Sheer treasure

Sheer treasure

Canadian eco-fashion designer brings new life to old hosiery
October 13, 2010
Katherine Soucie in her Vancouver studio, where
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Katherine Soucie in her Vancouver studio, where she hand-dyes raw hosiery and produces her exquisite pieces.
Ian Sheh

Katherine Soucie gives hope to misfits. Like other eccentric adolescents, she discovered that being different can be an asset in adulthood, especially for an artist. Today, the Vancouver-based textile and garment designer collaborates with world-renowned designers, showcases her diaphanous garments around the globe and tailors dresses that go for $2,000. Not bad for someone who makes clothes out of scrap material.

Even as a child, Soucie knew she wanted to be a designer, but as the youngest of five in a frugal household, she found her options were limited. By age 12, the self-taught seamstress from St. Thomas, Ont., was gathering thrift store castoffs and reconstructing them for novelty and fit. She spent years in and out of post-secondary programs trying to mesh her vision of sustainable fashion with the wasteful nature of the industry. Enrolled in a textile program at North Vancouver’s Capilano University, for example, she began contemplating uses for disposable textiles such as nylon hosiery. Then she wondered whether dryer sheets could be retooled into fabric, so she began collecting and stitching them together until she had enough for a chic dryer-sheet dress.

The following looks are from Soucie
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The following looks are from Soucie's Vanitas II spring 2010 collection.
Ian Sheh

In 2003, she started her own business, Sans Soucie, to see whether she could earn a living through counterculture design. Her timing was impeccable. Sans Soucie now satisfies a growing demand for local, handmade, eco-friendly clothing. The dresses, skirts, shirts and accessories she creates are distinctive, feminine and flattering on any body type. Soucie works mostly with waste pantyhose shipped from Montréal and the bolt ends of fabric she gleans from Vancouver-area manufacturers. It helps to reconcile the disdain she feels toward an industry that she says is the third largest polluter in the world.

“I plan on doing this for the rest of my life,” says Soucie. “I’m not here to design something because I want my name on the back of someone’s behind. As a designer, I feel I have a responsibility toward what I put out there.”

Made from hand-dyed, printed nylon waste hosiery
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Made from hand-dyed, printed nylon waste hosiery and knits, these designs were produced using a special cutting technique called subtraction, invented by UK designer Julian Roberts.
Ian Sheh

And for how her creations are displayed. This summer at the Toronto Alternative Arts and Fashion Week, she was the only designer to put a plus-sized model on the runway. The crowd cheered.

Reprocessed haute couture doesn’t come cheap. Her garments cost anywhere from $125 to $2,500, but they are labour-intensive and one-of-a-kind. Individual slices of nylon must be hand-dyed, silkscreened and stitched together before she can begin cutting and shaping them into clothing.

Hand-dyed hosiery hangs to dry in Soucie
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Hand-dyed hosiery hangs to dry in Soucie's studio.
Ian Sheh

In 2008, after several years of experimenting, collaborating and gaining notoriety, Soucie decided to get her bachelor of fine arts at Emily Carr University of Art + Design which boasts a Wearables and Interactive Products Studio outfitted with a 15-needle digital embroidery machine. Here, she started using embroidery as a means of fusing layers of hosiery to make fabric, a process she invented. She used molecular and microscopic images of nylon as the basis for her thread designs. Maria Lantin, her project adviser, says Soucie transformed waste into wonder.

“She had her hands right in this machine and was manipulating the pattern so that the pieces would stick together in a certain way,” says Lantin, “and I was like, ‘Oh, man, this is crazy.’ In the end, the piece was probably eight feet by about eight feet, and it looked like wedding dress material. It was gorgeous. This material was going to be thrown away, and she made it into something precious. I thought it was incredible.”

As society weans itself from overconsumption, Soucie’s clientele will likely grow — and so will rival suppliers. Although this is encouraging, Soucie warns that buyers must beware: there are more than a few duplicitous clothing manufacturers jumping on the “eco-friendly” bandwagon.

Soucie is now pursuing a master’s degree at Emily Carr, which means her clients might have to wait longer for their next purchase. Luckily, they are the kind of people who don’t mind waiting for something precious.