Fashion On The Rock
The Newfoundland Fashion Renaissance
by Tara Bradbury
Photographs: Jen Cake, Alex Stead, Stone Photography Studio, Matt Bolger, Megan Sooley, Dave Howells, Terry Rice
Newfoundland and Labrador fashion, like Newfoundland and Labrador food, was based for a long time on a life at the edge of the continent — a rugged, isolated area of the North Atlantic where the weather changes on a dime. things were often born of necessity and centred on availability.
MJ Couch wears Tickled Pink Top $120 | Skirt $200 Chasity Follett wears Sheer Happiness dress $350 melaniejacqueline.com Photographed by David Howells
The province has never been known as a mecca of fashion. However, it has always been considered a hub of creativity and ingenuity and perseverance and pride. The rest of the world has become aware of the food renaissance happening in Newfoundland and Labrador, with its restaurants making top-ten lists for the country and winning international acclaim for their fusions of the traditional and the contemporary. Now a growing generation of fashion designers is leading the same kind of movement when it comes to style. Original studios and boutiques have popped up in St. John’s, and locally designed pieces of clothing and jewellery are being seen everywhere — from Hollywood red carpets to international runways to the pages of fashion magazines. MJ Couch was a primary school teacher in rural Newfoundland when she decided to up and quit. She had grown up sewing her own clothes and when not teaching, found herself cutting up T-shirts and refashioning them into dresses. Couch moved to St. John’s, landing a costuming job for a theatre production of The Sound of Music. A year later she opened Melanie Jacqueline, her own shop above the famed Ship Pub on Duckworth Street.
“I had a wild dream of owning a studio and boutique out of which I could sell one-of-a-kind handmade pieces. Six years have passed and that dream is still going strong,” Couch tells The Maritime Edit. “I’ve grown a successful business that I am very proud of.” Couch focuses on easy-to-wear, stretchy fabrics in bright, playful colours and quirky prints — a welcome punctuation in a land where fog is no stranger. “Be happy in the clothing you wear” is her brand statement, and she says she stays true to that sentiment.
“Bright colours and playful prints are uplifting to me,” Couch explains. “Anything that makes me want to dance or puts a smile on my face is inspiring and excites me to make something unique. I want to design pieces that are fun and allow me to express my creativity and love of colour as well as allowing my clients to express who they are through the clothing they wear.
“I hope the people who wear the clothing feel the same way I do when I create it: excited, proud and full of life.” Couch says she’s inspired by life and people and movement, not by trends, and hopes her pieces encourage people to follow their own style.
Her Melanie Jacqueline line recently caught the eye of international fashion curators who invited her to showcase six of her pieces on the catwalk during New York Fashion Week in September. Oxford Fashion Studio, a London-based agency that curates runway shows featuring designers around the world, felt Couch’s designs and bright colours were unique and exceptional.
The opportunity was spectacular, she says, and the spinoff has been encouraging, resulting in other opportunities she hasn’t yet divulged.
Couch doesn’t subscribe to the idea that fashion is a new thing in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“I think people have always been interested in fashion. There are a lot of really fashionable people here,” she says. “So many styles, for both women and men. It’s inspiring to see people embracing their style choices and allowing their personality to shine through.”
Bruno Vinhas would like to see that go a step further. A native of Brazil, he lived in Europe and New Zealand before moving to St. John’s and becoming an award-winning designer. He’s quick to point out that his clothing — which includes leggings and kilts in fabrics like Lycra, lace and leather — is designed for humans in general rather than for women or men specifically.
Earlier this year Vinhas did exceptionally well with a line of genderless, sexy Lycra-and-lace underwear.
“I don’t like the gender of clothes,” he says. “It’s a piece of cloth. If you want to wear it, wear it.” Vinhas arrived in St. John’s one fall, and his experience with local fashion choices was mostly limited to coats. But it wasn’t long before he started noticing details, like the way people were matching their socks and accessories.
“At first I didn’t see St. John’s as a hub for fashion and then the summer came,” he says. “I started thinking the game was changing. I started noticing how — I wouldn’t say it’s fashion forward because there’s still a certain level of conservatism in the culture — advanced the fashion is here. I think this place is on the edge of becoming a different spot for people to look for inspiration.”
The booming local film industry has a definite influence when it comes to clothing choices, says Vinhas, who creates art dresses as well as wearable fashion. He specializes in intricate embroidery and hopes to display his current project, which includes horsehair delicately woven into cheesecloth, in a gallery. Another thing that impressed Vinhas right off the bat was the way local people, and not just professional designers, are building on tradition and history when it comes to knitting. They are updating patterns, spinning and dyeing their own yarns and mixing up colours and textures.
BRUNO VINHAS bybrunovinhas.com
“One of the things I love about here is that traditions are important. They’re part of history and they need to be preserved, but at the same time it’s important to push the boundaries of tradition and make something current. And I’ve seen a lot of people doing that lately.”
Vinhas points to St. John’s–based designer Charlotte Reid as an example. With her CharlotteStreet studio, Reid creates dresses, skirts and accessories from reclaimed sweaters that are hand-picked from local charity shops and carefully laundered before being cut and combined in a mix of textures, weights and colours.
SPARKES DESIGN sparkesdesign.myshopify.com
In the warmer months, Reid trades fuzzy sweaters for T-shirts. She will cut up your favourite Nirvana shirt from high school or the T-shirt from your most-fun-ever concert, add coordinating fabrics and create something flattering and current for you. To that end, Reid has struck up partnerships with a number of local festivals, taking their overstock T-shirts and refashioning them into dresses and accessories.
Reid studied costuming at Dalhousie University before moving home and opening her studio in 2004. She also continues to work in theatre and film, with wardrobe credits on productions like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days starring Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey, The Grand Seduction and CBC TV’s Republic of Doyle. Reid’s goal, she says, is to keep people warm and allow them to express their individuality in a sustainable, eco-friendly way.
Kim Paddon’s passion for style has led her in a different direction: jewellery. Originally a graphic designer, she moved back to St. John’s after graduating from Holland College and began running Whink, a downtown jewellery and gift boutique, in 2010. Paddon’s passion for sourcing jewellery for the shop led her to design and create her own line, Sparkes Design. It’s a bold collection of pieces intent on showcasing the raw and natural beauty of semi-precious and exotic stones. She pulls her inspiration, she says, from “nature and Newfoundland, especially rural Newfoundland,” as well as from vintage patterns, textiles and jewellery pieces.
SOOLEY DESIGNS sooleydesigns.com
Dory Blue, one of Paddon’s most popular collections, features stunning, bluetoned labradorite and names based on Newfoundland and Labrador communities. Broadway performer Petrina Bromley of Come From Away wore a shimmering Dory Blue earring, necklace and ring set during the 2017 Tony Awards.
“Just as we Newfoundlanders have our own sayings, we also have our own trends, as influenced by our unique culture,” Paddon tells The Maritime Edit.
“We are artists and we take pride in representing our province through our clothing and jewellery.”
Paddon talks about the current local fashion scene exploring and pushing things to edges it never had before and says its recognition is well deserved.
Her own goals for Sparkes Design are simple. “To recognize the artistry of nature and share it with those who will appreciate it most,” she writes. “To operate from a place of heart and intuitively recognize that every naturally occurring gemstone’s beauty tells a story. We pursue our dreams and inspire others to do the same.”
MELANIE JACQUELINE melaniejacqueline.com
Tara Bradbury is an award-winning journalist based in St. John’s, NL. She studied journalism at Concordia University and worked as a researcher for the International Labour Office in Geneva, Switzerland and as a journalist in the UK before moving home and taking a job with The Telegram newspaper in 2003. She has covered everything from the Tony Awards to criminal cases, specializing in arts and investigative pieces, and has been published in Chatelaine and Flare.