Questions Big, Small and Pressing with Local Designer and Musician, Isabelle Dunlop

For over two decades Isabelle Dunlop has been a fixture and cult figure of the Vancouver fashion scene, developing her signature aesthetic under the label of her own name.

When we caught up with her in May, 2020 (30 years after she moved to Canada from Scotland) we found the one-woman brand still creating and sewing all of her pieces herself, using only eco-friendly materials. In the interview that follows, the local fashion designer and musician (yes, she somehow has the time and energy to make music with her band Combine the Victorious) fields a long list of rapid-fire questions while also addressing the impact of COVID-19…

What neighbourhood is your studio/shop in and what do you love about it?

Mount Pleasant – Main and 26th. I love walking so this is the perfect neighbourhood for me: great coffee shops, flavourful restaurants, pubs, unique little stores and brilliant people watching. There’s a community vibe but you can still be an individual.

Describe a day in the studio – what does it look, sound, smell like?

Coffee, quick sweep up outside the store (gorgeous view of Grouse mountain on a clear day), then it’s to the back where all the sewing machines and fabric are. In the summer I have the back door open looking out on a beautiful willow tree. I try to make a new garment each day so I’ll decide what piece I’m excited about making and displaying in the front window and start cutting out the fabric. I’ve been building a solid library of original patterns to choose from and have been collecting lots of natural fabrics to work with along the way. I’m lucky my next door neighbour is a baker so the smell of chocolate pudding wafts through to my side around 4:30 every day reminding me of childhood daydreams of having an atelier in Paris (before I knew such a place as Vancouver existed).

What has been your weirdest or most unusual source of inspiration to date?

Up till now I’d still say that seeing gently folded lava has been weirdly inspiring and it’s dawning on me why I only felt like making black things over the the past few months. Things are brightening up again in here now as we resurface.

Who is your fashion designer idol?

Vivienne Westwood.

What are your favourite places to shop in Vancouver?

I seem to do most of my shopping locally: East West Market for groceries, Welks mart for random housewares and El Caminos for taco treats.

How has your practice changed since you started your own fashion label?

Much more prolific, creating new pieces on a regular basis.

What material have you never used, but would like to?

Hemp.

Who – living, dead or fictional – would you like to have wear one of your designs?

Madonna.

What is your favourite, or most underrated material?

I love working with wool but I don’t think people realize how naturally water resistant it is.

Favourite fashion trend, from any era?

Pleats.

Coffee or tea?

Coffee in the morning a nice Chai tea at bedtime.

Describe your current collection in 10 words or less.

An ebullient take on classic cuts and natural fabrics.

The cliché that you overuse?

Waste not, want not.

Dogs or cats?

Cats but I do love dogs and their boundless happy energy.

Shoe of choice?

Loeffler Randall boots.

Your three role models?

Gran Connell: Eternal warm heart. Elizabeth Joy Dunlop: Wise, hardworking, gentle but always strong to the core. Coco Chanel: Creating what she loved till the day she died.

“I love what I do and believe that good energy is put into each design. I’m not willing to forgo basic human rights to be able to manufacture my line cheaply. Being able to do small affordable runs in town in a pleasant environment will help local designers survive and flourish while competing in a massive global industry.”

Favourite Vancouver building?

It’s tie between the Marine building and the SunTower building.

The thing that is bad for you that you will never stop eating?

Chocolate.

The Vancouver establishment you can’t wait to reopen? What are you ordering?

Cascade on Main. Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding and a Manhattan. They have been open for take-out so we got to enjoy their fish and chips the other evening.

First album that made you love music?

Tears for Fears, Songs from the Big Chair.

What was the last live concert you saw?

The Town Pants performing in a backyard on May 23rd here in British Columbia, broadcast by Hubcast Media for a virtual concert in New York.

Your all-time best Halloween costume?

Alligator that Mum had made out of egg cartons.

What game did you love as a kid?

Monopoly.

Some people remember their first kiss, tell us about the first piece of clothing that you completed from design to final product.

At Textile College in Scotland we had to draft and produce a lined jacket. I remember picking the navy worsted wool from a tiny little fabric shop in Galashiels, very nervously making the first cut in the most expensive fabric I’d ever bought, following each decision I’d made on the way with the slice of my sharpened scissors. No going back once you commit to cutting out the pattern. I still have the jacket in my closet and throw it on from time to time.

What’s the one thing about Vancouver’s fashion scene that you want to see changed the most?

Actually I feel like I’m witnessing the change that I’d like to see here. Studio 310 Design Lab in Vancouver has a studio attached to their factory for small up-and-coming designers to utilize in conjunction with their manufacturing. The hardest thing as a designer is being able to create enough pieces on your own to be self sufficient and be at a price point that the market is happy with. I love what I do and believe that good energy is put into each design. I’m not willing to forgo basic human rights to be able to manufacture my line cheaply. Being able to do small affordable runs in town in a pleasant environment will help local designers survive and flourish while competing in a massive global industry.

The different career path that you could have gone on?

Lucky to be able to try out my different career path while following my current dream. 10 years ago I discovered I can sing and have been writing and performing ever since.

Three films you would gladly watch again?

Star Wars the original, The Princess Bride, Lord of the Rings (the first one).

Three favourite boutiques in YVR?

One of a Few, Mandula and Neighbourhood Quality Goods on Main.

Under what circumstances would you join the army?

To sing for peace.

Your most regrettable purchase ever?

When I was a kid we did chores on the farm to get an allowance. I had saved up and wanted to buy ABBA’s “Lay your Love on Me” and on the next trip to town I splurged and bought the single. Later, on the way back home, one of my siblings pointed out that the song was on an album we already had. Felt like an idiot for wasting money and not realizing that detail! That’s when I decided I didn’t like 12” versions of songs.

What was the luckiest moment in your life?

Being born into a really good family in an equality believing country. Oh, and one of my designs turning up unexpectedly on the red carpet on TV at the Juno’s. Seemingly the bands’s pre-selected outfits were lost in transit on the way to the award show !

It’s been a long day, but it’s finally over. What’s your drink of choice?

Main Street Pilsner.

What are you the most proud of?

Creating.

What are you the least proud of?

Tardiness – I get lost in daydreaming a lot.

The strange talent that you possess?

Finding things.

The strange talent that you wish you possessed?

Telepathy.

What is the one animal that scares you the most?

Any one that has rabies.

If you had a motto, what would it be?

Find the silver lining.

Scariest situation you’ve ever been in?

Being lost drunk and separated from the band in New York going the wrong way from our hotel.

Fashion trend that needs to die?

Acid wash.

Your favourite curse word?

“Shit.”

Least favourite word?

“Cunt.”

What object of no monetary value will you keep dearly until you die?

A semi precious stone I found when I was about 9 in a river in Scotland.

The most beautiful place in the world?

Ayrshire Scotland on a summer sunny day overlooking the island Arran.

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Your first memory?

Walking up and down a diamond patterned carpet in a straight line with Mum. I am a twin and when I was born my feet were a bit squished to one side by my brothers large brainy head. My Mum was naturally helping me straighten out.

The song that you could listen to on repeat for an hour?

Combine the Victorious has been finishing up the latest EP so I’ve had our single “What’s Going On In Your Head” on repeat as we finalize the mix.

The thing about summer you are most looking forward to?

Bike ride to Spanish banks for a picnic with Mark.

The best way to go, in the very end?

A bottle of Johnny Walker Blue and sleeping by a wood fire crackling away.

“In a way it feels like time has slowed down a bit and we are all realizing what’s important in life. I don’t think we are as obsessed with mass production as much as before, which is great news for artists like me who create everything in-house.”

What keeps you up at night?

I think we are all worried about the same thing right now: how do we proceed and what does the future look like? However, I do like being kept up by an exciting music session or a conversation that just has to keep going.

How would you like to be remembered?

Happy.

I don’t think that it’s presumptuous of me to say that artists/creatives are at a bit of an advantage during the COVID situation, because we’re used to feelings of uncertainty and living on the edge. On the other hand, you are also a small business owner with a retail space on Main Street, which I imagine is not inexpensive… What unique challenges have you encountered during these strange times, and how have you been forced to adapt or change?

It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions. Initially I was surprised and saddened at how many people felt like it could be the end of brick and mortar stores and that online is the only way to go. In the past I’ve found it awkward to set up a site that would suit the nature of my designs, because trying things on and feeling the textures is such a big part of the experience. As the months have progressed I’ve had support from the government, my landlord and loyal customers, so I feel like there’s a glimmer of hope that I can keep things going and continue to be part of the Main Street community.

Fashion and retail take hard hits during times of recession/depression. What are your biggest sources of strength, and how can the Vancouver community best offer its support to these industries locally?

I think the world is much more aware of how much work it takes to run a business of any kind and that if they spend their money locally it actually helps keep the things that they like in their community. We all matter and it’s nice to talk to people, like Michelle from One of Few who, firmly believe that there’s hope for boutiques to survive and that customers miss the connection and artistry that we all provide.

On the flip side, artist/creative productivity tend to increase in times of turmoil. What positive changes have you witnessed and/or experienced and what do you think are the most valuable take-aways from this overall experience?

It’s definitely been nice to have more time to create music, and having the door locked to the shop has meant I can keep my head down and concentrate on sewing. I’m enjoying slowly opening up again now by having private appointments and having the time to concentrate on one person at a time. In a way it feels like time has slowed down a bit and we are all realizing what’s important in life. I don’t think we are as obsessed with mass production as much as before, which is great news for artists like me who create everything in-house.

With so much uncertainty and life in constant flux, I’m sure that your goals have also changed. If you can accomplish one thing in 2020, what would that ideally be?

To keep the store going and releasing our latest album.

There are 2 comments

  1. Great interview.
    I’m glad to see more exposure for Isabelle, she’s a wonderful and talented person.
    I was lucky to record and mix a song that she did with Don Harrison (killer guitar player/songwriter), it’s great, I hope we can work together more.

  2. I absolutely love Isabelle’s clothing, and I own quite a bit of it! She is super talented. I also love her shop which has a “parlour” feel to it and which hosts local artists and live music now and then. I also love her. Isabelle is one of the most authentic humans I have ever met. She has a very sunny disposition and even when things are not going as well as she would like she seems to find the good thing. Once she told me that when birds are chirping she hears, “Things are great, things are great, things are great..”

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