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Costume designer Sarah Millman finds a new audience with her billowing dresses for Local Woman.Claudine Baltazar/The Globe and Mail

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Before COVID-19 hit, Sarah Gregg Millman had signed on to design a film produced by actor Jake Gyllenhaal. The Toronto-based stylist and costume designer was excited to work on the thriller, Gilded Rage, starring Christoph Waltz and Lily Collins but, like many creatives in the film and television industry, saw her project’s start date pushed back by the pandemic and her calendar wide open. That’s when she remembered the dresses.

After working behind the scenes for years, Millman had recently decided it was time to direct something herself. “It’s a feminist manifesto about three pregnant women alone in the woods,” she says. The piece, featuring women dancing like sirens through a forest, required identical gowns that would be easy to move in, feel dramatic and have a 1970s vibe. Millman created the pieces herself and, as these things often go, they caught the eye of her friends. This past summer, with time to explore her passions off set, Local Woman was born.

Read the full Style Advisor: November 2020 holiday edition

The brand has become a favourite among Canada’s fashion and art crowd, selling out variations of the romantic gowns created for Millman’s film. They connect with the focus on sustainability and slow fashion that are at the core of the brand. “I simply couldn’t live with myself if I was pumping out items that would end up in a landfill” she says. She focuses on preordered, small-run collections, sewn in Toronto, with one style produced and released at a time.

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Local Woman's success has been an upside of the disruption of Millman's work caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.Claudine Baltazar/The Globe and Mail

Millman attended Cooper Union in New York and graduated with a fine art degree from NSCAD. She pulls inspiration from her film background, her mother and natural elements such as wild flowers and the horses of Nova Scotia’s Sable Island. The self-professed vintage hound expresses her love for digging up fashion history through her fabric sourcing. “I scour, stalk, lurk…” she says. “I make the rounds, and then I go into the crevices and try to find the thing nobody else wants, because it feels complicated or weird. I dust it off and take a chance.”

This method allows Millman to find fabrics that speak to her brand’s aesthetic, which is just as much about a mood as design. “I love that you can feel your body under yards of silk, and it becomes this sensual experience.” she says. “Or how a puffy cloud of sheer organza can make you feel empowered and bold in all of its see-through softness.”

Many artists and designers have found themselves on unexpected new paths this year, and Millman’s success with Local Woman has been an upside of the disruption of her work. “If I’m honest with myself, I’ve wanted to do this for such a long time” she says. “I’ve embraced it, and I think making comfortable, special dresses to elevate a mood is as worthy a cause as any.”

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Makeup and hair by Wendy Rorong for Plutino Group. Set by Caroline Pandeli for Plutino Group.

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