Indie fashion label Cecile Bénac continues the handmade tradition

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      Despite being born during the baby boomer era, Cecilia Rebagliati’s childhood memories don’t include getting a new record player for her birthday, watching The Ed Sullivan Show in the family room, or even listening to that crazy rock ’n’ roll music on the radio. That’s because the Vancouver-based fashion designer grew up on a small, off-the-grid farm just outside of Lima, Peru.

      “There wasn’t TV [there] at that time, and there was no electricity—just an engine that worked from 6 to 9 in the evening,” recalls Rebagliati, who recently sat down with the Straight at a Kits café to talk about her indie fashion label Cecile Bénac. “So we basically had to do everything by hand. My mom would knit sweaters for us, sew our clothes, bake—the whole thing.”

      A few decades later, she finds herself living an urban Canadian life in the age of technology. Yet she continues the tradition of making things by hand. In fact, it’s her life’s work. Employing methods she learned watching her mother and grandmother spin yarn for so many years, Rebagliati designs and creates timeless, ageless, and luxuriously chic handcrafted sweaters.

      Her pieces may be crafted with old-world sensibilities, but they are anything but dated. When she officially launched her label in 1998, Rebagliati had no idea how “hot” her family-inspired knits would be.

      “My sensation was a really cropped cardigan in mohair, which I did in five colours,” she says of her breakthrough design. “Then I went to Peru to celebrate my 40th birthday, and when I came back, there were orders and orders coming out of my fax machine. My agent in Toronto had sold $25,000 worth of cardigans, so I was like, ”˜What do I do now?’”

      She slowly expanded her collections from a handful of designs per year to 50 to 60 designs in the same period of time. She farmed out some of her knitting duties and invested in a domestic knitting machine. Today, her pieces are carried in dozens of shops across the country. Locally, several stores carry her line, including Fine Finds (1014 Mainland Street) and Hum (3623 Main Street).

      That’s where you’ll find some of her coziest cover-ups, such as the shrug scarf ($245), a knitted stole with sleeves that comes in teal, hazelnut, and black. The scarf ends hang long down the front and it can be belted, tossed over the shoulders, or just let loose. Very versatile, very comfy. Then there’s a mohair and Italian alpaca shawl ($175) that comes in black, taupe, grey, and purple and fastens with one big black ’50s-inspired button, which her brother in Peru carves from scratch. With this piece, Rebagliati plays a bit with a looser knit by incorporating drop stitches that look like ’80s-chic claw marks across the front.

      Another standout in her fall/winter 2010–11 collection is the chunkier-knit, thickly ribbed black and white tweed cardigan with kimono-style sleeves ($295). Now, don’t be fooled by this sweater. It may look shapeless on the rack, but it actually has a subtle hourglass fit to it.

      Even though the more complex sweaters take about a week’s worth of work to complete, if Rebagliati isn’t happy with the finished product, she’ll do as her mother did and not let it go to waste.

      “When there’s a precious yarn that I really want to keep, I’ll undo it and redo the design,” she says. “I mean, it’s hours and hours of work, but it’s better that than not using that yarn.”