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On ‘Soil-Up’ Production and Starting a Fibre Revolution, with Dana Lee

Portrait of Dana Lee in her flagship Dana Lee Brown Bowen Island shop. All photos credited to Adrian Buitenhuis.

‘Farm-to-table’ is common vernacular these days; ‘traceability’ is a hot topic in food culture. But what of the fashion lexicon equivalent? Local clothing designer, Dana Lee, has a few ideas about that: ‘field-to-final-garment’, ‘soil-to-final-finish’, and ‘raw-fibre-to-finished-style’ development is what her namesake brand is all about. Dana Lee Brown (the ‘Brown’ pays homage to Lee’s mother’s maiden name) is understated-ly stylish, luxurious and conscientious – the sort of pieces that we want to wear now, ten years from now (and probably long after that).

Lee has only recently returned to the business of designing and producing clothing after a five-year-long hiatus. When we initially reached out for an interview, she was (understandably) too busy: her new collection had just dropped – the first under the Dana Lee Brown name – and she was preparing to open her Bowen Island shop. With shop doors officially opened (as of May 20th), and its shelves and racks filled with DLB pieces, we could finally sit down with the designer to hear about her brand ethos and overall approach to consumerism.

Transparency and community – it’s what we value in the food we buy and consume, so why not extend these same principles to the clothing we wear? Join us as we uncover why Lee’s perspective on clothing could be a game-changer for your closet:

First of all, please describe your new collection in ten words or less.

Longevity-minded fashion made from regionally-farmed ingredients.

Why is it important for you to know and, by extension, share the details of where and how your materials/garments are made?

1) To inform the steps (beyond just the sewing) that lead to the creation of each textile; 2) To credit the regionality of the ingredients and steps. The choice to work locally is less about origin ethics & quality, and more about working creatively with surrounding resources.

Terms that stand out to me from your website bio section, are “field-to-final-garment” and “soil-to-final-finish” – in large part because of their parallels to the “farm-to-table” food philosophy. How far does this attitude extend for you? Is there any crossover between how you create and consume clothing, and how you cook and/or consume food?

Yes, definitely. While I’m more of a textile person than a foodie, buying food from more local sources has become customary to me over the years. As a designer, it started feeling contradictory not thinking about clothing more in that way – clothes also being very much an agricultural product.

Over your years as a designer, what is the most surprising thing you’ve learnt about the fashion industry?

1. There is a running joke with my design friends that a lot of trends manifest from design and production mistakes that occur in the rush to meet market dates. Point being, there is so much expectation for designers to come out with new styles each season that designing with intention can be extremely challenging.

2. All the steps before sewing that are involved in making a natural fibre garment: the farming, the fibre washing, the carding/combing, the spinning/plying/dyeing of yarns, and all the transport that happens in between. We hear a lot about sewing in the marketing of clothing but there are so many steps that occur before that in which so much social and environmental impact can occur.

What is the biggest improvement/change that you’ve seen over the years?

The growing appreciation for process and more staple-minded dressing.

Where do we still need drastic improvement?

If we are going to continue producing more clothing (and I think that’s inevitable), I think we need to radically shift back to more natural fibres with more positively impactful farming methods.

No person/brand is perfect. What is the one thing are you willing to compromise, in order to continue doing what you do, and why?

With the aim to use all regional ingredients, outsourcing thread and certain trims is a compromise I’m willing to make. While the US and Canada have some historical specialties (denim, canvas, jersey, and other more low-medium gauge fabrics) we don’t have the industry to spin fine-gauge yarns, so are unable to produce machine sewing thread, for example. Also, I’ve integrated a percentage of imported hemp into one of my denims to further the possibilities with the local cotton. While hemp was once a domestic mainstay, we’ve lost those processing capabilities over the last century. There is a growing movement to revitalize that, but commercial viability is still a ways away. My hope is that supporting our local textile supply chains will enable the local production of a wider range of things, including hemp.

You’ve recently gone through a rebrand. The first collection drop under your new name happened only weeks ago…Why was now the right timing, for you and your customer?

With this model being so specific, I’m considering this more of new brand than a re-brand. Brown being my mother’s last name, I thought adding it would be a nice way to demarcate this new project while maintaining some connection to my previous work.

Timing wise – I wish I could say the timing was for me and my customer (!) but it simply took this long for things to materialize. With many of the fabrics being developed from the soil-up, there is an extremely long lead-time in comparison to designing from ready-made fabrics.

If you had to pick just one item from your new collection that you consider your “favourite” – or, if you’re having trouble choosing, then one item that you think is the best representation of the new Dana Lee Brown brand – which would it be and why?

I’m really excited about the Indigo Ring-Neck Sweatshirts because they are a great showcase of regional ingredients. The fabric is a custom-milled fleece with a soft Rambouillet Wool inner (Northern California), and an Organic Upland Cotton Face (West Texas.) Each sweatshirt is hand-dyed in a regionally-grown indigo, yielding a vibrant mid-blue shade, each with their own patina.

How do you find and determine which farms/factories/people/processes to work with?

For sewing, it’s based a lot on sewing capability and proximity to other production steps. For example, my lighter-weight/ yarn-dyed wovens are made in Vancouver, but my Denim Styles are made with a partner San Francisco who has the skill and traditional machinery to produce things efficiently. The Jerseys are made in Ontario, close to my dyer, which avoids back & forth transport across Canada. Familiarity with labor conditions is also very important. Having worked with the same sewers since 2010, I know their practices well.

For yarn-spinning and fabric milling, it’s been mainly about who’s willing to work with smaller minimums and specialty fibres, and there are only a handful out there.

For farms, it’s been a lot about viability (if enough fibre or dyestuff can be produced to support a production run) and farming practices. If you are a grower/farmer implementing organic/regenerative methods, or part of a minority community, I’d be thrilled to collaborate.

You are currently residing on Bowen Island and, besides your own shop, Dana Lee Brown is also available exclusively from Neighbour, in Gastown, Vancouver…How does BC influence and/or fit into the scope of your brand identity?

Yes, after living between NY and LA for several years, I made the move to Bowen with my family in 2018. Coming back home to BC – specifically Bowen – has provided the chance to connect more with nature and adopt a slower pace of life. At the same time, there are some amazing cultural hubs (like Neighbour) nearby that continue to push the fashion bar both locally and globally. It’s a unique combination that I’m very proud to be part of, and that has definitely influenced the creation and feeling of this new work.

Lastly, please tell me a bit about your shop. What can visitors to the Dana Lee Brown flagship expect?

The shop is intended to be as much as an installation space as a store: in addition to the clothing, you can also come see and feel the raw fibres and processes behind each garment. My hope is for people to leave the shop with some new knowledge about or ideas about clothing & natural fibres.

It’s on Bowen Island, located in Artisan Square – our quaint little shop & cafe hub just a 10 minute walk from the ferry. It’s pretty easy to get here from Vancouver, with the ferry (20 minutes) leaving from Horseshoe Bay almost every hour until 10pm. There is also an express bus to the ferry terminal from Georgia St. You can find there some rare gems, including Miki Tanaka Jewelry (shop and studio), Sangre De Fruta (boutique and production headquarters), Cocoa West (an Organic Chocolatier), and Artisan East Cafe (amazing fresh pastries, lunch and more.) There are also some really nice walks, hikes, and other spots within walking distance, including Tell Your Friends on the pier, and our beloved Knick Knack Nook by the recycling depot.

The DLB flagship officially opened doors in Bowen Island’s Artisan Square (205-566 Artisan Lane, look for the yellow building) on Saturday, May 20th, 2023. To start, the shop will be open to the public Fridays and weekends only, from 11am to 4pm. (Private appointments outside of these hours are also available, with advance notice.)

Dana Lee Shop
Neighbourhood: Bowen Island
#205, 566 Artisan Ln (yellow building)

There is 1 comment

  1. It is very inspiring to see a talented designer embracing the dedication and creativity and expertise involved in every aspect of the coproduction process. I have Dana Lee sweaters I purchased over ten years ago and wear constantly. Looking forward to some new pieces.

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