Words: Chelsea Parkinson / Photos: Joseph Visser
As the seasons began at last to speed from cold to warm, Jill Sawatzky welcomed us into the home that she and her husband built, to talk about the clothing she makes. During our time with her, we were encompassed by lovely, comfortable things. Big, bright windows. Jill’s laugh. Her young son’s artwork. Her own materials for clothing-making. Dolly Parton’s croon.
Although she makes clothing, Jill would hesitate to call herself a fashion designer. With her line, Tony Chestnut, she gathers together every quality that might come to mind when you think about a strong, passionate, busy woman, and pours them into unique, versatile, and stunning pieces of clothing.
Muddy Water: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of Tony Chestnut?
Jill: I went to fashion school in Vancouver and was there for a year. I learned how to sew and do all of the monotonously boring parts of design, and that led me into a great internship that I did for about 6 months. In hindsight I’d say that that’s where I learned not just about making clothing, and the process of designing, producing, and getting my stuff out there, but also just what kind of designer I wanted to be. And then after that we moved back to Winnipeg, because it’s expensive living in Vancouver, and at that point I kind of started up Tony Chestnut. That was about seven or eight years ago. And in those seven or eight years there’s been a total ebb and flow. It was essentially a good start and has continued that way, but it’s taken so many different shapes and different...incarnations.
MW: Where does the name come from?
J: Actually for our final project at fashion school we put on a fashion show and we had to put together a collection with a portfolio and everything. And at that point my collection that I did was called Tony Chestnut—and it stuck with me, I like it for so many reasons. I just kind of held onto it.
But the name itself comes from song called Tony Chestnut that I learned when I was in kindergarten from a teacher that I have pretty fond memories of. I also like the androgyny of it because I think that that’s always been kind of a thread in my clothing. I always like kind of a nod to androgyny. And, also, people often say, “Oh are you Tony?” They think it’s my name and I like the fact of it seeming eponymous, but it not actually being that.
MW: Did having children change Tony Chestnut? In terms of scale and production, as well the pieces themselves?
J: For sure. It changed time management and time frames and just how much time I could put into it and I think that’s what I was talking about with the whole ebb and flow thing. In the past seven years there have been times where I’ve done this pretty full time, but, then, because it’s just me, I can change it up. I took short breaks after both of my boys were born, so I think that definitely having kids has affected it in that way. And if I’m being honest—I’d like to say it hasn’t—but if I’m being honest, I would say that it has also affected the overall aesthetic of what I’m creating, and not just how I’m creating it.
MW: How so?
J: I’ve mostly created clothing that I myself would wear. Because I feel like if I would want to wear it, then other people might, as well. So, since having kids, I feel the clothing is a bit more utilitarian, easy—I always kind of need for it to be easy. You know, pockets to put bottles or something in. I think it’s always in the back of my mind that it needs to be functional, and if you have kids that’s the big thing.
MW: Your clothes seem to work so beautifully for a mom, or any woman who is as busy as a mom, and who needs to be able to just throw something together and have it look put together—without having to put it together.
J: Yeah. I’m glad you said that. That’s actually a really big compliment to me—that you consider my clothes to be that way—because that’s totally something I go for, that you need to be able to throw on a piece and not think about it. I also make a lot of clothing that’s designed so that one size fits a wide range of sizes. For a few reasons. It’s obviously a little easier producing that, but it’s also because I like the idea of someone putting on a piece and making it work to fit their body. Some people would belt a dress that others would let hang. Some people would wear their blazer done right up, some would leave it open. I like the idea of creative people being able to make something their own.
MW: And, in Winnipeg everyone runs into each other, and I imagine that it’s probably happened that a few people have run into each other, wearing the same Tony Chestnut piece, but each doing something unique with it.
J: That has happened. And I just feel like, because of the nature of the clothes, a lot of the people who buy them or who like them are creative-minded people, and it’s so exciting to see someone take a piece that I made, that I saw to just look one way, and to see they’ve done something so different with it. It’s also so emotional.
MW: Do you remember the first time that someone bought a piece of yours?
J: It was a few years back now, and I had done a lot of custom work at this point, but when F & Q first opened on Corydon they had their opening night and Candy, the owner, had asked me to make a little bit of clothing to sell. And I remember I showed up a little bit late, about an hour after it started, and when I showed up I saw someone buying one of my pieces, and I started freaking out—freaking out! And all of the pieces I brought that night sold out, so that was a whacky moment for me. I remember that, and I also remember the first time I saw someone that I didn’t know wearing a piece of my clothing, just, like, walking down the street. I think I cried.
MW: That would be a pretty wild moment, seeing a complete stranger in something you made for them…
J: Yeah, it’s like, you’re not wearing that as a favour to me! You kind of have it in your mind that the only reason someone would be wearing it is to make you feel good. But, no, they don’t care! It feels good. Feels amazing.
MW: You’ve been a Winnipeg-based clothing designer for almost a decade now. How would you say the marketing scene in Winnipeg has evolved over those years? Is there more opportunity for an individual creator to showcase their work here now, do you think?
J: It has totally evolved and opened up. A lot of that has to do with social media too, I think, which is what it is. I think that when I first started it was all about getting my clothes into stores. Which I did, in a few places, a few times, which was great, because it was probably the way that I got my name out to people throughout Winnipeg, so in no way would I knock that. But, realistically, selling my clothes through a store isn’t that beneficial for me, because the whole process of making each piece is quite labour-intensive, so the notion of giving, say, fifty percent to the store is—and in a place like Vancouver it’s for sure more like sixty that you’re giving—lucratively, it’s just not great to sell through a retail store. So all of these pop up shops, and even having online stores, or selling using Instagram as an online store—I feel like they’re good alternatives to the traditional retail environment. Especially for someone like me.
MW: You’ve just recently had a development with your online shop, right?
J: Yeah. I had a pretty dormant online shop for a while because, admittedly, I’m the worst at technology. I’m so bad. But the bummer is that I don’t care, I don’t want to be good at technology. But I recently did change it up, and ultimately what is so great about it is that it is now so user-friendly, and I didn’t feel like I needed to know more about technology in order to set it up, it was just so easy. So, yeah, I was able to open a new online shop, with this new Spring/Summer collection, and it just went so great! I sold out of a few pieces right away.
MW: Do you feel that you kind of have to embrace all the newest technology, whether you want to or not?
J: Yeah. I keep people a little up to date on Facebook and Instagram, and then I have a really beautiful website that almost serves as more of a portfolio…I’m not super interactive with it, but it serves as a place to showcase images of the clothing. And I get it, I want to be involved in the social media world, I think it’s great, and if used properly it’s amazing for an independent business and for trying to get your name out there.
MW: Do you enjoy the whole production, from design, to creation, to photo shoot?
J: Yes, especially the styling, the shooting...that’s by far my favourite part of what I do. When I make clothing, or even when I’m presenting it, or marketing it, or whatever, I rarely think about a garment on its own. It all comes together in the photo shoots. I’m thinking about how this proportion will go with that one to create a silhouette. It’s all about putting things together for me and creating a look, but also a certain feel.
I was given a really good compliment just the other night, when someone was complimenting me on the most recent photo shoot I did, which was actually shot by Meg Kroeker, she took my photos—that girl, she’s a powerhouse. She took these gorgeous photos with these old film medium format cameras, and we had a beautiful model and I just felt so lucky that day, because I felt like everything and everyone was working together and was giving life to these clothes that I had slaved away on during late nights, early mornings. So this compliment that this person gave me was that our model, Akos, looked like the Tony Chestnut woman; that she embodied Tony Chestnut and that if Tony Chestnut was a person that she just personified that. And I thought, oh man, that’s such a nice thing to say, because that is what I do. I want to create a feeling, and I want to feel that Tony Chestnut is a woman who is busy, she’s got things going, she’s creative, she’s passionate, she’s hard working, she doesn’t have time to always read through all the fashion magazines. She just goes with what looks good and what feels good and then that it carries her through her day.
MW: Do you ever struggle to find inspiration? You spoke of ebb and flow, do you ever experience times of not wanting to do this?
J: Definitely there is that, there is an ebb and flow to that. I don’t find that I have ever really lacked in inspiration. I think because I could be inspired by the silliest or tiniest or most mundane things, and then since I started Tony Chestnut that has always translated into how I can use that inspiration for putting together clothing. Definitely I’ve gone through times where I haven’t been able to, you know, actually get the production done, or it doesn’t feel like I’m as driven to do it.
After my first son was born I actually thought that maybe I would stop. I remember being like, well, maybe this is like a really organic end to things. And then he was maybe three or four months old and I was hit—it was like a tsunami, it just hit me and I was just like, gosh, I need to make something! And I had all these ideas and it kind of came out of nowhere and I spent a really long time at my sewing machine and I thought, no, this is what I’m meant to do, because it makes me happy it makes me feel like myself and like I’m a functioning human in society. So, I guess Tony Chestnut may take on different forms, but I’m always going to do it because I’ve proved that to myself a couple times.
MW: Proven that you need it?
J: I need it. It’s beyond just a creative outlet for me, which it is, but it’s also just a thing about who I am.
MW: Have you ever considered designing for men, or for children?
J: Maybe, but I actually kind of don’t think so. Because this for me has never been about size, like getting big, or world domination, or a lot of money. I mean, money is nice when it comes but that’s never really been what it’s about. And I don’t feel like those are areas where I would have that creative impulse, I might not feel inspired and then I feel like I’d be dragging myself, you know? Like, exactly the opposite of what I was just telling you about, with this urge I had to create, and I don’t think I would ever have that for men’s clothing or children’s.
MW: I see what you mean, because they say that what you create is usually an extension of the self in some way, and it seems like, since you said you try to create pieces you yourself would wear, you may not be as inspired to make something you could not wear.
J: Yeah, and I have never really identified myself as a fashion designer, because I don’t think I am! I don’t really see what I do as fashion. I mean, I make clothing, and yeah for a while I was doing a bunch of weddings, I made a bunch of bridal gowns and bridesmaid dresses and it was busy because so many people want custom pieces for that day. But that was hard. I wasn’t in it. I can’t be creative with something that I’m not in.
MW: We hear that from a lot of makers, actually.
J: And, on the other hand, there are a lot of really, really creative people in the world who are able to do that! I’m definitely not saying that it’s a marker of being creative or anything like that. But, for me, I think it’s important to listen to that kind of thing.
MW: In what kind of outfit do you feel happiest?
J: It definitely involves pockets…and probably layers. Layers are huge for me. I actually kind of don’t like summer that much, for that reason.
MW: That’s a bold statement to make in Winnipeg. We had better not print that.