Preloved founder and creative director Julia Grieve can best be described as a firecracker. The statuesque platinum blond bubbles over with energy every time she speaks, explaining the magic behind her brand with the same enthusiasm after 20 years in business that she had as a young entrepreneur on day one.
“I actually started the company when I was five, ” jokes Grieve. “I was really great at arts and crafts.”
While she certainly has abundant talent and vision, even she didn’t foresee the green fashion mecca she helms. “I always say I’m an accidental environmentalist,” she laughs.
Preloved turns reclaimed vintage fabrics into trendy reworked garments, sometimes combining them with new dead stock material (leftover from other designers or factories). “But we create clothing that hangs in some of the best boutiques in the world,” glows Grieve. “It’s not a church craft sale thing.”
Indeed, Prevloved has sold at Holt Renfrew, Roots, Indigo and over 400 retailers worldwide and been worn by the likes of Julia Roberts, Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway.
While Preloved used to have its very own namesake shops, most recently on Queen West, Grieve decided in 2014 that it was better for business to collaborate with other brands and retailers. “We’ve been through it all. We went through the fire in 2003 on Queen and then that wicked flood three years ago,” she says. “The flood is what really sank us – pardon the pun.”
Grieve points to the countless patterns that dangle from the factory’s ceiling: “That’s 20 years of patterns, but we’ve had to recreate them so many times because of the fire and flood. Theoretically, there should be triple the amount.”
Grieve has worked with her manufacturer, Redwood Classics Apparel, for 15 years now. After she closed the Queen West shop, she moved her studio space into the Scarborough factory where every single Preloved item is made.
“I don’t know how people can manufacture overseas. It’s a joke,” says Grieve. “It’s hard enough doing it in house. It’s a very intimate relationship between a designer and manufacturer. I don’t know how you do that over email.”
The process starts with bundles upon bundles of vintage clothing. Preloved uses more than 100,000 vintage wool sweaters and 50,000 vintage cotton pants a year. That adds up to more than 1 million garments saved from landfill over the label’s 20 years.
“We get all the vintage pieces from rag houses, which is the oldest form of recycling out there. They’re third-generation family businesses where they sort used clothing,” explains Grieve. “Unsorted used clothing basically has no value. These places are like clothing graveyards, but once it’s all sorted the garments have a new life.” Luckily for Grieve, the GTA is home to the world’s largest concentration of rag houses – a fact she wasn’t even aware of when she started her business.
Preloved then further sorts the items by colour and print before sending them to the factory’s rows of industrial washing machines for sanitation and quality control purposes. “If a garment falls apart in the wash, obviously we know we can’t use it,” she says. “At that point we often use the material for mittens.”
At the front of the factory, workers cut patterns for the collection. The patterns then move backwards in the factory, where they meet up with the raw vintage items, and rows of East Asian sewers begin to work their magic. Each row of workers has a specific purpose, and a garment moves back throughout the rows as it nears completion.
The factory is currently manufacturing Preloved’s 20th-anniversary collection, comprising basics named after the original location of the brand’s boutiques: there’s the Ryerson T, the Granville sweatshirt, the Nugget (the street the factory is currently located on) sweatshirt and, of course, the Queen West sweatshirt. Grieve will also collaborate with 20 boutiques across Canada, from Yellowknife to the East Coast, on unique capsule collections tailored to each retailer. As if that weren’t enough, the line will also show at Toronto Fashion Week in October for the first time in five years.
Is Grieve overextended? I’d be tempted to say yes if this superwoman didn’t move and talk at a rate of a million miles per minute. It’s easy to feel as though you’re stuck in slow motion next to her. She sees a bright future in the new wave of consumers interested in shopping local: “Change is happening. Yes, the made-in-Canada label is a little more expensive, but the public is starting to understand why and that it stands for something.”