Comfort + Style
Most fashion designers change their “signature look” over time, if not from season to season. Ralph Lauren predated Mad Men with the ’60s office look of his 1987 fall/winter collection. This year, the top-name American designer is into the post-First World War style of Downton Abbey. In 1987, a young Miuccia Prada looked to the hippie movement of the 1970s for inspiration. In 2013, she’s inspired by Japanese flowers and the Mods of the 1960s.
Jana Kalous suffers no such push and pull of where to look for inspiration next. The designer and owner behind Ottawa’s successful Kaliyana Artwear label offers the same look year after year, collection after collection. And why not? After 25 years of staying in business in Ottawa’s difficult fashion market, not to mention opening two thriving Kaliyana stores in Montreal and Toronto, why would Kalous want to mess with success?
Search the Internet as much as I could, I couldn’t find a single other owner-operated and designed fashion store in Ottawa that has a) stayed in business for 25 years and b) successfully expanded into Canada’s two biggest fashion capitals. From her first shop on Elgin Street, which opened in 1987, to her current chic shop at 515 Sussex Dr., Kalous has won hundreds of fans and loyal customers, from judges and senior bureaucrats to artisans and environmentalists, from the very tall to the tiny, from size 6 to 24.
They like the fact that the designer is Canadian, and are captivated by the loose, comfortable look, natural fabrics, multitudinous layers and Japanese esthetic, and the emphasis on comfortable style instead of style for its own sake.
“It’s timeless,” says 24-year Kaliyana customer Shirley Lewchuk, director of outreach and communication in the faculty of communication and design at Ryerson University. “The clothes look as good on me now as they did when I was 39.”
Kalous’s clothing is not for the faint of heart. The look is big and it’s noticeable. The sheer volume of a shin-length dress splashed with polka dots draws attention on its own, let alone when it’s worn over a bright orange under skirt with bunches at the hem. A black “Amazing Skirt” doubles as a tunic worn over an ecru top worn over a second voluminous Amazing Skirt.
“I’ve been asked several times where I got my (Kaliyana) clothes,” says Rosi Kohn, 59, a retired Ottawa administrator and another longtime fan, who bought a polka-dot dress this spring. “And I continue to get compliments wherever I go.”
Add this to Kalous’ list of achievements: She has spent very little on advertising in the past 25 years, relying instead on her loyal customers to spread the word. “It’s pretty much guaranteed if you’re wearing our stuff you’re going to be stopped in the street,” says the 57-year-old designer, who was born in Czech Republic and graduated from Carleton University. “It isn’t outlandish. It’s just really comfortable and really different from anything else out there.” (When she does advertise, her models are staff and customers, not professionals.)
Different tends to be Kalous’s watchword. She doesn’t pay attention to trends, doesn’t invest in the fashion bibles and polls that tell other designers what colours and styles they should be creating for the coming season. Her colour palette is a resolute black, rust, grey, papaya and chartreuse, punched up with white and beige in summer and sometimes a new shade just for something different. This year, as luck would have it, she chose emerald green, which just happens to be this spring and summer’s hot new colour — “which will be interesting because it could work for us or against us,” she says.
Her inspirations are the loose, avant-garde stylings of Japanese designers Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, and the beautiful fabrics she discovered while teaching English in Japan in the 1980s and on travels to Asia every year since. But she also draws inspiration from clients and their needs. Take her leggings, for example. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in tight pants, but our customers like them and ours are different than everybody else’s. They’re a bit straighter so they’re not hugging the leg and the knee is not emphasized, and they have a tie ribbon at the bottom that can be removed.”
In addition to her own line, Kalous sells pieces by European labels Crea, Elementa and Lauren Vidal, which also like a loose look, and chunky shoes by Arche and Trippen that work well with the clothing. She also carries heavy jewelry by two Montreal designers as well as European pieces.
Her latest design is the Anti-Suit, a three-piece set featuring a black buttonless, loose-fitting wrap jacket that can be worn several ways, her popular big white shirt, and black straight-leg palazzo pants with a shirred waist.
“It’s doing really great,” says Kalous, “but I still think every woman in Canada should know about it and that’s been our biggest hurdle. We’re kind of Canada’s best-kept secret. … Every week we get at least two to three people coming in and saying ‘Omigod, I didn’t know there was a place like this,’ even if they live nearby.”
National advertising has helped her win online customers (kaliyana.com) in the West, which she hopes will be the first step to reopening a store in Vancouver. The wrong location forced her to close in the late 1990s, and a store planned for Calgary never opened. “Online is great, but nothing beats having a store where you can try things on,” says Kalous, once again going against the grain in an age when many retailers close shop as sales move online.
It helps too that her family is growing up. Her elder son Maximilien is now 22 and studying engineering at McGill, while her younger son Philippe will graduate from Grade 12 this year. Philippe was born two weeks after she opened her Montreal store in 1995. The Toronto store opened a year after the Vancouver shop closed.
After 25 years, Kalous says she has found ways to keep her collection fresh, for herself and for her customers, although they aren’t things she can pin down. She began with batik fabrics then moved into solids, and then added prints again (but not batiks). “There’s no conscious effort, it just happens. We didn’t used to do white, for instance. Then white came into the picture and it was a complete revolution for us.” This season she has bumped up her own collection with white pieces by a Greek label.
Women tend to begin shopping at Kaliyana’s at about 35 to 40 (“That’s maybe the point where they’re tired of what they’ve been wearing and are looking for something different,” Kalous says). It’s also an age when women may have more money to spend, important since the clothing is not cheap; the Anti-Suit is priced at $389, exactly half of what the three pieces would cost if bought separately. And it’s an age when many women want to travel (“The clothes are easy to pack. Just twist and toss it in your suitcase,” says Lewchuk, who is frequently stopped on the streets of Europe and asked about her Kaliyana clothing).
“It lasts for years,” says Lewchuk, who, like Kohn, buys a Kaliyana piece every season. Another advantage: Since the collection doesn’t change a lot, customers can build on Kaliyana clothing bought in previous years. In addition to buying an Anti-Suit this spring, Lewchuk bought a burgundy jacket to wear with a skirt she bought last fall. As well as her polka-dot dress, Kohn bought a skirt and two tops that will go with pieces she bought last fall.
She and Kohn rave about Kaliyana’s personalized service. “The staff is great about helping you find things that will suit you because the clothes don’t always have hanger appeal,” says Kohn. “You really have to have an open mind and try them on.” Ottawa store manager and Kaliyana’s creative director Chantel Heron has been with the company for 20 years and knows many clients well enough to predict what they will like. When someone stole Lewchuk’s Kaliyana hat, Kalous gave her a new one free of charge.
Lewchuk has paid that generosity forward. After finding that a Kaliyana sweater with a touch of wool was too itchy to wear (she is allergic to wool), she gave it to a student in Ryerson’s fashion design program. “She wears it all the time. My students often tell me, ‘When I’m your age I want to dress like you.’ ”
That bodes well for another 25 years for Kaliyana Artwear.
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