housing and the province purchased the building so it could be managed properly and to stop welfare fraud. The Dominion hotel two years prior was home to many seniors who were ruthlessly kicked out when it was purchased . Finally it has been upgraded and now a home for these people again. It is not ghettoization of Gastown, it is just providing homes for those who have lived in the neighborhood much longer than you have been there. Hope this article gets your store a lot of press because it does cary nice product, just remember to get your facts straight honey before you bash poor people.

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      Eric Cairns

      Sep 3, 2009 at 3:11pm

      I have noticed that while perusing the stylefinds section of the Georgia Straight, that although it is informative regarding new styles, the section completely alienates (ie: makes absolutely no mention of) the photographers who worked so hard to take the photos that are being displayed.
      In any other media pertaining to fashion the work is a collaborative effort, and everyone gets a mention.

      I find it especially frustrating seeing as my image is displayed as the main photo for your current stylefinds section, both in your mag, and for your on-line content.

      Being an up and coming photographer, it is great to see your work on display but disappointing to see that no credit is given.
      Please consider changing this overlook in future issues, for the sake of professionalism on al levels.
      thanks. eric cairns :


      Sep 6, 2009 at 1:01pm

      Response to "Planet Claire Get your Facts Straight"

      Ok, Now it's time for you to get it straight. I was a social worker before I was a small business owner, I worked for a non-profit organization as an outreach worker, drug and addictions counsellor, ran a foodbank, put people into contact with safe housing, shelters, and treatment/detox centres, amongst other things. I am the last person to "bash poor people". I didn't go to school to get a degree in social work, but I did leave home at 15, drop out of school and had a drug addiction and lived on the streets. I had my 10 yr anniversary of quitting meth and getting myself off the street 2 weeks ago. I am a huge proponent for low-income housing, and think we need more of it. What we don't need is to make Gastown the dumping ground for all of Vancouver's problems. Here's a FACT for you, taken from the BC Housing website:

      "Provincial government bought 23 hotels for more than $70 million, willspend $82 million to renovate - Mike Howell, Vancouver Courier, Friday, March 27, 2009"

      That's a lot of hotels. Yes that 23 is in the "downtown core" but over half are in "Gastown Proper". We need to spread out these residences across the lower mainland, not centralize it. That's ghettoization. There are services all over the city for homeless people, you can get a free shower in Kitsilano. Moreover, if the Dominion Hotel was housing seniors, I would not take issue. I take issue with the prostitution, drug dealing, animal cruelty, and violence I see everyday. For example, a tenant upstairs beat the crap out of his girlfriend, and broke her jaw and ribs while they were shooting heroin in their room. I've been harrased and threatened many times. There's a low-income hotel across the street, and one 2 blocks up. My rent is over $4000 for 900 square feet. The government needs to support the small independent businesses and recognize them for the contribution they bring to the community.

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      Gastown SRO's

      Sep 10, 2009 at 2:45pm

      Gastown Hotel 110 Water St. 97 $6.8 million $5.2 million
      Shaldon Hotel 52-60 E. Hastings St. 55 $4.8 million $3.1 million
      Arco Hotel 81-83 W. Pender St. 63 $4.7 million $3.6 million
      Pender Hotel 31 W. Pender St. 40 $3.3 million $2.6 million
      Marr Hotel 401 Powell St. 29 $2.3 million $2.3 million
      Rainier Hotel 307-315 Carrall St. 46 $6.9 million $6.9 million
      Marble Arch Hotel 518 Richards St. 145
      St. Helens Hotel 1161/63 Granville St. 98
      Carl Rooms 355 Princess St. 47
      The Rice Block 404 Hawks St. 43
      Molson's Bank Building 166 E. Hastings St. 45
      The Park Hotel Apartments 429/433 W. Pender St. 56
      Walton Hotel 261-265 E. Hastings St. 51
      Orange Hall 329-341 Gore Ave. 27
      Orwell Hotel 465 E. Hastings 55
      Savoy Hotel 258-260 E. Hastings St. 28
      566 Powell Street
      *Lease 12 12 No renovations required February 2009


      7/11 East Hastings 40 40 Renovations in progress April 2009

      Cordova Residence

      54 East Cordova 37 0 Operator: Lookout Emergency Aid Society March 2009

      Dominion Hotel

      210 Abbott/92 Water 67 67 Minor renovations required May 2009

      Hazelwood Hotel 342/4 East Hastings 113 0 N/A March 2009

      London Hotel *Lease 700 Main Street 72 21 Operator: Atira Women`s Resource Society February 2009

      ** These are the hotels purchased. I can only count 2 that are directly in Gastown and another 3 that are on the outskirts of Gastown. Where are the 12 that you say are in Gastown?

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      Nick in Victoria

      Sep 22, 2009 at 11:36pm

      The government should not be in the business of buying up hotels in the city core and converting them to housing that allows drugs and drug use and people beating up each other and interfering with businesses on the street and in the same building. The scariest words in the world are "Hi! We're here from the government, and we're here to help". Most drug addicted street people are there because of CHOICES they made. Our messed up liberal society says every bad free-will choice is a "disease" and no-one has any choices anymore. Everybody is a poor pathetic victim and needs endless free money, free housing, free needles, free drugs, free everything. What a bunch of garbage! People need to take responsibility for their choices. Quit drugs, get a job, for starters. Just because they are poor and have "been there longer than you" is no reason to write them off and pay their way to eternal misery by sticking them all in drug-housing. Welfare and free drug-friendly housing is a death sentence for these people because they have no incentive to ever change! They are so discouraged all they do is shoot heroin and beat each other up! What a terrible idea! The proprietor of the store in question should be applauded for making good choices in her life and by being a productive part of society as a business person. She should sue the government for messing up her business! I bet a few lawyers would love to take that case on. The government should be giving her tax incentives to expand and create jobs and tax revenue, not creating crack-housing all for show that is designed to clean the streets for the Olympics or to concentrate all social housing in the city core via these old hotels.

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      "poor people"

      Oct 11, 2009 at 12:43am

      you are a fucking idiot. "gritty"

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      Oct 24, 2009 at 8:43am

      Politics aside, I love that Hawks Ave. hooded dress!

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