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Sustainable style

Kim Munson at Orphanage Clothing finds a new home for old clothes and creates a modern look in the process

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Models wear designs by Kim Munson with Orphanage Clothing during Atlantic Fashion Week 2013. The Halifax-based designer started her career creating clothing that was made from post-consumer items she found at local thrift shops. But her latest collections, including these designs, represent a new vision with pieces constructed from new fabrics. Photos: Brent McCombs

Models wear designs by Kim Munson with Orphanage Clothing during Atlantic Fashion Week 2013. The Halifax-based designer started her career creating clothing that was made from post-consumer items she found at local thrift shops. But her latest collections, including these designs, represent a new vision with pieces constructed from new fabrics. Photos: Brent McCombs

Kim Munson’s family inspire her fashion designs. On the wall in her home studio on Duffus Street in the city’s North End, Munson has black-and-white portraits of family members, including her grandmother, Elsie, wearing a skirt she made out of her husband’s old trench coat. Her grandmother, Munson says, often ordered outfits from catalogues only to take the clothing, rip it apart and rebuild it as something new. Her mother, too, put her own spin on clothing, taking sweatshirts and adding “bling,” eventually selling those clothes through her own small company, Creative Casuals. That way of making new clothing is what inspires Munson in her own designs at her company, Orphanage Clothing.

“The company is the orphanage, the garment is the orphan,” explains Munson, who also teaches pattern technology at the Centre for Arts and Technology. “I like that you can take a garment and build a new story.”

Munson started reconstructing clothing as a teen growing up outside of Moncton. Back then, thrift stores, not the mall, were the primary source of her wardrobe. But Munson was never satisfied with the items as they were. She preferred instead to put her own spin on the look. She says each morning as she descended the stairs before heading to school, her father would ask what creation she had on that day.

Munson’s philosophy at Orphanage is much the same as the one she practiced as a teen. The clothes are all created from post-consumer, deconstructed clothing she sources from thrift shops such as Value Village. She cleans, dries and cuts the fabrics into new pieces based on patterns she creates herself. Munson sews everything herself on a 1959 black cast-iron Singer sewing machine her grandmother used on her own deconstructions. That machine, according to Munson, is more durable and reliable than the newer model she bought last year that now sits, unused, under the workbench where she creates each piece. One piece of clothing could contain fabrics from more than one second-hand source. She uses herself as the model, draping each cut piece over her own body to see how it will fit. Each piece is unique and despite their collective histories, have a simplistic, cutting-edge and futuristic appearance.

Munson studied at the International Academy of Design and Technology in Toronto with plans on staying in the city to pursue her career in fashion. But she says she missed the tides and ocean and realized she could pursue a career in Halifax, too. She returned to the city in 2003, and has been designing ever since.

Lori Morgan and her spouse, Mirella, heard about Munson’s work through a friend. The couple were renewing their vows and wanted new outfits for the celebration. But they weren’t looking for standard wedding designs, so they approached Munson.

“We’re both pretty funky people,” Morgan says. “We thought Kim would be the one to call.”

To start, the couple found two dark-grey, classic men’s jackets at Value Village and after consulting with both of them individually and as a couple, Munson transformed one of those jackets into a one-shoulder mini dress. She changed the other jacket into a sleeveless vest with bold silver zippers. She even designed bowties to go with each outfit.

“We have these really amazing outfits,” Morgan says. “They are amazing. She’s very perceptive. She got to know us and created outfits that went with our personalities.”

But for Munson, reconstruction is now taking a back seat to new construction, after taking part in the Mercedes-Benz Start Up, a national program that nurtures new fashion designers, in 2012. While she didn’t make the finals, Munson says she got incredible feedback, all of which encouraged her to work with new textiles to produce better quality garments faster. The new line, which includes skirts, dresses, pants and tops, will debut with her Spring 2014 collection. The result is a newfound freedom in fashion.

“I want to change my design philosophy and cut what I want,” she says. “I love that I can choose fabric that stretches and performs. My style is changing. It’s evolving. It’s growing up.”

Munson is now searching for stores where she can sell her new line, adding she wants to be part of a local movement that encourages people to buy their clothes locally. Yes, they are more expensive, she says, but the cost is worth the investment.

“I’d rather have three locally handcrafted garments than a dozen that have been outsourced,” says Munson, who still creates much of her own wardrobe.

At the end of the day, Munson says working as a designer in Halifax means living a more sustainable life, too. She says she doesn’t need to work three jobs to support her home studio. She can still access clients in big markets. And while she would love to see more fabric stores, Metro Transit still gets her to the ones she does use. But she will continue to design and make clothes, either new or built from something old.

“I want to be part of a fashion hub that starts right here,” she says, adding she’d love to sell her clothes outside of Canada. “I don’t need to make a million dollars doing what I do. But this gives me so much satisfaction and that means so much.”

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