Sitting across from local designer Bridget Smatlan in her bright south Edmonton home, it's difficult to imagine her earliest foray into design involved making herself a different pair of bondage pants for every day of the week during her teen years.
“They were my everything because I couldn't afford them, so I taught myself how to sew those from a Vogue pattern and a sewing machine my mom had hidden in the basement—my mom never wanted me to sew, ever,” recalls Smatlan, who sports a much different style now—vintage-inspired though still quirky and playful in its own right. “I think just from her era it's something everyone needs to learn how to do, but it's not a profession, right? So I snuck her machine up and I learned to sew.”
Smatlan's repertoire began to grow as she designed ostentatious Spandex costumes for her brother's “faux glam-rock band,” the Lackeys, whom she credits as her early muses. After high school, Smatlan was working at a makeup counter as she attempted to find a solution to a question with no right or wrong answer: what did she want to do with her life? She followed the encouragement of her brother's now-wife and enrolled in the fashion design course at Marvel College in 2000.
“It was during the rave era, which is bizarre and it really opened up our brains because the ugliest and weirdest fabrics were being used and the styles were outrageous, but there was nothing holding us back,” Smatlan says with an infectious laugh. “We all had bizarre final collections and now we're really good, normal designers.”
Graduating was one thing, but then came the task of establishing herself in a notoriously difficult and competitive industry—particularly in a small marketplace like Edmonton. Jobs altering firefighter and EMS gear, working at Fabricland, five years spent designing the house line for the now defunct, all-Canadian boutique Nokomis—a time Smatlan looks back at as an immense learning experience, as she was designing for an age and shape (“mom butts” as she describes it) she didn't fully understand—and a brief stint teaching colour theory at Marvel all led to Smatlan finally making a go of her own label, Fridget Apparel.
She was finally able to design what she wanted and get it to the marketplace, but Smatlan explains that selling in a store did not allow her face-to-face contact with her clients and did not help her understand why certain items were not selling, where there may be fit problems with specific garments, or getting to know the demographic that was attracted to her pieces. Smatlan was designing womenswear at the time and began selling her wares at farmers' markets, a venue that allowed her to engage with her clients and understand their needs.
“The line I was doing was really based around teaching and the cute little outfits I got to wear, and I found the outfits I would wear teaching really worked out for a lot of girls,” she says. “I swear, 50 percent of my customers were sexy librarians and that's because it was kind of my tagline … it was a specific look.”
The line drew heavily on vintage fashion, but Smatlan says this wasn't by choice. Rather, it was dictated by the fabrics she was drawn to, which often featured unique prints or bold colours that were a step away from the run-of-the-mill fabric-store offerings—and always purchased locally. These days, however, Smatlan's focus is on menswear, a shift that began after an operation to repair an injury to her foot ended up doing more damage than good.
Smatlan stepped on a sewing-machine needle (a much larger tool than the infuriatingly tiny ones we're used to) nearly six years ago. The needle broke when she stepped on it and despite being able to get part of it out, the portion that had broke off remained lodged in her foot, unbeknownst to Smatlan. It wasn't until she nearly broke her heel at her brother's wedding a year later that the needle was discovered. It also happened to be turned perfectly sideways, with the eye of it clearly visible on the X-ray.
Doctors were reluctant to operate due to the risk involved—the foot has a great deal of nerve endings and they felt damage would occur—and Smatlan was placed on a waiting list. Smatlan finally managed to convince a podiatrist—she points out that a month later podiatrists in the US were deemed unqualified to do surgery—to do the procedure after firmly telling him she was going to do it herself with the help of a little alcohol and a magnet.
Smatlan finally underwent surgery after five years on the waiting list, but it did not go well. The podiatrist “just dug around,” and the half-hour surgery turned into a four-hour ordeal. The matter had been further complicated by the fact Smatlan is severely allergic to nickel and her body had begun dissolving the needle, making it more difficult to locate all the pieces and extrapolate it.
“I've still got the eye of the needle, which is kind of funny because everyone was like, 'Don't get the operation; you're going to lose your sewing powers,' and I was like, 'Maybe I am going to lose my sewing powers,' and the eye of the needle's still there so I still have my sewing powers, thankfully,” she jokes, adding the incident has also rendered her ambidextrous since she had to learn to drive and operate her sewing machine with her left foot while her right healed—a process that is still ongoing. “I had lots of nerve damage, which was honestly the hardest part about healing. The nerve lightning storms I would have in my foot, just debilitating pain afterwards. It would come at any time and luckily I've regained a lot of feeling in my foot, but things were messed up.”
The healing process was supposed to take one week, but Smatlan was confined to her bed for nearly two months. Unable to work, Smatlan was forced to let her sole employee go and her business began to suffer. The orders for popular items from her women's line kept piling up, but Smatlan admits she dreaded the thought of sewing the same garments over and over again, and decided it was time to refocus her work.
“I was becoming a slave to these few garments and I wasn't just sewing the garments over and over again, I was fixing the pattern. Every time I made one I was spending hours fixing the pattern and being so meticulous about these designs … they've been done enough. People have them and I didn't want to make them anymore,” she explains, adding she may have quit designing all together if she hadn't found another outlet, due in part to many of her previous suppliers going out of business and menswear was quickly becoming a more viable option.
“I just needed something to make me learn again,” she says. “I really love the challenge of first figuring out the perfect fit and then trying to figure out all the sizes, because I'd figured out all the perfect sizing for women, the exact jump between the sizes and how to perfectly space that so three men with different sizes will fit into that one category. So actually, this year at the farmers' markets was just making shirts and fixing patterns.”
In Smatlan's basement studio, a visually intriguing cacophony of vintage artwork, sewing supplies and the occasional bunny rabbit (she has two), is a mass of shirt patterns she says she's remade at least 20 times, adjusting the most minute details to achieve a better fit.
“Right when the market finished I was like, yes! I did it; I totally figured it out,” she says. “The neck, the body, everything, as long as they were under 55-years-old because it's a different body after that.”
The steep learning curve of designing for men was a welcome distraction for Smatlan as she healed and got back to work—her first official sale date was at the Royal Bison in May—and it still provided a way to incorporate her love of vintage fabrics, bold colours and patterns. Her menswear is a far cry from the plain, monotone palette men are used to, and admittedly won't be for everyone—that and they're custom made, creating a much more tailored silhouette than standard boxy designs often available.
“My husband was probably my first inspiration. I worked on making him the perfect shirt for about three years because he's a smaller guy, there's nothing that fits him,” Smatlan says, noting she hopes her pieces can have more sentimental value and stick around in wardrobes rather than becoming casualties of a consumer culture dominated by disposable fashion. “I think the problem with womenswear was just the competition in Edmonton was kind of making me lose my focus on what I love to do: I love to sew and create pieces that are timeless and almost indestructible. I love quality—why buy anything if it's not going to last?”
Aside from making well-tailored, high-quality shirts—Fridget Apparel is also the force behind the increasingly popular City of Champions T-shirts, which started out as merch for she and her husband's band of the same name—Smatlan can't replace the feeling that comes from seeing her customer truly satisfied with the end result. She notes men don't often get the chance to have something made just for them or feel a little bit pampered, and having a custom-made shirt provides them with that experience.
The Willow, $135
Medium- 41 Regular
One-of-a-kind Western shirt made from a printed table cloth from the ‘60s and vintage trim featuring kittycat cotton lining
The Derek, $120
S/M- 38.5 Regular
One-of-a-kind button down shirt made from 1960s printed cotton.
<td “width=”500px””><strong> The Jean-Luke, $135 </strong><br>Small- 37 Regular Reversible plaid shirt made from 100-percent cotton flannel pre-shrunk and totally washable.<br></td> <br></tr> </tbody> </table> <p> <br> “I think they like the attention from a woman, too, because I'm really interested in hearing about how every garment fits every person, so I don't just let things go—I'm right in there,” she says, adding now that she's got the pattern down she'll begin experimenting more with design, and eventually hopes to expand the label to other menswear pieces. “It's usually the wives that bring the men because they're my old customers and then the men can't believe how well it fits. It's so sweet taking a tag off a shirt so he can wear it out. That's the nicest thing when the man's like, 'I want to keep this on.'”<br> </p>
The Spencer, $100
XS-35.5 Tall & Small-37 Tall
Two of a kind 100-percent vintage fabric and trim western shirts.
The Duane, $125
Small- 37 Regular
1970s printed button-down shirt featuring coywolf printed contrasting details.
Visit fridgetfactory.etsy.com for more information and styles.