Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

The anti-sweatshop: Smoking Lily's made-in-Canada fashion

Trish Tacoma, who co-founded the Smoking Lily clothing store in 1996, oversees a home-grown garment empire from her studio near the Victoria, B.C. waterfront.

Keith Norbury for The Globe and Mail/keith norbury The Globe and Mail

On the top floor of a century-old brick building in Victoria, B.C., Harmony Moore and Nicole Boyer are feeding fabric through industrial sewing machines. Their boss, Trish Tacoma, jokingly refers to this room as her "little sweat shop," but it's an ocean away from the factories in Asia where most clothing is made today.

Just steps from the waterfront, this shop is where Ms. Tacoma's Smoking Lily garments, accessories and housewares are designed and crafted before being shipped to boutiques across Canada.

"It's great. It's awesome," said Ms. Boyer, who has worked for Smoking Lily for six years. "Where else can you sew all day?"

Story continues below advertisement

In the last 15 years, Smoking Lily has carved out a brand in a business that has all but died in North America. Ms. Tacoma and her team design and produce off-the-rack clothing, using primarily natural fibres such as hemp, wool and cotton, most of it from fabric purchased by Canadian suppliers.

On price, Smoking Lily's offerings cannot compete with the imported goods sold at Wal-Mart. But Ms. Tacoma is quick to point out that her $100 pants are less pricey than the imported jeans sold in high-end shops.

"It is so reasonably priced, our stuff, considering it's made in town," she said.

Ms. Tacoma, 46, and her co-founder, Julie Higginson, launched the business in 1996 in a four-square-metre storefront in Victoria's Old Town. In those days, the founders sewed their products themselves in a spare bedroom in Ms. Tacoma's home in Esquimalt. They'd bring their wares to town by bicycle, pedalling across the city's historic blue bridge.

"We had basically enough money to cover the first month's rent, and to get a bit of product into the store," Ms. Tacoma said. "Seriously, we probably had under $1,000 in our bank account when we started."

While a hat shop, a jewellery store and a T-shirt shop had failed at that location, Smoking Lily thrived, forcing the fledgling company to look for a bigger space, which it found 12 years ago.

"As soon as we got the bigger space, we could produce more," Ms. Tacoma said. "And then we started hiring staff."

Story continues below advertisement

Ms. Higginson sold out her interest in Smoking Lily two years ago, but that original store is still operating, even if it can barely hold one customer at a time. The space was a cubbyhole left over from the installation of an elevator in the building.

Smoking Lily isn't the only clothing manufacturer still alive in Victoria. About five kilometres away, Hall & Co. Big Horn Mfg. Ltd. workers are making coveralls, flight suits, safety vests and other custom garments using methods that have barely changed in half a century.

"We are still going strong," said owner Jim Gibson, who has worked at the company for 47 years. He is poised to sell it to a new owner, who reportedly plans to expand the business.

Big Horn is a union shop, its eight employees belonging to the Workers United B.C. Council. The affiliation helps the company win contracts requiring a union label, such as the 1,500 tote bags it made last year for a B.C. Federation of Labour convention.

When Mr. Gibson started in the business, almost all garments sold in Canada were made in Canada. "Now you're looking at one per cent," he said.

Smoking Lily has snagged a share of that percentage. The company has about 14 employees, including six who work in the studio, which now encompasses about 220 square metres. On a recent early summer morning, it was cool and comfortable.

Story continues below advertisement

Ms. Tacoma owes her own love of sewing to her mother, who raised seven children on her own after her husband, a milkman, died. "To make the dollar stretch, she made all of our clothes," said Ms. Tacoma, the second youngest in her family. As a tribute to both her parents, she named her second Victoria clothing store the Milkman's Daughter.

After graduating from high school and discovering that she was "the world's worst waitress," Ms. Tacoma began working in Toronto's fashion district, taking on many roles, from sales associate to window display creator to buyer. "Textiles has always been my hobby," she said. In the early 1990s, she took a silk-screening course with Kingi Carpenter of Peach Berserk, a Toronto company that makes hand-printed clothing.

Love brought Ms. Tacoma to Victoria a few years later. And while that relationship didn't last, her love affair with fabrics did. (Her ex also provided the inspiration for the company's name, when he got annoyed at a smoker and extinguished the cigarette in a calla lily.) By day, Ms. Tacoma worked at a now-defunct clothing store. By night, she honed her silk-screening skills. On summer weekends, she sold her creations at an outdoor market in the city, before opening the first Smoking Lily.

"I must say the designs are beautiful and the fabrics are really, really nice," said Jill Degenstein, waiting outside the small shop as her daughter, Connie, tried on a dress. The "change room" is actually a curtain that drapes across a corner of the shop.

Nine years ago, Smoking Lily opened its second store on Main Street in Vancouver. Ms. Tacoma also planned to open a shop in Toronto, but changed her mind when she learned that infrastructure projects would have shut off foot traffic. For now, the rest of Canada gets its Smoking Lily fixes from boutiques in Calgary, Ottawa, St. John's, Regina and Halifax, as well other stores in B.C.

Smoking Lily tries to source much of its material locally, or at least within Canada. "We're not hard-nosed about it," Ms. Tacoma said. The fabrics themselves come mostly from Italy and Asia, but that's only because Canada's textile industry has almost vanished. A few mills are reopening, however, including one in Montreal that makes denim and another that makes fabric from bamboo, said Ms. Tacoma, who has a serious addiction to buying fabrics.

"I always buy the fabric and then I have to figure out what I can actually do with it," she said.

What she figures out is often eclectic, such as putting a skull on a man's tie, or hatchet and gun motifs on her clothing for women. "We have a unique take on what we think is beautiful," she said. The company has also sold undergarments with Pierre Trudeau's face on them.

The company now sells about 60 products, including blankets, pillow cases, handbags and tea cozies. Ms. Tacoma estimates Smoking Lily has sold about 10,000 items so far, including about 6,000 sales of its most successful product, the Cape of Good Hope - a simple wrap with a zipper that can be folded into a handbag.

In today's economic climate, and with fierce overseas competition, how does Smoking Lily pay its bills and turn a small profit?

"I just do it. I've never considered doing it any other way," Ms. Tacoma said. "I like the hands-on and I think our customers appreciate that this is made right here."

Report an error
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.