Meet the Canadian designer behind sustainable WFH-friendly apparel

Apr 21 2020, 11:07 pm

Canada’s fashion industry has seen waves of change since the COVID-19 crisis began.

The temporary closure of brick-and-mortar stores means more people are shopping online, and since our home now doubles-up as our workplace, the demand for comfortable clothing is higher than ever.

Jess Sternberg, the founder and creative director of Free Label, has been designing trendy, easy-to-wear pieces since 2015. “We custom mill all of our fabric, and an important feature we always try to incorporate in our textiles is comfort,” Sternberg tells Daily Hive.

Using sustainable fabrics (with natural fibres coming from plants like bamboo) has been important to Sternberg since the beginning, along with having a transparent production process.

The creative director works remotely running Free Label, and one of the most important tricks she uses to stay productive is getting dressed for work. “The simple act of taking a shower, getting ready, and dressing in a feel-good outfit is essential to starting my day on a positive, motivated note.”

One of the great things about working from home, Sternberg says, is that you don’t have to wear uncomfortable slacks and a restrictive button-down shirt. “You can opt for stylish yet comfortable pieces that work with your lifestyle,” she says.

Her go-to is Free Label’s linen Loretta pant. “The flowy wide leg and stretchy elastic waistband make for the perfect not-too-casual pant that you can actually sit all day in, whether it be at a desk, at the kitchen table, or on the couch.”

Sternberg’s journey in fashion began when she was working as a buyer and manager at a Toronto clothing boutique. “It was really hard to find comfortable, ethical, and Canadian-made clothing at that time,” she says.

She asked the boutique owner if she could make a couple of items she thought would be well-received. From there, she found producers and began selling her clothing at the store. Sternberg later launched Free Label with her husband, and they moved to Vancouver in 2016.

Today, Sternberg designs her collections with a technical pattern maker in Vancouver, and almost all fabrics used in the brand’s garments are custom-manufactured, knitted, and dyed at a Toronto fabric mill. 

Free Label collections champion body positivity, and Sternberg says if other brands are not already doing this, they’re far behind.

“We want to see ourselves reflected in the brands that we want to purchase. If I can’t go on your website and see a person who looks like me and has my imperfect body type, then I don’t feel seen. I don’t think you’re making the clothes for me. And I also can’t get a good idea of what the clothes will look like on me.”

The unexpected coronavirus crisis has brought about challenges for Free Label, but Sternberg says certain things have been positive.

“All of March I was in fight or flight mode, wondering how I could possibly have a successful collection launch with everything going on,” says Sternberg. “I was worried that after investing eight months expanding our size range to 4X, custom-making all our fabrics, and designing and testing several new styles, the investment would fall flat.”

Sternberg notes that her community really showed up for Free Label. “We had our best launch ever, with some styles selling out within the first couple of days. What I learned was that the slow fashion community wants slow fashion to prevail.”

Among fellow business owners, she’s seeing collaboration over competition. And within the broader fashion community, she has never seen as much support.

“I’ve video chatted with a bunch of other small slow fashion brand owners (Julia from Nettlestale, Kelsey from Bare Knitwear, Laila from Harly Jae, Karen from Leze, Candice from Buttercream Clothing — all women-owned BC clothing brands), and it’s been really amazing seeing how strong we can be when we work together.”

The creative director says people are coming together in many different ways to support their favourite small slow fashion brands, whether it be financially, through social media support, word of mouth, or words of encouragement.

“I am confident that when the dust settles, sustainable and ethical brands will still remain, all because of the support of the community,” she adds.

Sternberg hopes Free Label can foster a better second-hand market, creating a circular economy in the years to come. The brand currently has a Facebook group where members can buy, sell, and trade garments.

Catriona HughesCatriona Hughes

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