MODERN WELLNESS: SUSTAINABLE FASHION WITH ROBYN OF ABEL WEAR
Robyn is a ray of sunshine, one of the kindest humans, and a true force in the modern development and use of natural textiles. She also happens to be the owner of Abel Wear, a non-profit organization located in Vancouver, BC. With support from the Government of Canada and the local community, Abel Wear aims to provide jobs and skills training for women with barriers to employment and who require flexible additional income. Through weekly sewing workshops, women are brought together to create garments for and provide small-scale production service to local brands. In addition to cultivating community and female empowerment, Abel Wear has become an important force in helping to educate us about sustainability and ethical practices in fashion and consumerism.
I first connected with Robyn late last year on Instagram, where I stumbled upon her beautiful naturally plant dyed fabrics. I was so drawn to her process of using botanicals to dye her materials, she proposed us coming together to educate consumers about the importance of sustainability in clothing manufacturing and consumption (stay tuned for more on this in a follow-up post!). After months of corresponding via text and email, we finally met in person for the first time this summer.
Robyn has the most warm and inviting presence. It's no wonder that she's so passionate about helping others (something you can see in her work with Abel Wear). Within mere minutes of meeting one another, we were gushing over our mutual love for the west coast and planning our futures as humans and artists, retreating to the lush woods of BC, where we could live off the land and dream amongst nature — perhaps alongside one another. For us, coming together has felt so seamless and I'm forever fortunate that we were able to connect.
From an ethical standpoint, for both people and the environment, the values of Abel Wear deeply align with my own, as well as those of KIKAN BLVD. — how our daily practices and the actions we choose each day can affect our whole selves, physically and energetically, as well as the importance of getting back to our roots and creating from the most basic level, in the case of Abel Wear, the value of artisanship. As my interest in the slow fashion movement only continues to grow, I become increasingly passionate about how our support and advocacy for this industry is critical for our overall well-being. What can we do to make the world a better place to live in for all of us, holistically?
This interview is snap shot of a small company making a big difference, with only more growth and expansion to come. Robyn radiates possibility and I’m so excited to see what her future has in store.
Tell us more about the inception of Abel Wear. How did the concept for Abel Wear first come about?
I studied International Development for two years, hoping to change the world. I realized that my textbook answers to inequality didn’t add up to what I was witnessing in places like Kolkata, India or Kigali, Rwanda. I saw that poverty was a result of a lack of real opportunities for people and, at this same time, TOMS shoes was a big hit. I realized this was going to be the future of what’s now called “Slow Fashion.” Non-government agencies have long been suffering from begging for donations and it’s not a sustainable solution to global poverty. What TOMS and slow fashion does is re-organize old systems, where voting with your dollar really can change the world one individual choice or purchase at a time.
What is your role within the company? What does a day of work look like for you?
I’m the co-founder. Ruth Peters and I started the organization together as a workshop which grew to working with women with barriers to employment in North Vancouver. A day of Abel Wear is usually following up with clients, creating invoices or contracts and meeting interesting designers in the city, trying hard to make their clothing production dreams come true in a very expensive town! I also spend time going to the ladies' homes where they sew to check in on a garment sample or follow up with quality control.
When did you first take an interest in natural materials and dyes?
Textiles and fibre arts caught my attention when I went on a road trip with friends to the Kootenays. After being exposed to the backwoods of BC, I decided to move there instead of going to New York to study at a big fancy school. I was aware that craft culture was at the beginning of a movement away from traditional retail. The attraction to textiles for me was and still is embedded in the authenticity. There’s really nothing more beautiful to me then artisan skills, whether that’s in India or Tofino. In a time when we’re so disconnected to using our hands to provide or create, I think natural dyeing takes me back in time and provides connections to a life that was less complicated and more peaceful.
Sustainability and ethical manufacturing, both in providing jobs for women and being kinder to the environment — for Abel Wear, the two go hand in hand. Did you always know you wanted to create a brand based on these principles? What led you to embrace these brand values?
I’ve always been more of a humanitarian. I remember having arguments with people, while studying international development, about how they need to “go hand in hand.” My priority is job creation. However, in terms of the fashion industry, the balance is critical. The ideal of “making the right sacrifices” is about costs to the consumer, environment, and creator, and are the result of inevitable principles. The cost to the environment and the sustainability of a product based on its lifecycle was emphasized and partly inspired by my friend and client Kaya Dorey from Novel Supply Co., who has worked hard to educate consumers locally with her closed loop sustainable clothing line. Abel ladies take the scraps from Novel's adult collection to create their kids line!
Outside of the incredible opportunities that Abel Wear provides women for skill building and female empowerment, what additional sense of community do you offer? What are the greatest benefits for the women you work with?
There’s an amazing connection and community growing amongst our clients and our collaborations with brands like Novel Supply Co., who are committed to community over competition. The women who sew for us tell me that they’re sending money overseas to help people in their home countries, with the additional income they receive from Abel Wear. This is important to me and I think it’s the greatest benefit to the women. In that they’re all really committed to supporting their diaspora, their families and friends.
What has been the general response to Abel Wear in the local and growing community?
I think the biggest surprise for our team has been the grants we receive from the City of North Vancouver and the Canadian Government. It’s really an honour to develop a program and a non-profit that is recognized as significant work and that is deserving of funds alongside organizations like North Shore Neighbourhood House, which started in 1939!
What are your thoughts about consumers owning fewer, higher quality pieces of clothing and curating their closets? Is it a fad or here to stay?
I think it’s here to stay. As much as people will always want what’s new, I think we see that people are beginning to taper their wardrobes and buy pieces that they will still look and feel good in when they’re 60 years old. There’s going to be a culture of fast-fashion. However, I think in the long term, slow fashion will overpower the cheaper clothing stores, because it will be considered so “unfashionable.” Leaders know who they are and invest in pieces, I think fads are for followers.
Do you have any daily rituals that help keep you focused and grounded within your work and throughout your day?
I spend a lot of time in nature. I really believe in focusing on getting clarity and then I write lists and follow that internal map towards my goals as best I can.
What has inspired your personal clothing designs?
I am always realizing how much of a hippie I am, maybe because of growing up in the Okanagan without a lot of money, but having lots of fun outside. I also think the bohemian trend that’s been around for a few years now comes from a place in consumers and society that is seeking authentic experiences and freedom. I want to design clothing that’s not trying too hard, but also makes people feel special in a simple honest way.
How has environment affected your work? From where you grew up to anywhere you’ve travelled to study and/or work, and to where you currently reside?
There is a definite aesthetic that I have gleaned from the elegance of where I was born in Cape Town, South Africa. Vancouver and Cape Town share a lot of similarities and it’s a dream of mine to explore those in depth and create a kind of cultural bridge between the two cities with art, music, fashion and community.
What are three key things you would like to educate others about sustainable fashion?
Slow fashion is a movement and a mindset.
Supporting slow fashion, local businesses, global artisans and artists is way cooler then mainstream retailers, because it changes the world.
Sustainability isn’t just a hip word, it’s about the lifecycle of products, the end use of everything produced, clothing, plastic, textiles, food, etc.
When do you feel most fulfilled?
I feel the most fulfilled when I’m living out my dreams and creating change.
I’m so excited to watch your brand grow! What’s next for you and Abel Wear?
Thank you! This is going to be an exciting fall season. We’re re-testing some sample designs to get a feel for what our styles will look like in the future!
Stay tuned for part two of this feature, where I’ll share more about the importance of sustainable fashion and the ins and outs of natural materials and dyes vs. synthetic.
Photos from Abel Wear.