Com­rades in Garbs Com­rags’s Joyce Gun­house and Judy Cor­nish thought they’d be in fash­ion for maybe two years—the brand is now 35.

Fashion (Canada) - - The Market People - By Nathalie Atkin­son

In 1983, af­ter meet­ing in Ry­er­son Uni­ver­sity’s fash­ion arts pro­gram, Com­rags co-de­sign­ers Joyce Gun­house and Judy Cor­nish pooled their cash to stage a fash­ion show at Toronto af­ter-hours club Voodoo. As the brand they launched—with “leg­gings, skimpy skirts and lit­tle-boy bathing suits that we ex­pected peo­ple to wear to clubs”—cel­e­brates its 35th an­niver­sary, the de­sign­ers ad­mit there was no plan. “We prob­a­bly thought we’d give it two years,” says Gun­house.

Sports­wear, as it was known then, was pi­o­neered by van­guard women like Claire McCardell, Bon­nie Cashin and Anne Klein, but in 1983, fash­ion was still a boys’ club. “That’s one of the big­gest changes,” says Cor­nish, re­call­ing the time be­fore Comme des Garçons had es­tab­lished a cult fol­low­ing or Donna Karan had set up her own brand. “Now, women are as much if not more in­ter­ested in what other women think; then, it was still very much male de­sign­ers set­ting the taste. Even in Canada, it was Leo Che­va­lier and Si­mon Chang and Mr. Jax. All men! That was the land­scape.”

Just like in 1983, Gun­house and Cor­nish co-de­sign ev­ery­thing and are hands-on in ev­ery as­pect of the busi­ness (from pat­tern­mak­ing to gar­ment pro­duc­tion) in their down­town-Toronto stu­dio. The clothes re­main proudly “made in Canada,” where, thanks to a hand­ful of long­time stock­ists from Van­cou­ver to St. John’s, N.L., they can be found from coast to coast. Their en­dur­ing per­sonal friend­ship and pro­fes- sional part­ner­ship have en­com­passed re­search trips to places like Paris as well as rais­ing their re­spec­tive fam­i­lies. Over the years, fam­ily and friends have got­ten in­volved. The Com­rags flag­ship bou­tique in­te­rior, for ex­am­ple, was cre­ated by award-win­ning tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tion de­signer Rocco Mat­teo, who hap­pens to be Gun­house’s hus­band. For roughly 20 years, Gun­house’s sis­ter Judy has man­aged the Toronto store, and sis­ter Su­san has worked with Com­rags for close to 30 years. Head seam­stress Loan, who has worked with them since the very be­gin­ning, is part of the ex­tended fam­ily, too. The sources of in­spi­ra­tion in any given sea­son are eclec­tic. “I’m a scav­enger for weird and ran­dom de­tails of how things are put to­gether,” says Cor­nish, who scours thrift stores for vin­tage cloth­ing and tex­tiles. A quirky pocket fea­ture might be pil­fered from an apron—or messy pleats stitched down to mimic a skirt tan­gled by the wind. What’s “typ­i­cal Com­rags” de­pends on when you bought your first piece. Was it dur­ing the 1980s of one-size-fits-all Ly­cra sep­a­rates and over­sized coats? Or per­haps it was early 1990s grunge, when the brand was known for flirty flo­rals and bias-cut slips— or the later menswear-in­spired suits and ’40s-style crepe midi-dresses. Women who came of age in the 2000s might as­so­ciate Com­rags with the pro­por­tion and con­trast of nipped jack­ets and tu­nics cre­atively lay­ered over cropped trousers—or fem­i­nine frocks worn with man­nish brogues. Flu­ency in fash­ion his­tory al­lows Gun­house and Cor­nish to play with their brand’s de­sign ver­nac­u­lar from sea­son to sea­son. Com­rags is where el­e­ments of style are jux­ta­posed with sub­ver­sive wit. It’s less a gar­ment than an at­ti­tude. “Part of our suc­cess is that we have fans who bought us when they were younger and we’ve grown with them,” ven­tures Gun­house. “They bought at a time when they were be­com­ing who they are. Of­ten, it was when they first felt them­selves as cool.”

GREAT­EST HIT “We al­most al­ways have a slip,” says Cor­nish. “Bias is so friendly to the body. If you have a black slip, you’re good to go.” MODEL CIT­I­ZENS One of Kirsten Owen’s first shoots was for Com­rags. A young Daria Wer­bowy walked its “Bread and Wa­ter” show at the turn of the mil­len­nium. TRENDS, RE­VIS­ITED “We’ve started do­ing over­alls and jump­suits again,” says Cor­nish. “They were a sta­ple in the col­lec­tion back in the ’80s, when you just had to have that one-piece.” IL­LUS­TRI­OUS ALUMNI De­sign­ers Richard Lyle of Mercy, Kirk Pick­ers­gill of Greta Con­stan­tine and Hamish Th­waites (who works for Er­dem) have passed through the stu­dio.

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