Elizabeth Krebs and Katie Piasta help vulnerable women find purpose and passion in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

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      Elizabeth Krebs always felt there was a socially conscious element missing from the realm of fashion.

      So when, in 2011, she received an opportunity to manage Community Thrift & Vintage—a consignment shop operated by the Portland Hotel Society, a local nonprofit that advocates for underserved residents of the Downtown Eastside—she didn’t hesitate to say yes.

      In addition to the secondhand threads Krebs curates daily, the stylist and retail veteran admits she was drawn to the boutique’s peer initiative, which employs vulnerable and recovering women in the DTES.

      The women begin their careers in Community’s stockroom, sorting, steaming, and tagging garments before graduating to roles on the sales floor. The work offers them stability, Krebs notes, as well as a renewed sense of confidence and purpose in the neighbourhood.

      “That’s my favourite part of the job: the employment program,” she tells the Straight by phone. “It’s really cool to see them [the women] come in…and see that the work that they put in is valued and a necessary part of making this business work.”

      Following a six-month stint at Community’s original location at 41 West Cordova Street, Katie Piasta felt just as inspired by the social enterprise. She emailed Krebs with the idea of launching a similar concept that would harness her expertise in sewing and fashion design, and soon she was managing the Window Community Art Shop, an “arts and crafts showcase” that offers art, housewares, and accessories by makers based in the DTES and beyond.

      Central to Window Community is the store’s in-house Carrall Street Canvas Co. brand of pouches, tote bags, and aprons hand-sewn by women employed in its own peer program.

      After almost five years of operating from separate retail spaces in the DTES, Krebs and Piasta—alongside Community Thrift founder Jenni Lee—have joined forces under one roof at 11 West Hastings Street to form a new flagship. Now known collectively as Community Window, the bright, airy room stocks the unisex denim, Ts, and jackets handpicked by Krebs, plus a collection of handmade goods edited and crafted under the direction of Piasta.

      An 800-square-foot, on-site sewing studio allows the women-led and women-run business to expand its peer program, giving both Krebs and Piasta the chance to continue the socially conscious work they do best.

      “There are a lot of women who are marginalized down here,” Piasta says. “And for them to be able to come here and work where they know it’s safe is really important.”

      Follow Lucy Lau on Twitter @lucylau.