Interview by Olivia Jalil
Interview by journalist Olivia Jalil : https://oliviajalil.cargo.site/Ovate-Interview
Interview: Audrey Cantwell of Ovate
In our current fashion climate, a handmade item where one can put a name, or even a face, to its maker of is a manifestation of true luxury, sustainability, and craftsmanship. In the age of next-day delivery and fifty-pence bandeau tops, it can be refreshing to connect with a realm of fashion that is the opposite - slow, considered, meaningful.
Yet naturally, such ‘artisanal’ garments often come at a heightened cost. It is an undeniably wonderful experience to be able to go to a specialist boutique, to see, feel, and perhaps even try a dress made from antique silk, or a pair of boots that will only get better with years of wear. But of course, such experiences, and access to a realm of more thoughtful fashion are things that are inaccessible for the majority. The feeling of trying on something beautiful and then sheepishly shaking one’s head at the sales associate is a fairly universal one.
A question is therefore raised- do promises of sustainability mean anything at all, if lasting timeless pieces are only available to a handful of people? Is there space for both beauty and accessibility in a niche of fashion that is infamous for being anything but?
Ovate, the Canadian brand founded thirteen years ago by Audrey Cantwell, seems to answer this question. With each garment made by hand by herself, she works in small batches, and sells for prices that, whilst not cheap, are decidedly attainable - without compromising on production, quality, or the poetic nature that comes with an item of this style.
Her designs feature a certain rugged elegance - raw hems sit alongside crisply-cut bodices, full skirts, and mother-of-pearl buttons. The palette is warm and natural; shades of flax flower and charcoal and olive evoke a certain historicism - putting on an Ovate dress allows oneself to indulge that they are a character in a period film. Yet, the model of the brand is one that is decidedly modern - a first-class example of online community in its own right.
With seventy-thousand followers, and a sense of ubiquity in certain online circles, it is clear that Audrey has created a success story. Where many small clothing brands often stagnate, or fail completely, she has managed to find a sense of true equilibrium - balancing beautiful materials and a genuine feeling of desirability, with pricing that is fair for both maker and wearer.
To begin, I wanted to ask Audrey about this sense of accessibility in an often unattainable realm of fashion - was creating something democratic a conscious choice?
‘Accessibility is very important to me, and it’s a very conscious decision and direction I’ve gone in with Ovate. Immediately I knew that offering hand crafted clothing in high quality, natural fabrics at an accessible price could only be possible if I sold directly to clients, rather than wholesaling to boutiques.’ she begins. Boutiques, she says, generally have a mark-up of ‘two to three times what the designer sells the garment for’ - increasing the price to a point that both is out of reach for many, and often ‘very distant from the cost of producing the garment itself.’
Audrey combats this price augmentation, with several methods - without sacrificing quality. ‘Working on a made-to-order basis, producing in small batches, and cutting each piece by hand’ are all ways in which she reduces wastefulness of resources - something that is better for everyone.
This small scale of work is one that Audrey enjoys, and ‘couldn’t ever imagine changing.’ Operating from her home studio, a pretty, brightly-lit attic space, she works by herself, and comes together with her assistant Gabrielle once a week, to exchange fabric and prepared garments, and ‘discuss fit, construction, and finishing new designs’, as well as prototyping new items - something which must be done ‘several times’ to ensure a perfectly fitting piece.
‘This arrangement suits me perfectly, as I love working alone,’ she says - referring to herself as somewhat of a ‘homebody’. ‘If Ovate were to become a bigger company, I fear my daily tasks would revolve more around managing people than making clothes - which is all I really want to do.’
Whilst a relatively small piece of the gargantuan realm of fashion as a whole, the work of independent designers, like Audrey, should not be discounted as something negligible. For small brands to thrive it is a balancing act, where all the elements that would normally be controlled by different teams are thrust into the hands of an individual - a task that cannot be simple.
Yet, there is a certain sense of control that comes with being in charge - a sense of control that Audrey believes is ‘absolutely crucial’ - as while it may come with difficulties, it ultimately means the brand can be exactly tailored around her life.
‘Ovate is such a big part of me, it’s impossible to separate myself from work.’ she says.
‘It can feel overwhelming at times, but I’ve learnt over the years not to bite off more than I can chew. The beauty of being in control is deciding how big collections are, how many pieces are produced. I have no set rules.’
‘Depending on the season of my life, I may be releasing more or less clothing. At certain times I’ve had so many ideas for new garments, and other times, I have relied on making updated versions of past season pieces - which I see nothing wrong with. I don’t feel the need to reinvent my brand every season, or put too much pressure on myself to come up with new designs. I like things to happen more organically, and I hope to create clothing that can withstand time.’
This element of withstanding time is one that Ovate succeeds in perhaps the most profoundly. From season to season, Audrey’s garments melt seamlessly into one another - no piece ever feeling unconsidered. Whilst new ideas are always being added, there is always a promise of quality, a feeling of continuity from one collection to the next that assures buyers that a new piece will fit with any existing ones they may have.
This is, in part, thanks to the fabrics - thick corduroys and simple, airy, linens that get better with every wear. Choosing materials is a vital aspect of Ovate - one that Audrey regards ‘perhaps the most important thing of all.’ It is an element that is ‘time-consuming’ - especially considering Ovate clothing is only made using natural fibres - but Audrey has found a way to streamline the process.
‘With Ovate, I use the same fabrics over and over - and some I’ve been using now for over ten years. I have a few different linen and linen-cotton blends that I love to use every season - they make up the majority of my collection. I sometimes introduce new colours, but in general, I have a selection of tried and true fabrics that I always come back to.’
Though, that is not to say new fabrics are not in the works. ‘Silk,’ Audrey muses, ‘I rarely use, as it is so expensive, especially when buying small quantities.’
‘However, for some time, I have been toying with the idea of making a small atelier collection of made-to-order, special occasion dresses. Perhaps this could be my opportunity to use beautiful, luxurious silks…’
Apart from creating the clothes themselves, Audrey’s favourite element of working is creating the imagery for Ovate - for it is when she sees the collections come together, and has the chance to ‘infuse them with emotion and atmosphere.’
Collaborating with long-time model, Tuba, there is a sense of cohesion in Audrey’s photographs that contributes to a sense of world-building. Whether via the means of black and white film shots, or airy studio images, there exists a sense of unfussiness and naturalism that comes alongside browsing Audrey’s work online. The quiet romanticism of the imagery and sublety in the styling makes it simple to picture oneself wearing an Ovate piece, and slotting it into an existing wardrobe.
This image creating is another key element of working in the online sphere - one that can make or break a business. ‘The photographs are all the client has in order to make a decision on whether or not they want an Ovate piece.’ Audrey says. ‘Without being able to try on and feel a garment in person, the photos are of utmost importance.’
The digital marketing element of owning a brand is one that she admits is ‘the most challenging aspect of having a company.’
‘It can feel extremely demanding, and is such a competitive space. Simply having my followers see my posts is incredibly hard.’ she begins. ‘ I am certainly no marketing guru, and know not the secrets of the trade. It is something I tell myself every year that I need to work on -yet time goes on and I’d so much rather be spending it making clothes rather than trying to decipher algorithms!’
Yet, it is clear that something about her method of marketing has clicked with an audience. With thousands of followers on instagram, the Ovate community is an ever-growing one - yet also remains distinctly personal. To scroll Audrey’s feed is to feel a sense of kinship - to both the brand and to those who are wearing the pieces. Audrey herself finds this connection with her audience vital, seeing it as something that is ‘exceedingly rare, and very special.’ She is an active participant of her own community of wearers - reposting outfit snaps, and replying to comments and messages.
‘I have been introduced to countless wonderful people through it (social media), and so many have found my brand as well. I know that I could hire someone to run my Instagram account for me, but I likely never will. I do love the connections I make directly with clients and followers through it. I do my very best to respond to every single DM, and reply to comments any time I see them.’
Perhaps then, it is this feeling of connection that sets Ovate apart - the notion of not just buying a beautiful dress, but knowing exactly where it came from; being able to participate in a little world of people who value similar things. It is even more beautiful that this is not a relationship that is one-sided.
‘I think clients also know that when they reach out by social media or by email, it is I who responds.’ Audrey writes, reflecting on the relationships she has built with clients over the years.
‘I often feel like I know them without having ever met. If I see their name come up in my orders, I immediately feel a smile come upon my face. I can picture them wearing it as I package it up.’
This, she says, is a feeling that is ‘very difficult to describe’, but perhaps most aptly put as a ‘combination of gratitude, warmth, and fulfilment’. Precious things, that in today’s industry, are maybe the most wonderful of all.
Audrey’s latest (and very lovely) collection is now available to purchase on her site, ovate.ca