Resurrecting the Fashion Wasteland is the tag-line for Wendy Van Riesen’s business Dahlia Drive and she’s certainly doing it in style. Wendy launched Dahlia Drive from Vancouver, BC with a line of her signature gorgeous re-vamped vintage slips and continues to go from strength to strength with her bold style and strong ethical stance on fashion. I caught up with Wendy (a graduate of the Capilano Textile Design Program) at her studio to chat about business, inspiration and the challenges of upcycling.
Can you describe your path to becoming a textile designer? I know you were an actor previously…
I was an actor, I went to acting school at 18 and I was still acting up until 2000, when I semi-retired, and at that point I was 45. I really liked acting a lot. I liked the story-telling aspect of it. I liked that I knew the end of the story. I still had a career even when I had children at about 32 and I decided that I wanted to mostly stay at home, my husband had a busy job. I was still able to do movies and make a little bit of money but it felt a little bit unfulfilling. Being a parent was fulfilling enough but not a lot of accolades for it, so it was nice to be able to have a job that I could go to occasionally and make some money. But I didn’t get a lot of satisfaction and part of it was that I felt that I hung on the label of being an actor. It was stressful going to auditions, and I was no longer generating my own work. I put all my story telling into raising the kids. I was really looking for a place to tell my own stories that I could do in my own time. And there was also the realization that my kids were growing older, and that I would be redundant in my full-time job and I needed to find something else of my own. I think all of that was relatively subconscious.
We had lived on a sailboat for six years when we were first married, and when the boys were 11 and 14 we bought a converted fishing trawler and took them up north to Alaska for three months. That was an awesome, awesome experience and my place in the world changed in a number of ways. The magnitude of the world up North is virtually unchanged in hundreds of thousands of years. It was humbling to be a small but essential part of that world. There was no religious sense to it, but it was miraculous to me. And when I went into textile art I did a piece called Essential Insignificance: that despite ones seeming minuteness the very fact that you exist is significant. I think it transformed our entire family’s view of the world. We made a film with our youngest son, an indigenous story of creation, and we all wrote journals during the trip, but we never wrote on the way back, we were all kind of wordless. You know, “what does it mean”. You’re like the Argonauts and you’ve got the Golden Fleece, so now what? When I came back I realized I didn’t want to act any more. Before we went on the trip I had won a Jessie for a performance so that was great and I remember getting the award and thinking yeah this is great. Because I really felt that since I became a parent I’d been invisible in the community, it’s a really hard business – you have to be 100% or not. I felt that I’d got the best of both worlds at that particular moment. My peers were honoring me and I was still an at-home mom, it can’t get any better than that. But I was happy to realize that I wanted to do something else. I looked around and I saw that I’d taught my kids to knit and dye, and they’d both done weaving. When I looked back to my youth, my 20’s I remembered looking at someone selling their clothes and say “yeah that’s what I want to do”. And I was raised sewing my own clothes and although I didn’t do a lot of surface design I had an art teacher who really wanted me to be an art teacher or an artist. But I really didn’t know what I wanted to do until the 11th hour, so I didn’t really apply early to go to Capilano, and I ended up going to the first day of class without having been accepted. And then somebody else dropped out so there was a place for me.
Were you really creative as a kid, did you get much encouragement from your family?
I think so; I mean certainly I put on a lot of plays as a kid. I did a lot of art as a kid and my art work was always acknowledged in school, but I was a bit of a trouble-maker too so there was really a double-edged sword to that creativity. There was some trauma in my childhood too that limited creative expression for a period of time. But in the end I looked around and realized that I had two looms, and that I dyed some of my kids clothes and when it was the kids birthdays I would make capes for the goodie bags. It was funny, those poor boys…!
So what do you think are some of the issues around confidence and art making?
Work with what you have. Capitalize on your strengths and passions. There’s an authenticity that can come by doing things that really speak to you. How to be authentic? I don’t know except to trust the things that make sense to you. What affects you, affects you… so work with that. I’m nervous because I’m not a very good renderer, so most of my paintings, even in the past, have not had a lot of specifics. I like to use my specifics in my graphics. I have more of a painterly hand. Part of me sees that as a weakness. I could become a better renderer, but on the other hand the strength of the gesture is the strength of my work right now. It’s the same thing as working with what you have.
How do you feel seeing people in your clothes?
I love it. The slips completely transform in their final place on the body of the woman who fell in love with it. The women feel transformed and I am so grateful.
Well, yeah, I have one, I know!
That is an amazing thing to see some women feel empowered by wearing my clothes. Once I saw someone in the airport in LA wearing a slip, which totally freaked me out. I was actually just emailed a picture of a woman wearing one of my slips at a Christmas party captioned “I get a lot of compliments wearing it”. I think that’s great.
So what drew you to working specifically with salvaged slips?
I think it’s my mom, I think it’s a memory of the 50’s and 60’s. I think it’s lace, and my Grandma too because my Grandma raised me after 9. Slips lasted a long time, because they were really well made. And to me it was just amazing that you would make something so beautiful that was meant to be hidden. And women look beautiful in slips without looking unnecessarily provocative. Now people wear slips on the outside, so if your slip is on the outside what’s underneath that? Your bones… where we’re all the same.
And there’s a fairly strong feminist thread running throughout your work too…
Yes, for sure. My Mom died in childbirth and so there’s a strong connection there. At nine I left my siblings and moved in with my Aunt and my Grandma. I was raised by two women and one of them was a staunch feminist. So I actually became an anti-feminist. I ended up as an actor and I could see where there was sexism in who was writing and directing plays, but there was an anger in the feminist movement in the 70’s that was uncomfortable for me. But the celebration of the female form was fine. My work echoes structural things that are lacy or are lace-like from slips, or women’s work, like lace tablecloths. But also networking – like lace as networks, or veins or connections. A lot of thresholds, the journey past something.
So when did you seriously consider taking the slips into commercial production?
It happened by the end of school. We were studying natural dyes and I got Dahlias and there was a guy who grew Dahlias near where I would go for walks and he would leave me little bags of Dahlias and I would cook them up and dye slips that’s where Dahlia Drive came from. Plus the name of the street where I grew up was Dahlia Drive. So the first set of slips I did I sold them all at the student sale. I wasn’t charging very much, but it became clear that they spoke to people.
So did it feel like a risky undertaking or did it feel like a natural progression?
It’s always a risky venture! But I didn’t do my business course until 2007, when Dahlia Drive so had a couple of years under her belt. After I graduated I did one class in film costume, because I wasn’t sure if I was going to be making clothes or not. I was unsure whether I would do more of a line of clothing, and needed more training. In the end I do have a line bit I started firmly with the slips and grew from there.
How long did it take for you to go from idea to execution of the line?
I dabbled. We had a house and my husband paid the bills. I was at home working out of my basement to 2008. I didn’t even have a very good heat press, it only went up to 300 degrees so my images weren’t that strong and I didn’t get as much vibrancy in color. I went to every indie sale I could. I got some good press and entered larger shows. Sandy wanted to buy a boat and sail around the world, so the only way I could see doing that was to start moving stuff out, and part of moving stuff out was to move out Dahlia Drive so we rented a space and I was out of the house. And Sandy helped me a lot, he built my sink and I bought a different heat press. It was still a huge learning curve. In my own space I could make more.
What are some of the challenges in developing a business based on recycling and a strong ethos around the environment and sustainability?
The positive thing is that it provides a limit to what I can use so my creativity has certain confines from the very beginning. It’s also good because it sets me apart from other people’s work. It’s good for me to have a little bit of a niche. So it becomes a job of problem solving. The hard part is that if I want to operate on a more wholesale level it’s virtually impossible with the slips because they’re all one of a kind as well as the work. So even if I can get my work to be not so one of a kind, the slips are not consistent! In the industrialized world people are used to getting exactly the same thing. “I’ll take that one in red xs”… not!
So who is your customer?
11-75. It is an amazing spread of individuals! I do some fancy shows, but I like the folk festivals most. I like it when consumerism isn’t the focus of the event. After all, consumerism is the main reason fashion has become an unsustainable practice, more than the dyes, the factories. People buy more than they need and then discard it. Selling more to people who don’t need it is a troubling aspect of my business.
Where do you see yourself in say 5 years time?
Well, I’m really at odds. We’re in such a huge transition my husband and I with what is the next phase after raising our children. We’re going to travel this summer on the boat before festival season. I am working with a marketing agent on a wholesale line-sheet for the pants, bustle dresses, bubble dresses kimonos and tunics. So there are 5 of those in different sizes with 4 different images and three different color-ways for fall 2013. But will people pay what the work is worth? That’s the trick. I don’t think that people really realize with recycled clothing that you have to buy it, clean it, and mend it. And the colors aren’t always consistent; like with the sheers (for the tunics and pants). I’ve decided that I’ll only use the same colors, only white or off-white because it’s confusing to my clients. People just aren’t used to one-offs. I think I need to politicize the ethos of consumerism into my business model. I like the challenge and the learning curve of my work. I like to work for myself. I like having free time and calling my own shots. I am a lucky woman!
So any final words for people just starting out in the biz?
Well, do what you love, experiment, be endlessly curious. Sit with your limitations and embrace the creative ways you have learned to manage and excel despite them. Have fun. Be brave enough to not know the end of the story.